I’ve known I was going to Israel since 6th grade. I was always excited for the trip but I didn’t really appreciate the fact that I was going to my Jewish homeland. I just thought, “I finally get to visit a foreign country!” I didn’t have a strong connection to Israel. I have no close family living there and for a while I didn’t understand how one could disagree with a country’s politics but still support the country, which is how I felt about Israel. Well, this past summer I went to Israel and Eastern Europe for five weeks and it was the best summer of my life.
My trip started on June 29th when 250 teenagers and myself arrived at Newark Airport. The morning was very hectic as we said our last good-byes to our parents, checked in, and made sure our luggage was not overweight, which, thankfully, mine was not! I would say 48.5 lbs with a 50 lbs limit is quite an accomplishment. After a long plane ride, we arrived in Munich, Germany. We had some quick icebreakers in the Olympic park, and then we had another long drive to Prague, Czech Republic. One of the most important aspects of this trip was making new friends. My group played ice breakers a lot throughout the trip, and although I knew most people in my group, I really got to know many of them better. We spent a day in the old city of Prague learning about the long Jewish history whether it was when the Jews were prospering or suffering. We saw old synagogues, even the first Star of David!
For the next five days, my group and I toured Krakow, Poland. We visited the Jewish quarter and continued our journey of our past by visiting the ghettos and even Auschwitz. Although it is a sad place, Auschwitz was the most powerful place I visited in Europe. The night before we went there, my group prepped for what it might be like, but even that didn’t fully prepare me for my reaction. Some people started crying when the bus first pulled into Birkenau. Although most of the buildings were destroyed, the camp was not turned into a museum, rather when first seen it looks like you’re actually a prisoner. For me, that feeling of despair hit when I saw the train tracks. My guide led us to the tracks and began talking about the background of the camp and of the Holocaust in general. He talked for a while so he asked us to sit. The fact that we were sitting on the tracks, a little too leisurely for me, made me upset because so many rode these tracks to their deaths. It felt like we were sitting there like the tracks were just an ordinary bench. Others really felt a wave of emotion throughout the camp. We walked through a barracks where we saw chains on the wall to make the barracks look like it was for animals. We entered an original women’s barrack, one of the few still standing. It made me wonder, what if my mom, my sister or even I was in this barrack. The emotion I felt was indescribable. We walked down death road, the same path millions of others took, we saw the crematoriums, and even the ponds that held my people’s ashes. Our tour ended with a service before we walked out of Birkenau together as a group to signify that the Jews survived. The rest of the day was spent in Auschwitz II which had been turned into a museum; however, I was so numb at that point most of the group and I couldn’t really react, even when we went into a gas chamber. Why am I telling you all this? Why is it so important to revisit the tragedy before going to Israel? I think it is important to learn about how and why we ended up in Israel. It is important to realize that some good did come out of the terrible.
Our last day in Europe was spent in Warsaw where we witnessed the Jewish strength and courage with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Although there was an option just to do the four weeks in Israel, I believe going to Europe was very important. The Europe portion established what life was like before the Holocaust. For many years, the Jews flourished in Europe. Today, the most famous representation of Jewish life is Fiddler on the Roof. That story is very accurate when describing what life was like before the Holocaust, yet watching a play was not enough; I had to see it for myself. After, we boarded yet another plane and headed to the land of milk and honey: Israel!
Over the next four weeks, I spent time touring, learning the history and culture, and having the time of my life. We visited the famous sites such as the old city, the Dead Sea and Masada. I went to the Western Wall where I inserted a note into the cracks of the wall- the 2000 year old cracks! I floated in the dead sea and put mud all over my body and I have to be honest, when I go out, my skin felt as smooth as a baby’s bottom. My group went to a Bedouin tent and learned about the culture and customs and of course, I got to ride a camel! I even bought nifty Bedouin pants. [show off my pants] We slept over in the tents and woke up very early so we could climb Masada to see the sun rise over the dead sea before hiking back down via the Snake path, which tested my physical abilities and taught me I can do more than I think. My favorite parts of the trip were my times in the desert, though.
One of the great opportunities I had in Israel was something known as Chavaya. Chavaya is a four day trip where each participant can choose what they want to do out of five options which included Gadna, an army training that shows what it’s like to be in the Israeli army; Tarbut, a cultural tour of the city of Tel Aviv; Yam el Yam, a rigorous hike from sea to sea; Tikun Olam, a community service option; and an archaeological dig in 2000 year old caves. I chose the dig. I spent my days digging in caves for pottery, bones, and other artifacts, spelunking which is climbing through unexcavated caves, and learning about techniques to clean findings. I got dirty and I had to bring large rocks from the caves which resulted in some major muscle building. [show off muscles] I’ve considered becoming an archaeologist before and this gave me an opportunity to see what a profession like that is all about.
At the end of the trip, we spent four days in the Negev Desert. We camped under the stars, hiked in the morning, and went snorkeling or shopping in the afternoon. One of my favorite hikes was climbing Mt. Shlomo. The hike was hard, especially when we had to take turns carrying heavy jerry cans full of water. But when we got the top, the sense of accomplishment I felt was overwhelming. You could see four countries: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. It also taught me to keep my body healthy. One of the major concerns in Israel is dehydration. I drank 7 liters on that day, so I wouldn’t get sick! The other thing Israel exposed me to was the Kibbutzim. My favorite was Kibbutz Lotan, a small kibbutz in the middle of the desert. And what is so great about this place you may ask? It is an environmental Kibbutz where everything is recycled! I even got to touch dirt that came from decomposing toilets! It’s completely sanitary, I promise. I loved it so much that I want to spend 6 months living there when I graduate from college. Spending time in the desert taught our group how to work together and trust one another. It was great team building and bonding!
In Israel we learned about our past, whether it was 2000 years ago or 20 years ago.We even got to go banana boating, kayaking, and shopping! There is honestly nothing bad I could say about my experience.
Yet, to me, the most important part of the trip was embracing the culture and people. For one week, a group of Israeli teenagers stayed with us, where we got to learn about daily Israeli life and build great friendships even if they live 7000 miles away.
In addition to spending time with Israeli teens, my group had two Israeli counselors who taught us about growing up in Israel and eventually enlisting in the Israeli army. It’s scary to think that the kids I spent a week with will be going into the army in two short years. Yet, that is how life is in Israel. In fact, there are some major differences between life in America and Israel although they are few. Children go to school through high school. After graduating, most take a year off to get a job and make money. Then, they serve their three years in the army before taking another two years off to work. Once they save enough money, they spend time touring the world, usually India or South America. Finally, after all that, they attend college and think about what they want their profession to be. My counselor had just finished his first year at college and he was already 26!
The culture is also very different. To be honest, Israelis have a much better sense of community and unity than Americans. It is completely normal to walk up to a stranger and ask them for their life story or even where they live. In America, people would think you were nuts. Israelis also have a strong sense of unity. Although it is controversial, the story of Gilat Shallit is a powerful one. He was a soldier who was taken captive by Hamas four years ago. It is unknown whether he is dead or alive and in exchange for his return, Hamas is asking for 1000 captive terrorists to be released. During the trip, my group decided to alter our plans and participate in a march to support his family. Although traffic was too congested to get there, it really showed us the measures Israelis will take to save one of their soldiers and how unified the citizens will become to show their support.
So, why am I telling you all this? I think it is very important to go to Israel as a Jew at least once in your life. The experiences I had, made me feel more connected to Judaism and made me more proud to be a Jew. I stress to you all to encourage your relatives, children, even spouses to go to Israel if you haven’t yet. The trip is unbelievable. I guarantee that you will be impressed by at least one site. Israel has shaped my personality, identity and my future. I want to return to Israel, I want my children to grow up Jewish and eventually go to Israel themselves. Without Israel, I probably wouldn’t be applying as a machon, which is a CIT, at Camp Eisner and I would probably still believe that politics determines my support for a country, which I now know it doesn’t. I fully support Israel even if I don’t agree with all of its political decisions. I appreciate that I have a Jewish homeland, something so many wanted, but never got to see become reality. Without my trip to Israel, I wouldn’t be me.
I could talk about Israel all day, but I won’t do that. I want to end with a story. On one of the days we were in Tel Aviv, my counselors told us to walk down the street and meet strangers. So my friends Shelby, Emma, and I walked around telling people “Shalom” or “Ma Shlomcha.” One person, an old man dressed in hippie clothes carrying a guitar, stopped us and said, “Do I know you?” He asked us where we were from and we told him. My friend Emma is from Port Jefferson, Long Island. Her parents are professors at Stonybrook University. It turns out, this man was also from that area and attended the University. He moved to Israel 26 years ago and spends his days playing guitar and sleeping at the beach. He finished by playing us a song about his love for Jerusalem. Meeting him literally made all of our days. This just goes to show you that no matter where you are from, Israel is the Jewish homeland. That man and I might not have a lot in common, but we share a common bond: Israel. Thank you and Shabbat Shalom.