While I was attending Brandeis University, a technically non-denominational school with predominantly Jewish students, most of my friends attended a program called Birthright. Some even went for a 2nd round and staffed this free all inclusive 10-day trip to Israel. I knew that I wanted to go but never had a chance to in college. I was told you can go from 18-25 years old so when I turned 24 I started applying for Israel Outdoors.
Israel Outdoors fit my mold; I am not particularly religious and love hiking, biking and being outside. I was wait-listed at 24 only to apply again at 25. They wait-listed me a second time but let me know I could still apply at 26 too. Fortunately enough when I was 26 I was given a slot on an August trip with 39 others.
A few of us joined a Facebook group and chatted online but we didn’t really meet until early August at John F. Kennedy International Airport. We found Mollie and Ari waiting for us in Israel Outdoors shirts before checking bags and getting our boarding passes. Along the way I met Jay and Ben in line before gradually finding everyone else at our gate.
We mingled and discovered that we had a lot in common (outside of Jewish family history). Most of us were recent college graduates living in the New York area. A suprising number of teachers were in the crowd as well as a number in finance, in law school, med school or another graduate program. Before long Mollie and Ari came over for our first ice breaker that had all 42 of us sitting in a giant circle. That must have been quite a scene for security and anyone that didn’t know us! Paper and pens were handed out and we were asked to write down 1) our name/where we are from2) what we are looking forward to in Israel and 3) an interesting fact about ourselves.
Around the circle we laughed and “awed” at everything from “I want to ride a camel, swim in the dead sea, meet Israelis” to “I love my dogs more than most of my friends, I play with swords, and I have the perfect cartoon sneeze-laugh” Before we knew it the boarding call for our Swiss Air flight came and we found our seats.
A stop in Zurich, Switzerland and roughly 13 hours later we found ourselves at Ben Gurion Airport and quickly met Einav, our tour guide for the trip. He doled out cell phones that were pre-ordered, introduced our bus driver and we climbed aboard our home for the next 10 days; the bus.
The first stop was a hill in Jerusalem with a spectacular view of the old city. You could see the magnificent, golden, dome of the rock; an iconic Muslim piece of the Jerusalem skyline which sits atop the remains of the old Jewish temple. We gathered in another circle as Einav officially welcomed us to Israel. We grabbed a partner and were asked to tie a red string on their wrist before joining in a la chaim with a manischewitz toast. The wristband symbolized our visit and love of Israel and we were asked to wear it until it fell off.
Einav told us a little about himself and how he was part of the land forces that went into Gaza a little over a decade ago during his mandatory military service. He shared stories about growing up in the West Bank and developing a fundamentally racist attitude in the conservative region before seeing the bigger picture, becoming more liberal and accepting of all peoples. He let us know that we would be meeting our Israeli counterparts in the next day or two but for now we would head back to the hotel and celebrate Shabbat; after all it was Friday and we were in Jerusalem!
On the bus ride to our hotel we picked our roommates, I was with Sam and Lucas. We arrived at our hotel and were immediately dismayed by the smell of cat piss in the hallway. Luckily we weren’t there for long; after changing we met everyone in the lobby for a brief explanation of Shabbat and a candle lighting ceremony. Our rabbi joined us for dinner; he turned out to be a young man with a great attitude helped brighten everyone’s evening.
After dinner the rabbi led us around Jerusalem stopping at a few spots to tell us some of his history and what he loved about Judaism before we arrived at gorgeous open air orthodox temple. The services were already underway at this segregated ceremony. I walked over to sit on the other side of a wicker fence among the other men and boys. We glanced around unsure what to do as the Hebrew prayers began.
I quickly found that I was no alone in my group at having zero comprehension of the Hebrew; at first this made it difficult to appreciate the evening but as the stars came out in this desert city I began to see enjoy the beauty of the evening in this holiest of cities. One by one we started getting up and dancing as the prayers became more rhythmic. Before long every man was in a circle chanting and kicking the way that Jews tend to when having a grand ole time!
Back at the hotel we broke up into groups. I joined a few others for less structured collegiate style ice breakers. Laughing we quickly realized that the girls hadn’t enjoyed services nearly as much after not being able to see what we were doing or have room to get up and dance. No matter, the evening continued into the wee hours as we got to know each other and wondered what the next few days would bring.