On November 9th (my birthday), I flew to Israel to begin traveling the world. Unlike most travelers, my flight and first ten days abroad was paid for by an organization called Taglit Birthright. Taglit is an organization that gives Jews outside of Israel the opportunity to travel the country, learn the history, and hear about current issues that are at the focal point of every day life. Participants are encouraged to reflect on their own Jewish identity and connect to Jewish history and culture.
Now, before I go further I’d like to say that I am not religious. I had a Bar Mitvah when I was 13, but that is where all religious activities ended in my life. I avoided Hillel groups in high school and college as being Jewish really had nothing to with anything outside my family. I decided to do Birthright simply for the free trip that would get me halfway around the world to begin my travels. I went with no expectations, simply content with a free trip. I received much, much more.
The trip was packed from dawn to dusk, with many of us averaging little more than 5 hours of sleep a night. We only had 10 days together and our group was more than happy to sacrifice sleep to spend time together.
We started north in the Golan Heights and explored areas near the Sea of Galilee. From there we traveled south visiting Tzfat, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Masada, Yad Vesham, Mt. Herzl, and Eilat. We floated in the Dead Sea, swam in the Red Sea, and rode camels after sleeping in a Bedouin tent.
Touring Israel and seeing the sights was fun, but the meaningful part of the trip came when we had the opportunity to talk. We discussed conflicts between Israel and its borders to the north with Lebanon and Syria, the Gaza strip, and the West Bank. I knew relatively little about Israel's history and many of the conflicts (internal and external). Generally, if news doesn't make it to ESPN I don't know about it. I am to an extent happily ignorant on these topics. I believe that the majority of media outlets never give the full story and I don't like hearing only one side of what is going on.
Three days into the trip we were joined by eight Israeli soldiers. For the five days they were with us the floodgate holding my questions back was released. I realize that the Israeli soldiers represent only one side of many conflicts in Israel, but hearing their experiences was a form of pure information, unfiltered by the media, that I relished.
There is no better way to learn about a country than to talk to the people living there. Getting the chance to spend time with Israelis who were serving in the military taught me much more about Israel than I thought I would learn. Lying in bed at night asking whatever questions come to mind to your room mate or discussions that take as many twists and turns as the bus you are riding gave me a better understanding of what it is like to grow up and live in Israel. I am incredibly grateful to the Israeli soldiers who spent time with us and opened up their homes to many of us after the trip.
The Tour Guide
Our tour guide was Maxi Katzir, a former Israeli commando, who was part of the famous raid at Entebbe where he helped free hostages held by Palenstinian hijackers over 35 years ago in Uganda. While Maxi’s military feats are incredibly impressive, even to Israeli’s who all spend time in the military, his wealth of knowledge was like having the internet with you in the middle of the desert or on top of a mountain.
What is special is that Maxi rarely guides Birthright trips. He usually makes in 4 hours what he made in 10 days guiding us. He speaks seven languages and primarily guides private groups or politicians from all over the world. I felt like we had been given a gift having him guide our trip. You could point to any rock, plant, or tree and he could tell you if it is edible or if it has any historical or cultural significance. Having him share his stories with us about history, religion, and life really made the trip.
Beginning my world travels with this trip was a great decision. I was skeptical about traveling around in a large group and "finding my Jewish self." My group ended up being great. I could sit down with anyone and have a great conversation about anything. I don't think my perception of myself changed over the course of this trip, but I have come away with a few things about Judaism that I think deserve to be mentioned and remembered.
Make the world a better place - During the trip Maxi said that being Jewish can be boiled down to a single idea, living your life to make the world better. It may be cliche, but this is a concept that I am proud is part of this faith.
Never, ever, stop asking questions - Apparently Jews have been questioning God (and everything else) throughout history. I highly recommend everyone to always ask questions, even about issues that seem beyond questioning. There is so much to learn and so much that can be improved. I believe asking questions is essential to making the world a better place. Even traditions that have been in place for thousands of years should not be exempt from questioning.
Always attend Shabbat dinner if you have the chance - I don't need to avoid participating in Jewish holidays/activities (especially Shabbat) because I am not with my family. Having a Friday evening meal is like celebrating Thanksgiving every week, I don't know what could be better than this.
Birthright gave me a wonderful opportunity to see Israel and craft many friendships with Americans and Israelis. I already know that many of these friendships will last a long time and that means it was a 10 days well spent.
Here are more photos from my Birthright trip in Israel. Enjoy!
Oh and I forgot! The food here is amazing. Falafel, shawarma, hummus, and so much more. I think I've eaten more hummus in the past two weeks than I have in my entire life and it's awesome. My sister would be so proud at how many vegetables I have been eating every day.