10 Highlights from Israel
Me at Jaffa with Tel Aviv in the background
I just came back from 10 days in Israel on a Birthright trip. For those who don’t know what Birthright is: it’s a free trip to Israel for any Jewish person, that allows you to learn about your heritage, to visit your “homeland” and to give you an opportunity to strengthen your understanding of what it means to be a Jew. I feel so lucky to have been given an opportunity like this. For years, I’ve wanted to grow in this area of my life – what a way to be able to do it! And the best part: I got to go on the trip with my sister who currently lives in Austin, TX. It was particularly special to have this experience with her.
There are far too many memories to recall. This blog post is going to be a bit of a novel as it is, but I’ll try my best to condense it into a short list. So, here we go:
TOP 10 HIGHLIGHTS FROM ISRAEL
1. MEETING THE ISRAELIS
We had 8 Israeli soldiers and students our age participate on the trip with us. I don’t consider myself a person who stereotypes people, and thought I knew what to expect. But after spending several days spending time with them, rooming with them, and bonding, I was surprised how few differences there were between us. Having them be a part of our trip changed my perception on what it means to be Israeli, what it means to be a Jew, and what it means to be a 20-something like me, living on the other side of the earth. The trip would not have been the same without them. I can’t wait for them to come visit the states will come visit so we can show them the US.
2. THE DEAD SEA
The Dead Sea!
The Dead Sea: the lowest place on earth! Floating in the sea is an unreal experience. At about 30%-ish salt content (8x saltier than the ocean!) you have no choice really but the float once you get in. It’s like being a log – you bob right up to the surface, and have to make no effort to stay up. SO so cool. We also covered our bodies with the famous Dead Sea mud, and our skin was SO smooth after.
Floating with EASE in the SALTY salty water.
3. UNDERSTANDING THE JEWISH RELIGION
Rabbi Levi wrapping Tefillin Seth on the bus
This trip was so educational for me. There were so many questions I had, and I lacked a basic understanding of the religious aspect of Judaism. Luckily, we had an incredible Rabbi with us who really helped reshape my views. He was SO laid back – would talk sports and pop culture with us, and answer even our most taboo questions candidly and honestly. He was accepting and tolerant… completely different than I expected a Rabbi to be.
Summary from my own experience: Judaism isn’t a my-way or the highway kind of faith. It’s all about choices. Religion, and your relationship with G-d is like any other- it should be your choice. Being a Jew is different for every person – and that’s okay. Some people who are “Jewish” are Orthodox or Hassidic, and practice very strictly. Other “Jewish” people are strictly Jewish by culture and genetics, and choose not to believe in G-d at all. But the one thing in that we all have in common is a genetic bond, and a common heritage. And the importance of maintaining the Jewish traditions and culture is to make sure it doesn’t get lost. We’ve had to fight so many times just to exist as a people, and now that we finally have a Jewish State of our own, Israel, it’s important that we honor our culture and our ancestors by passing it down to our kids so they understand where they come from – whether they choose to believe the religious aspects or not.
My understanding of Judaism and my identity as a Jew is so much stronger thanks to this trip. And while I don’t necessarily choose to practice many of those traditions (like eating kosher for example), in general I agree with and appreciate the reasons why those things were set in place.
As we frequently said on the trip, I dropped the “ish” in Israel. I’m no longer Jew-ish. I’m a Jew. And I’m very proud to be able to say that.
In front of the Western Wall
This was my first Shabbat ever! And what an incredible way to experience it. We went to the Western Wall, which was an experience in itself. When I was standing in front of it, I couldn’t help but think about my grandparents (who are holocaust survivors), and if they were alive, how much it would mean to them that my sister and I were there together – learning and celebrating our Jewish heritage in Israel.
It was so much more FUN than I expected. Being a deeply religious site, I expected a lot of formality, protocol and seriousness, but it was a celebration! Unfortunately, we did not use our cameras in observance of Shabbat, but here is a video that is a small example of what it’s like:
The men were on one side, and all you could see from above was just a sea of black hats, all rocking back and forth praying in front of the wall. On the women’s side, we were singing and dancing in a circle, it was such a wonderful bonding experience.
The next day we were able to experience a Shabbat meal in an Israeli family’s home. The couple and their children were so wonderful and hospitable. She was actually from LA, and he was Belgian, but they moved to Israel and raised their kids here. One of their daughters was about 18, and made the most incredible challah bread from scratch! As we walked down the streets (which were completely empty… no cars on Shabbat) everyone we passed said “Shabbat Shalom”. It was a peaceful, enjoyable experience in Jerusalem. So much different than the conflict-ridden Israel that is portrayed in the news.
The overflowing notes coming from the cracks of the Western Wall
5. RECEIVING MY HEBREW NAME
This was the best moment of the trip, and easily one of the most meaningful moments of my life. Every Jew is born with a secular name, and a Hebrew name, and the Hebrew name is supposed to indicate your character and the kind of person you will become. Not being religious, my sister and I were never given one when we were born. So, Rabbi Levi asked if we wanted to go through the ceremony the next day at Temple, which I was thrilled about.
We discussed the night before what our Hebrew names would be. I wanted the Rabbi and my sister to choose mine, and I helped choose Kimberly’s. Kimberly’s Hebrew name is Rivkah – who always put others before herself, which I thought was appropriate. When we came home, we realized that my Aunt (who is quite close with my sister) also has Rivkah has a Hebrew name! Crazy huh? My Hebrew name is Hannah – which means grace, but she was also quite determined. She was born barren, but wanted a child so badly. She prayed and prayed, and finally was given what she wanted. I really love my name.
At the temple, it was quite small, and very religious. There was a partition down the middle- men on one side, women on the other. Everything was spoken in Hebrew. The women were so wonderful from the moment we got there. When they noticed we didn’t have prayer books to read from, and got up and found some for us. Then, the Rabbi announced that 3 women visiting from the US (my sister, myself, and our friend Danielle) were born without Hebrew names, and were going to be given them today. You could hear the whispers and gasps from the crowd…” no Hebrew name!?” lol So he called us up front, and spoke a blessing with both our secular names and our Hebrew names, to which the congregation replied “Mazeltov!! Mazeltov!!” I had felt myself tearing up even before I got up there, but was trying to keep it together, thinking I was being super emo. But as soon as all 3 of our names were given, the women all stood up, cheering, clapping, singing, and dragged us to the center of the room, dancing around us. At least a dozen women pulled me to them through the crowd and said “Mazeltov!!” and gave me a huge hug. They were crying, smiling and SO so excited and happy for us. I started crying, Jodi, Mandy, and all our friends were crying…it was overwhelming.
I cannot remember the last time I experienced such a high- such an unmistakable happiness. I’m tearing up right now just recalling the whole thing! I wish that I could have recorded it so I could replay that moment over and over again. I felt so welcomed. These were very religious women, and when I was given my Hebrew name, it’s not like they asked me to pledge my life to G-d, to vow to live a kosher life, to dedicate my life to studying and practicing the Torah…they were simply happy to welcome somebody into the Jewish community, and to be a part of that special moment with me. And that was the general sentiment across Israel – people constantly said to us “Welcome home”, and really made us feel like Israel was ours too. I could go on forever, but there really aren’t words to express.
It was one of the most special, meaningful moments of my life and I will never, ever forget it.
6. Holocaust Museum (Yad Vashem)
I’ve been to Holocaust museums before, but somehow being in Israel made this one different. I thought a lot about both my grandparents, who are now gone, but were holocaust survivors. And I also thought a lot about Leslie, who technically is my mom’s much older cousin, but has been a bit of a grandfather figure to my sister and I in recent years. He is a holocaust survivor, and I just finished reading is autobiography online shortly before coming, and it really blew me away and made me appreciate this museum even more. For anyone who wants to read an incredible true story, you can read Leslie’s autobiography online here:
Can You Stop the Wind
7. UNDERSTANDING DAILY CONFLICT IN ISRAEL
A common sight, soldiers in Israel
There were a few attacks while we were in Israel. First, a group of terrorists launched an attack on passing vehicles with roadside bombs, assault rifles and RPGs. Soldiers were sent out to resolve the situation, and became involved in the gunfire. Ultimately 31 were injured, and 8 were killed including St.-Sgt Moshe Naftali, who was only 22. We heard this news on Thursday as we were making our way to the Dead Sea. Just 24 hours later when we visited Mt. Herzl (the military cemetery), we were standing over a fresh mound of dirt and wreaths – it was Naftali’s grave. We had several soldiers in our group, and I think all of us were unexpectedly overcome with emotion. It could have easily been one of our new Israeli friends that was a victim, and Naftali was only 22 – much younger than most of us even are.
It was extremely difficult, but I am actually very thankful that we were there to pay our respects and to experience it. It was a necessary eye-opener to see how Israelis live every day, and how hard we have to fight to keep peace. In America – with the exception of September 11th – most people my age or even my parents age have ever really experienced a “threat” on our country first hand. Frequently in Israel, people said to us “Welcome Home”, as we traveled throughout the country. It was a humbling feeling that the Israeli people welcomed us so freely, and were so willing to share the country they fight to keep every day with those of us who live in America. I have a renewed respect for the people who serve both the Israeli and American military, and an increased appreciation for being lucky enough to have two countries that I can call “home”.
8. RIDING CAMELS AND BEDOUIN TENTS
Sunrise in the Desert
This was SUCH a fun experience. Yes, we literally rode camels, and no they don’t smell as bad as you’d think. We finished our ride through the desert, and came back for the most amazing meal, served on a giant communal plate with us seated on the floor around it. We listened to a Bedouin man talk to us about the lifestyle of his people, and then went on a walk in the desert. It was so peaceful, and the stars were beautiful out there. We spent the night in the tents, which, granted, were on floor mats and questionable sleeping bags, but it was for the experience none-the-less! People are frequently giving me a hard time about being a Gypsy, but I definitely felt right at home living that kind of lifestyle!
View from inside the tents
9. TRAVELING WITH MY SISTER
It is very difficult to get onto a birthright trip – as you might expect for an opportunity that gives you free travel! So when my sister and I found out that we’d been accepted on the same trip together, it was really incredible. Kimberly lives in Austin now, and I’m in Portland, so we don’t frequently get to spend time together. In fact, I think this is the first time we took a trip on our own together. It was an incredible experience, and I think I would have felt something was missing had I done the trip without her there. I am so thankful that we have these wonderful memories to share.
10. NEW FRIENDS
This is the first time I’ve really been part of a Jewish “community” and it was absolutely wonderful. I met so many amazing people on the trip, and feel I’ve made friends that I’ll continue to keep in touch with both across the US and around the world in Israel! Being with so many New Yorkers has made me crossover from being resistant to moving to the east coast, to being quite open to the idea. It has also made me realize how much easier it is to preserve your heritage when you have large communities of those people where you live. It might sound extreme, but this trip has made me realize that (in an ideal world), I’d like to marry a Greek or a Jew also. Don’t go all bat-shit crazy on me, I’m still keeping an open mind. But I know what it was like being only half-Greek and half-Jewish growing up without strong communities of either culture. One day (once I accept the fact that I’m actually having kids), I would want that kind of community for my kids. I hope that regardless of who I end up meeting, that I’ll find a way to instill the values of both Greek and Jewish tradition and culture in them, and staying in touch with all the wonderful new people I met should help do the trick.
Overall, this trip was more meaningful and life-changing than I ever could have expected. I had amazing people in my group. Our tour guide Alex was SO knowledgeable and taught us so much about living in Israel and the history of this magnificent place. Ayelet, our incredible Israeli coordinator was such a wonderful example of what a strong Jewish woman in Israel can accomplish. And Rabbi Levi was our spiritual guide, patient answerer of questions, and a great leader by example throughout the trip. I think if more Synagogues and Jewish communities had a Rabbi like him, there would be more enthusiasm and pride in young Jewish communities. I feel very lucky to have every person in our group as part of my trip.
That is all!