Just recently, I traveled to Israel on an organized and spectacular Birthright trip. Birthright, or in Hebrew, ‘Taglit,’ is a gift to young Jewish people such as myself to visit Israel for 10 days free of expense. Thanks to my pushy grandmother, I signed up for the trip of a lifetime and received a plane ticket and a packing list in my email inbox. For weeks, I waited in anticipation for a voyage to the fairy tale land I had heard so much about in Hebrew school. While friends and relatives were all excited for me to experience a new country as meaningful as Israel, my mother was concerned that I would suddenly become religious, marry an orthodox Israeli, and have too many babies. Well now I have returned without a ring on my finger, but with an overwhelmingly beautiful experience that I would not trade for one million shequels. (Israeli currency)
Each Birthright group from the United States and from Canada consists of about 40 Jewish young adults aged 18-26. Our group was a great mix of guys and girls who shared the same idea about traveling through the New Jersey-size country of Israel. In order of most popular to least spoken, we all wanted to ride camels, see the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and float in the Dead Sea. Yes, these exciting activities were fantastic. My camel’s name was Aladdin, the Western Wall was bone chilling and accepted prayers for our families, and playing in nutritious mud and dancing in the Dead Sea was incredible. However when I reflect my entire experience in Israel, I have a different opinion of what the trip means to me now.
After stretching my legs in what was rightfully Ben Gurion airport, I hopped on the bus with the rest of our group called Young Judaea 22-16. My trustee deck of cards helped me make friends as we started a poker game using skittles as gambling chips.
The tour bus headed through the desert to the South of Israel. The first night was in sets of random roommates. Although we all came on the trip independently, it was funny to see how we knew each other through mutual friends and coincidences. The guard who accompanies our trip with a protective gun brought out his guitar and played, “The Sultans of Swing,” by The Dire Straights. Interestingly enough, the clubs and bars throughout Israel play American music. Out of all the Israeli music we were exposed to, I most liked the band called, “Balkan Beat Box.” They are a very upbeat brass band with a hint of soul- check them out.
‘Boker Tov,’ which means ‘good morning,’ in Hebrew is the word that most resonates in my memory since we rose quite early every morning. Personally, I like to start early when traveling to see as much as possible. Looking back at the nights our group spent hanging out till late hours and rising early makes me wonder how we kept up our energy. Although the most foreign aspect of our trip was sleep, we all wiped tons of sunscreen on, tied sneakers on our feet, and eagerly went out to hike.
I am glad that our first activity together was a hike because nothing brings people closer than the sticky sweat pouring off our bodies. We explored the desert which possesses a surreal beauty that is locked in the stillness of endless sandy hills. As hot as it was, there was always a refreshing breeze and an earthy smell. On the night of our first hike, our tour guide, Gil, who was incredibly brilliant, walked us to an area away from civilization in the middle of the desert. Just as he made every place and monument fascinating, he told us to march off into individual paths and sit alone to think. Of course, my good friend and I could not keep quiet as we discovered a smooth patch of desert we claimed, ‘Camel-lot.’ Upon settling in Camel-lot, we sat down silently to gaze up at a glistening starry sky. In a desert so full of open space, you almost feel like you are hiding. Imagine what it feels like to be quiet in the quiet.
Perhaps my goofy side displayed in the desert explains why I get along so well with children. Israeli children are never told, “Don’t talk to strangers.” They are in your face and ready to play. When we were told that we would be volunteering at a school with little children, I was totally psyched. However, being thrown into a clustered room with children ranging from age 7-12 who do not speak English was quite difficult. Since I have never been good with rules, I decided to make an escape plan. As the two sweet girls in front of me were coloring, I drew a picture of a tree and pointed out the window. Any pictionary amateur would understand that meant, “Let’s go play outside.” So the girls and I ran outside and started a game of tag, which they called, ‘nefessit’ in the courtyard. Soon other children joined, and bases were formed. A few boys brought out a soccer ball and thanks to my clumsiness (Jews like me prove the stereotype that we are not athletic), I wiped out in a pile of mud. The boys dragged me to their classroom where they all competed in giving me napkins to clean off.
Once I wiped mud away with 12 different napkins, I had to worry about time and run to the bus. In fact, I was always running to the bus. It is more than a good thing that Israeli soldiers joined our group, because real Israeli’s are ’15 minute late people’ just like me. On the third day, eight Israeli soldiers, half boys and half girls, became a part of our group. In Israel, it is mandatory to join the army called the Israel Defense Forces at age 18. Both young women and men join the army where they choose a unit that best suits their skills.
The IDF said, “Going through the demands and rigors of army life on a totally egalitarian basis forges a common identity that totally transcends social and economic groupings.”
Girls are obligated to serve for just less than two years while boys must serve three years. They choose a military program that sometimes helps build a profession later on.
Each soldier must follow four guidelines:
-Set a good example. By wearing a uniform, one is a representative of their country and must have good values that are followed through with good behavior.
-Comradeship. A soldier is expected to risk their life for a fellow soldier by not deserting one wounded on the battlefield.
-Avoid politicization. A soldier must be modest and not accept biased gifts or favors from anyone.
-Be professional. Each soldier must grow in their particular course so that they acquire the skills needed for a meaningful task.
My good friend Hemda Ben Zvi, who was a soldier on my Birthright trip told me, “There is a treasured peace among us that we developed being each other’s wingmen and mates during challenges.”
While they bond over life threatening and serious moments, we Americans bond over parties and social groups like a sorority.
As I contemplated the difference between our duties as American youth and the duties of Israeli youth, I had to wonder about fundamentals.
I must also add that despite Israel’s more intense and unified responsibility, they are just like us. The first question they asked upon joining our Birthright group was, “When can we take our uniforms off?”
They still want to enjoy life, make friends, and be goofy. After the first initial meeting of the soldiers who joined our group, we forgot that they were any different as we became one big family.
Although the soldiers may have been familiar with Shabbat, many of us were curious and looking forward to spending Shabbat in Israel. In Judaism, Shabbat begins at sundown on Friday to celebrate the completion of a busy week. This period of relaxation ends when the three stars can be seen in the sky after sunset on Saturday. Shabbat was actually my favorite part of the entire trip because we did not have to follow a schedule and we could simply indulge. During the Shabbat dinner, I sat with a few of our trip’s soldiers who assisted my theft. Please let me explain. Other tables in the dining hall were reserved for the different Birthright trips sharing the evening with us. There was one bottle of red wine on each table until the soldiers and I snuck the other Birthright group’s bottles under our table. Let’s just say that it is a good thing that Jewish people do not believe in hell. I’m safe.
Between the adventurous activities and amazing sights we were lucky to breath in, Israel was the greatest trip I have ever taken. Over what sounds like such a short period of ten days, I made friendships with people that I hope to keep in touch with for years to come. Not only did we give helping hands up tough hills, but did we spend nights roaming cities with matching bright eyes. Somehow we felt connected and fell in love with a country that was only developed within the last century. Israel was and is a place that we as Jewish people can be proud of because of the effortless bond and vivacious admiration that even ten days can inspire.