Over winter break, Justin, cousin Leah, and I went on Birthright to see Israel, learn about its history, and explore our Jewish heritage. Having grown up in a city with very little Jewish presence, I was eager to meet other Jews my age and learn about part of my heritage I knew little about. Below are some photos and stories from our trip.
Days 1 – 3: The North
Our first flight departed from JFK a little after 6PM. Not long after reaching cruising altitude did we have dinner in the air, and soon after that I fell asleep. Next thing I knew, a flight attendant was waking me. “Good morning. Would you like some breakfast?” I checked my watch: midnight. I suppose with the time change it was around 6:00 AM, but I doubt anyone on the plane (except me) was in the mood for breakfast.
While I was asleep, some Birthrighter in another group got caught smoking in the airplane bathroom. Yes, really. And here I was thinking the hundreds of No Smoking signs and the reminder during the safety briefing were unnecessary.
After an eternity in the air, we finally arrived at Tel Aviv. Little did I know we would be spending the next few hours getting through customs and retrieving luggage. Finally, we were free of the airport…and then on the bus we went! Because customs took longer than expected, we didn’t have time to grab a bite at the airport, and I hadn’t eaten since “breakfast” on the plane. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my first real meal in Israel after arriving at the kibbutz.
After dinner we did some icebreakers and went over some safety precautions, most notably to not pet the cats that are as plentiful in Israel as squirrels are in the States. Then off to bed!
For those curious about my diet in Israel, I decided to pause keto for the duration of the trip. I didn’t want to miss out on the food culture of Israel, nor did I want to run into a situation where I couldn’t find keto-friendly food. It turned out that my second concern was unnecessary. During our first breakfast of eggs, fish, cheese, a variety of veggies, and tahini, I learned Israeli food is surprisingly keto-friendly, so long as you can resist the rugelach. In fact, our tour guide, Shlomi, follows a ketogenic diet! I had to travel all the way to Israel to finally meet someone else drinking the (sugar free) Kool-aid.
After breakfast, we set out to explore the Golan Heights, a controversial region of northeast Israel (?) that lies adjacent to Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan that has seen dramatic armed conflict.
While hiking through the Tel Dan Nature Reserve, our guide Shlomi taught us about the primary reason for the conflict: water security. The three rivers that feed the Lake of Galilee, Israel’s largest and most important body of fresh water, flow through the Golan. Additionally, the area is mountainous, giving Israel a natural buffer between its neighbors and the ability to monitor military movement from mountaintop lookouts.
We visited the Valley of Tears, the battleground of one of the most important military encounters of the Yom Kippur War. In the battle, the Israelis held off the Syrians despite being outarmed 700 tanks to Israel’s 175. Coincidentally, an Israeli veteran who fought in the battle was at the site and shared his memories of the war with us.
Back at the kibbutz, Justin and I accomplished our goal of Strava-ing in Israel. Then dinner, then some dance! An instructor taught our group a few traditional Israeli dances, each a mixture of the dances immigrants brought with them to Israel in the early 20th century. We wore traditional garb, dancing in circles and laughing like it was May 14th, 1948.
We started the day with a hike around the summit of Mount Meron with stunning views of the nearby snow-capped mountains and the towns and lakes below.
After the hike, we drove to Tsfat, a holy city historians believe to be more than 1000 years old (some think more than 2000 years old). The city’s art district showcases paintings, jewelry, and several giant candles sculpted to portray biblical stories.
And of course, no day is complete without mentioning food. For lunch I had a chicken shawarma on lafa per Shlomi’s insistence – a superb recommendation.
After Tsfat, we trekked down to Jerusalem where we listened to Neil Lazarus, half Middle East conflict expert half comedian, teach us about Israel’s relationships with its neighbors. Listening to him was like listening to a Jewish John Oliver, British accent and all. My takeaway: the Israeli/Arab relationship is too nuanced to make an informed opinion after one seminar.
Days 4 – 7: Jersusalem
Our first day in Jerusalem was a heavy day, visiting Mount Herzl, the site of both the national cemetery and Yad Vashem. Mount Herzl is named after Theodore Herzl, known as the father of modern political Zionism and the State of Israel. Though he passed more than 40 years before Israel declared its establishment, Herzl wrote in his will that he desired to be buried in Israel. In 1949, his remains were moved from Vienna to Mount Herzl and buried in a tomb that we visited and placed stones atop.
The national cemetery contains the graves of several political and religious leaders as well as the main Israel Defense Forces cemetery. Though all soldiers are buried side by side with identical tombs, I remember two tombs distinctly. The first was the tomb of one of Shlomi’s friends, and the second was the tomb of Michael Levin, an American who volunteered to fight with the IDF killed by Hezbollah in 2006. Seeing hundreds of tombs was moving, but it was the stories of our soldiers’ friends and loved ones who had been killed while fighting for the IDF that had everyone in tears.
From the cemetery we visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum and memorial for the six million Jews killed. For the first half of the museum I held myself together, but I lost it after reading the poem below. Then the piles of shoes, then the videos of the mass graves, then the empty shelves for the 1.5 million unknown victims in the Hall of Names. All very sad.
Ending a day of sadness with some games organized by our Israeli soldiers was just what we needed to lighten the mood. Did I say games? More like hazing.
Roaming the stone walkways of the Old City, I felt like we had taken a time machine back a thousand years.
Besides a security check at the Western Wall, I witnessed no evidence of ongoing conflict. Then again, we were only permitted to see the Armenian and Jewish quarters of the Old City, so perhaps there was discord elsewhere. Regardless, the city is incredible, and I’m grateful our president’s words did not preclude us from visiting.
During some downtime, Guy, Noa, and Sapir attempted to teach us a Hebrew game for kids called Qua Qua De La Oma. Too bad we couldn’t remember more than one line of Hebrew at a time!
The next day our soldiers would have to return to service, so we went out to the Mehane Yehuda market for a celebratory “leisure night.” The market was absolutely slammed – luckily I’m not claustrophobic! We found a pub in a quieter corner of the market, and I had my first legal drink with my brother (drinking age is 18). After a couple beers, our group began dancing and singing, attracting a few other passing Birthrighters including a group from France.
The market was fun but the bus ride back was better. I’ll never forget watching our group dance in the aisle of the bus with the speakers blasting “Bum Bum Tam Tam,” which quickly became the theme song of the trip. Salmon, our bus driver, is a saint.
We began our day back at the Mehane Yehuda market, this time for food and goodies. It was even more crowded than the night before! Everyone was out stocking up on food before Shabbat, which would begin that evening. Our soldiers had to depart right after lunch, so we said our goodbyes and gave our hugs before venturing into the chaos. It is amazing how close one can feel to someone after such a short time together and how hard it is to say goodbye.
Back at the hotel, we had some free time before the Kiddush, a ceremony welcoming the start of Shabbat. During the Kiddush, we followed a tradition of silence between washing our hands and breaking bread. Though not allowed to talk, we could hand-gesture to each other, and our group looked like a gang of pantomimes. We said prayers, sipped wine, broke bread, and then enter Shlomi:
“Shabbat Shalom! Hug a Jew.”
On Shabbat, no work can be completed. “Work” includes labor, of course, but also cooking, household chores, and using electricity. However, there is an exception to the last rule: electric devices can be used if they are set to run autonomously before Shabbat begins. For example, one cannot cook during Shabbat, but cooking before sundown and keeping the food hot in warmers is acceptable. In our hotel, elevators were set to “Shabbat mode” meaning they stop at every floor. The idea is that those observing Shabbat can avoid pressing buttons and hence do not cause the elevator to do work. Apparently designing Shabbat-approved devices is its own industry.
In true Shabbat fashion, I (mostly) stayed off my phone, so I don’t have any pictures. Not that there was much to take photos of – we really did spend most of the day resting. I slept in, visited the sauna, conversed with my tripmates, and read. For those of us going stir crazy at the hotel, Shlomi led a walking tour of the nearby neighborhoods. With fewer cars on the roads (no driving on Shabbat), Jerusalem was peaceful and bustling with foot traffic, emitting an energy hard to put in words. Before walking through an extremely Orthodox neighborhood, we were warned to watch out for projected rotten vegetables, which fortunately our unorthodox demeanor seemed not to attract.
Before dinner, we made Havdalah complete with an overflowing cup of wine, a multi-wicked candle, fragrant spices, blessings, and song. Outside was very windy, and keeping the candle burning was a team effort.
With Shabbat passed, we could use the bus again, and we made our way to the Negev: Israel’s desert.
Days 8 – 10: The Negev
Shlomi told us that to secure the best spot at Masada to watch the sunrise over the Dead Sea, we’d need to be there early, which translated to a 4:30 alarm and groggy bus ride to the base. We arrived behind two other buses, and Shlomi asked some of us to run with him to the summit. A few of us hurried off the bus and started towards the top. For a moment we thought we were first and slowed to a walk, but after turning a corner we saw the lights of a group in front of us. Shlomi acquired his target and off we went. Almost to the top, we passed the other group and secured Shlomi’s prime real estate.
As the darkness lifted and the sky lightened, it dawned on us that the clouds would be too dense to see the sunrise. Despite our disappointment, Shlomi suggested that we take a few minutes to sit in peace reflecting on our trip so far. He put on some meditative music, and we all sat in silence gazing over the desert where the sun would have been. Then suddenly, as if it knew we were hoping to see it, the sun peeped its red head above a layer of clouds. It rose, exposed as a complete glowing circle for a fleeting moment before disappearing behind clouds once again.
After the sunrise, three of our ladies were Bat Mitzvah’d, all of whom delivered touching speeches. And then, like a genuine bat mitzvah, we had a party. Bum Bum Tam Tam.
Next, we ventured to the lowest place on earth: the Dead Sea. The water is extremely salty: 34% salinity! For reference, ocean water has a salinity of about 3.5%. There’s so much salt that it precipitates out, lining the sea floor and the beaches with crystallized salt. The wild part is the buoyancy – it feels like swimming with a PFD even when wearing only a bathing suit. You really must feel it to believe it – add it to your bucket list. And don’t get the water in your eyes ‘cause that stings like a mofo.
From the Dead Sea we traveled all the way south to the Red Sea and Eilat where we spent New Years Eve. Highlights from NYE: fireworks over Eilat, video chatting friends in the US at midnight, and helping Josh crowd surf into the new year with a bunch of random Israelis.
The Israel National Trail is the Appalachian Trail of Israel, traversing the entire country north to south, ending in Eilat. We hiked part of one end of the trail, climbing to a mountaintop from which we could see four countries: Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. At the top, Robyn led a guided meditation, her second time ever doing so, but it seemed like she had years of practice under her belt! I felt much at peace.
Back down off the mountain, we took a dip in the Red Sea (if you ever visit, be advised: “Red” is a misnomer) where half the crew spent the entire time figuring out how to wear the snorkeling gear or freaking out about seeing fish below.
We shared a feast for lunch and then began the trek north into the heart of the Negev. It began to rain – hard – supposedly the first time in four years that the Negev had any serious rainfall. Unfortunately, that meant our scheduled camel ride was canceled. Instead, we visited Maktesh Ramon, the largest erosion crater in the world. No idea what an erosion crater is? The visitor center had an inflatable 3D video-mapping display demonstrating how the crater was formed over millions of years, which you can watch below.
That night, we experienced the famed Bedouin hospitality including a family-style meal and camping in a traditional Bedouin tent big enough to fit all 44 of us. Despite the rain, everyone was in high spirits, a common observation among those who spoke during a group reflection we held during our indoor “bonfire.” I attributed our group’s positivity to our leaders, who maintained incredible optimism even in stressful situations. I particularly appreciated Shlomi’s motto: “…and with that – WE WILL PREVAIL!”
The rain stopped at some point overnight, and by morning, the skies had cleared enough for a glorious desert sunrise.
En route to Tel Aviv, we stopped to explore Elin Avdat National Park, which has a continuously running waterfall despite being in the desert. Per suggestion by a couple of our groupmates, we hiked to the waterfall in silence, taking in the sounds of running water and intricate patterns carved by millions of years of wind and water erosion.
We took one more pit stop to visit David Ben-Gurion’s grave. Gurion was basically the George Washington of Israel, serving as the first prime minister after declaring independence. He believed the sparsely populated Negev offered Jews a place to live with minimal conflict with their neighbors. Leading by example, Gurion moved to the Negev late in his career and asked to be buried there. Like Gurion, his grave was modest, but interestingly there were Ibecks everywhere.
We made one more stop at the “Salad Trail” where we ate our way through the agricultural products of Israel. My favorites: kumquats and cherry tomatoes straight off the vine.
Finally reaching Tel Aviv, we dropped off bags at the hotel and departed for our last leisure night. Justin and I opted for a monster serving of froyo topped with the works.
Days 11 & 12: Tel Aviv and Travel Home
Our last day in Israel ☹ We were exposed to some history, standing in the very spot in Independence Hall that Gurion signed the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. Later we visited the Yitzhak Rabin Center where we spent a mere ten minutes. (Birthright requires that a certain portion of the budget go to museums but most of us had no energy left for that.)
Shlomi took our group to his family’s house for wrap-up reflection activities and an Israeli barbeque. I think that puts into perspective just how dedicated Shlomi is – how many guides take their 40+ person group home with them? We didn’t leave for the airport until after 1:00 AM, and Shlomi’s family stayed up with us the entire time (they were amazing hosts!).
During our group reflection, everyone was asked to speak once, most mentioning how they feel more in touch with their heritage, things they’ve learned about themselves, and how wonderful it has been bonding with each other. Being at least one year older than everyone else in the group, I spoke last, sharing the marginal wisdom I’ve acquired in my additional year on Earth.
My words combined two of my favorite things: social science and NC State. First, I brought up the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which suggests that the best predictor of lifelong happiness is not income, not intelligence, not physical shape, but strong relationships, and I challenged the group to invest in their relationships at home the same way we had with each other in Israel. Second, I quoted Coach Jimmy Valvano, encouraging the group to do three things every day: laugh, cry, and think. In Israel, we laughed together, we cried together, we thought together, and we had something special.
“If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”
The rest of the night (morning?) comprised hugs and goodbyes to those extending their trips including Paris-bound Leah (jealous!), then on to airport security. A little after 5:00 AM, we were airborne. The first flight to Brussels went smoothly, but the second flight to NYC landed in Toronto thanks to a snowstorm in the northeast that shut down JFK – free Birthright extension in Canada? On the upside, I tried Tim Hortons for the first time.
I’ll save you the misery, but basically we spent the night in Toronto and late the next day, after several hours sitting in the airport and in the plane parked on the tarmac, we made it to JFK, which was a snafu. Special thanks to Uncle Arthur for rescuing Justin and me from the chaos!
A few days later after some more airline mayhem, I made it back to warm, sunny San Diego. Life is sababa, indeed.
I want give a special thanks to the people who made the trip so special to our group. Thanks to our incredibly patient bus driver, Salmon, who put up with 40 young adults blasting music, dancing in the aisle, and singing off key.
Thanks to our security guard Adam for protecting us, mostly from dull moments.
Thanks to the Israeli soldiers who shared their culture and their stories with us and became our friends. I hope you come visit us in the United States!
Thanks to our two fearless staff members, among the most adaptable, optimistic, and caring people I’ve met.
Finally, thanks to our guide, Shlomi. As much as I learned about Israel, I may have learned even more about effective leadership watching his example. Thank you for your passion, energy, and commitment to making our trip extra special.