Last month, I had the insane privilege of spending 10 days in Israel and... wow. This trip was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I feel so grateful to have had the opportunity to finally see Israel in person!
I traveled through Taglit-Birthright, a program that sponsors 10-day trips to Israel for young adults (ages 18-32) with Jewish ancestry. The trip is completely free (even the plane ticket!) and is a perfect way to see Israel for the first time. Most of my friends did their birthright trips while in college, but I was never able to find the time, so I waited until I could go with an older age group (ages 23-26). I traveled with Mayanot and I went on their traditional 10 Day “My Adventure” tour. I'm so excited to share my experience with you all, and I know this sounds so cheesy but I genuinely feel like this trip impacted me in a major way. It helped me reconnect with my heritage, redefine my values, and understand the importance of having a relationship with Israel. Not to mention, it gave me some really amazing new friends!
Israel is approximately the size of New Jersey, so you could theoretically drive the whole country in a single day. This meant that we were able to travel up, down, and across with ease, and in just 10 days, I saw almost all the must-visit cities (we did not get to Haifa or Eilat, but that gives me a great reason to go back soon). I put together this map of the top half of Israel to show my trip's itinerary geographically:
1) Golan Heights, 2) Tel Aviv, 3) Jerusalem, 4) Negev Desert, 5) Ein Gedi
Something I thought a lot about leading up to and during my trip was "why do Birthright?" There are plenty of superficial reasons to participate in this trip... I mean, it's a free ten-day vacation. And all through college, it just seemed like the thing to do if you were Jewish. No one ever asks are you planning to go on Birthright? They ask when are you planning to go on Birthright? So I knew at some point I'd go. It wasn't until I finally decided to sign up for a trip this winter that I began to think about what this experience would mean for me and what my expectations were. So many of my friends who'd already gone prepared me with exciting statements like "the moment you land in Israel you immediately feel connected" and "you'll have chills the ENTIRE time you're there." But I wasn't so sure. What kind of connection could I, someone whose family has no ancestral relationship with the Middle East, feel to a country on the other side of the world? Would Israel be just another vacation destination, and what if I didn't experience that feeling everyone was telling me about? Setting my hesitations aside, I decided that this trip would be an amazing opportunity to learn, grow, make some new friendships, and stock up on hamsa necklaces.
Ok let’s start at the beginning. We flew from JFK to Tel Aviv (total flight time was about 10 hours) and landed at Ben Gurion airport around 5pm on Monday, May 6th. The flight was super easy, but leading up to the flight I was pretty nervous because that weekend there had been some airstrikes back and forth between Israel and Gaza. Before we boarded the plane, we had to go through an extra security clearance, and in the last thirty minutes of the flight, no one was allowed to get up out of their seats (it's an additional security measure typical on all flights going in to Israel). I knew I was going to feel safe once we landed (and I did, the entire trip) but these moments reminded me that I was about to enter a region of the world so different from the stable environment I am used to in America.
I remember seeing Tel Aviv from the window of the plane as we landed, and I started to get excited, but I was also so tired and hungry, and all I really cared about was getting on the bus and going to sleep. After landing, we immediately met up with Eiran, our tour guide. We circled up, which became a recurring experience throughout the trip, and did some icebreakers to get to know each other. I felt immediately transported back to orientation week during my freshman year of college, except instead of introducing myself as a fashion major from New Jersey, I got to introduce myself as a “supply chain engineer" living in Cincinnati (absolutely wild you guys, still not over it).
Eiran!! Best tour guide EVER!
We piled on to a bus and drove to the Golan Heights, where we’d spend our first three nights in Israel. The hostel we stayed at, Tel Hai, was fine (fyi, I’m not going to spend a ton of time discussing the accommodations because it’s a free trip, so really how can I complain? Everywhere we stayed was fine.).
Flawless hostel views
We woke up on Tuesday to surprisingly chilly weather and began our first official day of activities, which included a hike of the Banyas Falls and a rafting trip along the Jordan River. I got my first taste of Israeli falafel, and in the afternoon we visited Mt. Bental, an observation point all the way to the north of Israel where you can see the Israeli-Syrian border.
That evening began the observation of Yom Hazikaron, Israel's version of Memorial Day. This was AMAZING to experience in person. In Israel, Memorial Day is a completely different vibe than in America. There are no beach-front barbecues or massive retail sales. It's a solemn day of remembrance for the more than 20,000 people who have lost their lives either defending Israel's freedom or in acts of terror. In Israel, serving in the military is mandatory, so every citizen feels personally connected to the Israeli Defense Forces. Additionally, because it is such a small country, nearly everyone knows at least one person who lost their lives in Israel's defense. For this reason, Yom Hazikaron hits so close to home. On Erev Yom Hazikaron, at precisely 8pm, the entire country stands still for a minute as sirens blare simultaneously. As a group, we stood in a quiet huddle outside of our hotel staring at the landscape and listening to the sirens roar. It was really humbling, there's no other way to describe it.
One of the best parts of the Birthright program is that every group is joined by a few Israeli soldiers and students for a part of the trip. We had eight incredible Israelis on our trip, and they joined us the next morning as we made our way to the old town of Tzfat. Our observance of Yom Hazikaron continued that morning (Jewish holidays begin at sunset and end the at the next day's sunset) with another set of commemorative sirens and a minute of silence at 11am. Afterwards, we took a tour of the city, which is known for its roots in Jewish mysticism. My favorite part of the tour was seeing the inside of an old synagogue. It reminded me of the synagogues I toured last year in Morocco... it was tiny, but the decor was so intricate. We then went to a mikveh (not gonna get into it... if you know, you know), took a lunch break (where I obviously ate more falafel), and then made our way to Mt. Meron, where we did a quick hike and I finally caught a glimpse of the famous Lake Kineret!
Immediately following Yom Hazikaron is another holiday, Yom Ha'atzmaut, also known as Israeli Independence Day. It's pretty crazy to think that the most solemn holiday is followed by a day of celebration, but as night fell across the country, the vibe switched from respectful and somber to ready-to-party. We had a delicious outdoor BBQ followed by a night out partying in Rosh Pinah.
Thursday morning, we said goodbye to Tel Hai and traveled to Jaffa, which is right next to Tel Aviv. As part of the Yom Ha'atzmaut celebration, we watched a flyover by the Air Force in celebration of Israel's 71st birthday! We later hit the beach and relaxed in the sun (any moments of rest & relaxation on this trip were much appreciated because sleep was extremely limited). We had a free night that evening which allowed us to explore the local bar scene in Tel Aviv.
On Friday morning, we left Tel Aviv and headed to Jerusalem. Our first glimpse of the holy city came as we drove up Mt. Scopus.
For me, this was when that "instant-connection-feels-like-home" sensation really clicked. Looking down on the landscape of Jerusalem, I was in total awe. This is a city I've been learning about since I was a child, and to finally see it in person left me speechless. Like I felt literal chills all over my body, and in that moment I was like "Ok I get it. I get the whole homecoming thing. This feels special." I've not felt that way about any other place I've traveled. It's totally wild, but there really is something different about Jerusalem.
Afterwards, we visited Mt. Hertzl, Israel's national cemetery, which is where many of Israel's important leaders are buried, as well as soldiers who died serving their country. We then had lunch at Yehuda Market, where I finally had my first authentic Aroma iced coffee, and went to our hostel to prepare for Shabbat at the Kotel.
I was HYPED to be spending Shabbat in Jerusalem, and especially at the Kotel. When I got the trip itinerary, this was what I was most excited about. Quick history lesson - the Kotel, AKA the Western Wall, is the holiest place on Earth according to Jewish tradition (technically, the Temple Mount is THE holiest place on Earth, but the Kotel is the holiest place where Jewish prayer is permitted). The wall was built in 20 BCE as part of an expansion to the Second Temple, and when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the wall was the only piece of the structure that survived. Each year, millions of people travel from around the world to pray at the Kotel, and it has become a tradition to write a prayer on a piece of paper, fold it, and place it in the wall. These prayer notes are removed from the wall & collected twice each year, and since Jewish tradition prohibits the disposal of prayer notes, they are buried nearby on Mount of Olives.
Shabbat at the Kotel was absolutely the highlight of my birthright experience. That evening, I felt so connected to my religion and spirituality. When we got to the Kotel, we took some time to pray individually at the Wall, and then we joined a circle of women singing Shabbat songs. In addition to us, there was another birthright group, a group of younger students (probably high-school aged) and their teachers, and then just general visitors from all over the world! There must have been at least 100 women passionately praying & dancing together, and any language and cultural barriers that existed between us were bridged by our common knowledge of and appreciation for the Shabbat holiday. It was hands down the most fun Shabbat I've ever attended! When we left the kotel, we had to walk about a mile and a half to get back to our hostel (no transportation on Shabbat). During the walk, I had a long conversation with one of my Israeli friends, Shiran. We talked about our lives, our friends, our relationships, and through our conversation we discovered differences that allowed us to learn about each other's life experiences and the similarities that allowed us to bond. I think it's so valuable that Birthright provides the opportunity not just to see a new country, but to also build relationships with people who were born & raised in that country.
So proud of my cute sunburn
We spent the next day relaxing at the hostel because in Israel, many people observe Shabbat (so most stores are closed, transportation options are limited, and there isn't much to do). It was actually quite nice to have a relaxing day; we were able to sleep in, had a few conversations about our experiences on the trip thus far, and did some chill group-bonding activities. And for dinner we had Pizza Hut, which TBH was a much-needed reminder of home (I was getting sick of falafel at that point in the trip... but as I write this, I would do ANYTHING to have some authentic Israeli falafel). On Saturday evening, we went to Ben Yehuda street, where my friends & I treated ourselves to an amazing Italian dinner at Cafe Hillel and did some shopping.
Circle time with our awesome rabbi, Jonah
Sunday was our final day in Jerusalem, and we began with a tour of the Jewish Quarter, which led us back to the Kotel. We weren't able to put notes in the Wall on Friday night, since writing is against Shabbat law, so this time around we got to write our prayers & put them in the wall. Afterwards, we had a mini bar mitzvah for a couple of people on our trip who had not been bar mitzvahed (is that a verb?) as kids, and then had some lunch & shopping time in the Jewish quarter. I stopped at Hadaya, a famous jewelry store known for their custom engraved rings, bracelets, and necklaces, to place an order for a ring. I actually just received the ring two days ago in the mail (so it took about a month from order to arrival) and I'm so pleased with how it turned out. On the inside, I had the date I was in Jerusalem engraved (5.12.19), and on the outside I had them engrave the chorus from one of my favorite songs I sang with my a cappella group in college (Et Rekod by Yaakov Shewkey). These lyrics were an obvious choice for me as they're associated with one of my favorite memories of college, and the song also has a really cute meaning; it basically says there's a time for everything, a time for love and a time for hate, a time for war and a time for peace, but tonight we're happy, it's time to dance.
Our next stop was, in my opinion, the most important stop on the trip: Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Museum. This was a particularly impactful experience for me, as I'm sure it is for every person who visits the museum. I learned a lot about the Holocaust growing up & going to Hebrew school, but while touring this museum, I was surprised by how little I actually knew about World War II, the origins of antisemitism, and how the Nazi party rose to power in Europe. I only studied the Holocaust in depth as a kid, so maybe my teachers were giving us the "watered down" version, but Yad Vashem really magnifies just how tragic, horrific, and incomprehensible this genocide was. It's difficult for me to wrap my mind around the fact that this truly happened, that the world stood by silently as millions of innocent people were murdered. But I don't think you can walk away from Yad Vashem full of anger and despair. Instead, I chose to walk away with hope that such a tragedy will never happen again, gratitude that the state of Israel exists today as a safe home for Jewish people, and determination to never be a bystander when I see acts of injustice. If you don't learn lessons from the mistakes of the past, history is bound to repeat itself.
On a lighter note, the design of Yad Vashem is breathtaking. It is built within a mountain, Mount Remembrance, so it is mostly underground, but light seeps in from the ceiling, which dramatically illuminates the interior. At the end of the museum, you walk outside to a gorgeous view of Jerusalem, and it sort of ties together the whole "from darkness comes light" metaphor that's very present in Jewish text. The museum was designed by Moshe Safdie, who is famous for designing the Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore (the hotel from the final scene in Crazy Rich Asians!).
After Yad Vashem, we said a tearful goodbye to our Israeli friends, as it was their final day on our trip. It was tough to say goodbye; it felt like we were losing a part of our family. But, I am grateful to be living in the age of social media, because I have been able to keep in touch with my friends on the other side of the world, and I know I will definitely be seeing them the next time I go to Israel!
That evening we stayed at the hotel and had two guests come talk to us. The first was a speaker from Gift of Life, a public bone marrow registry that matches patients in need of a bone marrow or stem cell transplant with eligible donors based on genetic matches. Quick side note, but I really encourage all of my friends to join a bone marrow registry (either the Gift of Life or Be The Match, they share the same registry). I lost both of my grandfathers to Lymphoma, a blood cancer, so this cause is really personal for me. Joining a registry is super easy; just sign up online & they will send you a swab kit. You could be someone's perfect match and save a life (& if you need more convincing, check out my favorite episode of Radiolab, "Match Made in Marrow").
The second guest that evening talked to our group about the multitude of religious, political, and territorial conflicts in the Middle East. I'll be honest, it went over my head a bit because the conflicts are way more complex than I thought, and I had a hard time following which groups hate who, what people live where, and who's fighting for what. I think if I knew more about the conflicts in the Middle East going into this presentation, it would have been really educational, but I was so confused by the terminology that I genuinely couldn't follow.
On Monday morning, we said goodbye to Jerusalem and made our way into the desert. We went biking in Nekudat Motza, which I LOVED... literally nothing beats cycling on vacation. We then had lunch at The Salad Trail, a sustainable farm about 6 miles from the border of Egypt & Gaza. This was my favorite lunch of the trip (even though it did not include falafel) because the veggies were so insanely fresh and sweet and delicious and I really missed fresh veggies so much. We took a tour of the farm afterwards, then stopped at David Ben-Gurion's grave in Sde Boker. Finally, we traveled to the Negev Desert, where we spent the night at a Bedouin camp.
The Bedouin desert experience was unexpectedly one of my favorite parts of the trip. When we arrived at the campsite, I was pleasantly surprised by how touristy the accommodations were (I was expecting real wilderness camping, but this place had cots to sleep on, outlets to charge our phones, solid cell service, and fully-functional bathrooms and showers). It's clear that this site is set up for tour groups like Birthright, so we weren't totally immersed in a cultural desert experience, but it was just enough immersion for me. We rode camels across the desert, then enjoyed a delicious dinner. Once it got dark, we ventured away from the campsite deeper into the desert to look at the stars and meditate. Even with the occasional F-16 flying overhead, being out in the desert was incredibly peaceful, and it gave me an opportunity to reflect on the trip thus far and my expectations for my final days in Israel.
Our last full day in Israel began with a hike up Masada. We got really lucky with the weather, it was only about 90 degrees the morning of our hike. Masada was cool because I just thought it was a typical national park-style hike, but at the top there are remains of settlements from around 30 BCE. It reminded me a bit of visiting Pompeii, but the ruins at Masada are not as reconstructed, so it feels more authentic. Two things I loved in particular about Masada: 1) seeing the original fresco paintings (dating back to the era of Herod the Great) on the walls of the ruins was incredible. 2) I was surprised that most of the other tour groups at Masada were not Jewish, and it reminded me that Israel holds significance to many cultures and religions.
Our next stop was the Dead Sea, which was just as amazing as it looks in the photos. The Dead Sea is 34% salt, making it one of the saltiest bodies of water on the planet, and the shore of the Dead Sea is the lowest point of exposed land on Earth (about 1500 ft below sea level). Upon stepping into the Dead Sea, you can immediately feel the salt all over your skin. They say not to stay in for more than 20 minutes because it's really harsh, and it starts to get a bit uncomfortable the longer you stay in, but it was a cool sensation being able to float as I swam around. The Sea itself is so magnificent and beautiful. Unfortunately, the Dead Sea is shrinking at a rate of about 3 ft a year, which has caused dangerous sinkholes to pop up on its shores, but Israel and Jordan have been working together on ways to restore the sea level.
For our final excursion of the day, we hiked at Ein Gedi National Park.
FYI - Water shoes are making a fashionable comeback this summer!
Our last day in Israel was fun and emotional. On one hand, I was ready to come home (mostly because I missed my bed), but at the same time, I was not ready to leave my friends or to say goodbye to this amazing country.
We drove back to Tel Aviv, where I spent the morning touring Florentin, a funky neighborhood known for its graffiti-adorned buildings. We then went to Carmel market to do some last-minute souvenir shopping and have one final Aroma iced coffee.
Before heading to the airport, we had a closing ceremony and a delicious dinner. As a group, we shared our impressions of the trip, of Judaism, and of Israel. It's crazy to think that just 10 days before, I knew pretty much nothing about Israel and felt no connection to it at all. Now, I can't stop thinking about how to get back there.
It is no secret that I live to travel. And when people ask me what my favorite destinations have been, I often have a hard time answering. I believe every culture has something unique to offer, some incredible lesson to share, and while I know it is impossible to truly understand worlds different from our own, we can try our best by traveling and seeking out experiences that force us out of our comfort zones and make us question what we know to be true. This is something I always look for when I am traveling - how did this experience change me? What did I learn about myself that I did not know before? What assumptions did I hold about this country, or this culture, that proved to be wrong? I walked away from my trip to Israel having discovered that many of my pre-conceived ideas about Israeli culture, Zionism, and the sense of belonging I felt to this land were totally wrong. Going into this trip, I feared that the relationship with Israel I was hoping to develop would feel superficial. I was worried I would feel like a perpetrator of cultural misappropriation for trying to force a connection between myself and a country I did not belong to. I really don't think you can understand this as a non-Israeli Jew until you actually visit Israel, but that relationship is real. Yes, it's biblical in its origin which can feel abstract at times, but when you are there physically, it is impossible to not feel "there" spiritually.
I feel so so so grateful to have had the privilege to participate on a Birthright trip, and I encouraged every person who has the opportunity to go. I would like to extend my gratitude to our amazing staff, Eiran, Jonah, and Sara, and to the entire Mayanot organization for planning these trips. I can't wait to return to Israel again; there's still so much I want to see and do and learn. But until then, I'll be reflecting on the amazing memories I made with my mispacha, Mayanot 100!
Until next time, Shalom!