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Thoughts and Pictures from an Incredible Israel Taglit Birthright Trip

12 days before she was scheduled to leave on Birthright, my cousin Adrianne posted on Facebook that, at the last minute, there was an open spot on her trip. “Well, it’s cold and miserable here in Chicago and the weather in Israel is much nicer,” I thought. “I should do this.”

In retrospect, I wish that I had more legitimate motivation to go on the trip — the education, the spiritual fulfillment, the dozens of close friendships that I expect to last the rest of my life — but I would be lying if I claimed that were the case.

I emailed the necessary people and filled out all the paperwork. Five days later, I had confirmation for what would end up being one of the most wonderful trips of my life.

***

To quickly summarize: Birthright is a free trip to Israel for Americans of Jewish descent. It’s sponsored by the State of Israel and contributions (both direct and indirect) from American donors. This one was paid for in part by the Jewish Federation of Washington DC. Practicing the religion is not necessary to qualify for the trip. From what I observed, the underlying purposes for the program are as follows (perhaps but not necessarily in order):

1) Create Jewish couples

2) Cultivate American support for the Israeli military (much more on this later)

3) Educate participants on the history of Israeli land, politics, and military conflict (the three are inextricably intertwined)

4) Engender a deliberate sense of Jewish community

Our trip consisted of 38 Americans aged 22-27 (almost all of whom are from the Washington DC area), seven current or recent Israeli soldiers, three trip leaders (two DC Jewish community leaders and one Israeli guide), and a medic/security guard/guitar savant with long flowing hair and a dry sense of humor. We toured around Israel in a charter bus for 11 days, seeing an unfathomable amount of terrain and historical monuments. We got very little sleep.

The group dynamic was astoundingly positive. I don’t really think I can adequately describe our chemistry without a) being personally invasive, and b) boring everybody that isn’t one of us, but I would compare the trip to being at sleepaway camp for two weeks with all your best friends. With drinking. There are countless inside jokes that will make us laugh for years during large reunions and smaller meet-ups.

Of course smaller cliques would form with that many people, but these were not factions–there weren’t any haters.

In a more universal sense, here’s what stood out to me the most–if I missed something particularly important, please write it up in the comments.

The Western Wall

Like much of what we saw in Israel, words and pictures cannot do Western Wall justice. But I’ll try.

I’m pretty emphatically unreligious. Going to temple is one of my least favorite things to do. I sit there and squirm, count the ceiling tiles (there are 216 wood panels in the sanctuary I grew up attending), and wish I were anywhere else. But when I approached the Western Wall, I felt this incredible surge of power — like G-d must feel, when He goes there to pray. When you stand at the wall and look up, there’s no top–it appears to go on for perpetuity, as if you could scale it all the way to heaven. It’s majestic.

In real life, the place that I feel most spiritual is Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers. Each time I make the pilgrimage and walk up through the gates and into the stadium, I feel a full-body rush when I look up and see the glowing field surrounded by a sea of green and gold in the stands. There is so much history. Vince Lombardi coached there. You’re aware. Commemorations of his NFL titles are conspicuous and many of his players adorn the ring of honor.

Lambeau Field is 55 years old. The Western Wall was built over 2,000 years ago.

With all of the turmoil in Jerusalem and the Middle East, it is an outright miracle that the wall still stands and that it’s not even riddled with bullet holes.

Before I went on this trip, I wondered why the geography of the Jewish state was so important to Israelis. Couldn’t they just live somewhere else instead of being beholden to the location of a bunch of made up Bible stories? If the Jews can build sustainable infrastructure in the desert in less than 65 years, couldn’t they thrive anywhere else, unsurrounded by a cadre of enemies who would wipe Israel off the face of the Earth if only they possessed the manpower and/or weaponry?

More than anything else, the Western Wall refutes those questions and gives credence to the Jews’ existence in Israel, as opposed to any number of other unoccupied tracts of land across the world.

Rabin Square

During the course of the trip, we were presented with a pretty united front in regard to (very nearly unconditional) support of the Israeli military. Given who pays for the trip and the fact that every Israeli citizen — male and female — must serve in the IDF after high school, this is not surprising–when you sponsor a program, it will be carried out within the framework of your agenda and bias.

However, this support does not mean that the Israeli people are homogenous in their political beliefs.

At Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, we were presented with a fascinating task: to split up into small groups, stop strangers on the street, and ask them to recount where they were and how they felt when Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who gave up hard-fought land in a sincere attempt for peace, was assassinated in 1995. Answers varied. One person lived a block away from the square and became immediately saddened. Another despised Rabin and his policies (“We earned that land. It was ours.”), but did not condone the murder.

This exercise helped us realize that, despite a large degree of patriotism and nationalism, domestic politics in Israel are bitterly divisive.

Schwarma

Does anybody know where this exists in America, as exquisite as Moshiko in Jerusalem? I’m really going to miss its abundant existence, you guys.

Iftah

Our tour guide, Iftah Burman, was superb. Immensely knowledgeable and engaging, he speaks with an uncanny level of recall. He’s available for private tours of Israel (email hidden; JavaScript is required)–everybody on our trip would give him our highest possible level of recommendation.

Mt. Bental

This section is by Rebecca Kaplan

For obvious reasons, safety is paramount for Birthright trips – what kind of PR would it be to have a busload of Americans in harm’s way? That means that the Arab-Israeli conflict, as Iftah calls it, is presented at arm’s length. The concrete barrier just out of sight? That’s the security fence along the West Bank. The skyline to your left? Gaza.

To discuss the conflict with one of Israel’s neighbors, we went deep into the Golan Heights, one of the northernmost points of Israel. This stretch of land along Israel’s northeast border was captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and is one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Enough rainfall touches the region that in the winter, when we made our trip, it’s lush and green and studded by wildflowers and waterfalls. You’d hardly realize that the border with Syria, where conflict between the Assad regime and rebels rages daily, is just a few miles away.

The second day of the trip we drove to the top of Mt. Bental, a former IDF outpost (complete with tourist-friendly bunker) that gives you a clear view of Syria. Deep trenches in the earth mark the border, a cease-fire line brokered after Israel captured further Syrian territory during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It is now monitored by the United Nations. Iftah told us not to be surprised if we were able to hear shelling from the Syrian conflict just a few miles away.

It was the perfect location to learn more about Israeli-Syrian relations. In the U.S., such a talk might have been given by an academic, or a military official well into his 30s or 40s. But in Israel, that explanation came from a 23-year old Israeli soldier traveling with us. He’s an intelligence officer, so I’ll leave his name out.

As Americans, we’ll never be able to fully understand the concept of compulsory military service. Interacting with these soldiers, most of whom are younger than us, imparts a sense of awe at what they do, at the maturity that graces them years before it hits us because of the dangers they face every day when we’re still concerned with beer pong and lecture courses. We went to college and can talk you through the basics of U.S. foreign policy. They can talk you through the details, strengths and weaknesses of the exact Israeli military strategy with regard to Syria, and also spend an hour talking about Obama’s foreign policy to boot.

Looking across the border from the peak of Mt. Bental gives you both a sense of power that comes with a strategic vantage point, but also the eerie sense that the calm is ephemeral and can be interrupted at any moment. Iftah led us down into the old bunker on top of the mountain to talk about the Israelis who fought in the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War. Their tanks were vastly outnumbered by the Syrians, but the soldiers were strengthened by a mentality that few other countries under invasion have: there is no second line of defense. One lost battle on one single front could mean the end of the state.

Bedouin Tents

In terms of fun, this was my favorite part of the trip. We got to the compound and ate a wonderful dinner of make-your-own chicken and rice pitas with all the fixings. Then, Iftah led us on a night hike into the desert and guided us through a meditative procedure in which we were encouraged to relax and recall the happiest memories of our lives. Mine were all about sports. (And stuff that’s not really appropriate to talk about.)

After that, we sat around a campfire and sang along to songs while three different people passed around an acoustic guitar. We sang Wagon Wheel. And we sang Wagon Wheel. And we sang Wagon Wheel. We sang lots of other stuff, too. The circle started out comparatively small — about 10 or 12 people at first — but grew gradually. A group of high school students from Newton, MA joined along and our group doubled in size. Then, almost everybody else from our trip came out from the tent and we had about 50 people belting along to songs like Semi-Charmed Life, Save Tonight, Say It Ain’t So, I Want It That Way, Closing Time, and Baby One More Time. It was interesting to see which 90′s songs the high school kids knew and which ones they didn’t.

Eventually, our bodyguard grabbed the guitar and started shredding. He knew everything. That he was a savant had not come up at all in conversation or practice before this point in the trip. It was shocking until we realized how much sense it made. My friend and I DOMINATED the vocals for Tribute by Tenacious D. Shit got real.

I’ve never been happier to wake up on 90 minutes of sleep as I was the next morning. The next time I go through a similar meditative device as the one I referenced in the opener of this section, I will recall this night as one of the happiest of my life.

And then we rode camels.

Yad Vashem

Even with my trip to Auschwitz this past summer still fresh in my mind, this was harrowing. Elana, the older sister of one of our trip leaders, Ariana, works tirelessly to preserve the memories of Holocaust victims (and even the survivors were victims) so that future generations will understand the wholesale human suffering and destruction at the hands of the Nazis after we can no longer hear the stories firsthand. She gave us an incredibly passionate and informative tour of the museum, delving deeply into the context of burning questions such as why Jews did not leave Europe: they felt connected with their communities, thought that the persecution would pass, underwent a gradual shift in loss of human rights such that their lives were not immediately endangered, and had nowhere else to go to — they were not welcome.

Why didn’t America — or anybody else — give a fuck?

We were shown a map that revealed that the United States was aware of the camps, including Auschwitz, and chose not to liberate them or even bomb the train routes. They did not consider Jewish genocide to be a salient aspect of the war they were fighting with Germany. Consequently, over 800,000 additional innocent people died needlessly.

Time and again during the trip, the Holocaust was presented as a juxtaposition to convey that a Jewish state is necessary: history has proven that Jews will be persecuted and that nobody will come to their defense. If they are organized and united, they won’t need anybody else’s help; they can defend themselves. An unspoken, but implied, theme of the visit was that it would be naive to assume that something similar could never happen in America.

The museum had really interesting, carefully-planned design and architecture. In the beginning, the hallway descended, gradually, to symbolize what was happening to Europe’s Jewish population. After an inflection point, the corridor rose and rose into a balcony that overlooked Jerusalem at the end. Even those who had kept it pretty together throughout the exhibits teared up at this point.

The hope for the future, when presented after the misery of the past, made a strong, lasting impression.

Mount Herzl

Each Israeli in our group was a current or former soldier.

For me personally, the military cemetery might have been even more powerful than the Holocaust museum.

Mount Herzl is deceptively big. It’s broken off into dozens of small sections that are almost entirely enclosed by trees. Consequently, each individual grave feels significant, like one of a hundred or two as opposed to a small fish in a big sea. Within the sections, the tombs are uniform in size–there is no fundamental difference between those of chiefs of staff versus low-ranking infantrymen. Graves only differ from each other in the manner in which they are decorated by surviving friends and family.

We saw the burial of a young man who grew up in Philadelphia. He was so moved by a Birthright trip that he flew back to Israel, tried to join the IDF, was told that he could not, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. His tomb was adorned with Flyers, Phillies, and Eagles apparel. There were pictures of him donning an infectious smile that told a million words. He was 22.

Each of our Israeli friends spoke to the group about close friends, family members, squad superiors, and/or troops under their command who lost their lives in the military. One recalled a best friend of several years. Another told a story about a commander jumping on a live grenade, sacrificing himself to save the lives of soldiers in his brigade.

One former soldier spoke about a close friend who rarely took public transportation because she was terrified of being the victim of a suicide bombing. One day, there was nobody to pick her up and she had to take the bus. ………… Ugh.

One after another after another after another after another. Gut-wrenching.

When we hear about these tragedies on the news, there is a certain level of detachment. Across the sea, if we were to be consumed each time we saw news of a suicide bombing or military ambush in Israel — or anywhere else — there would be no space for individual happiness. But now, these statistics had names, faces, and personalities. They were the close friends of our close friends. They were brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters.

That young, untimely death is much more a part of reality in Israel than America does not make it easier to cope with. Most of the soldiers buried at Mount Herzl were 18-22 years old. They had almost their entire lives ahead of them. They could have been doctors, artists, musicians–we will never know what they would have offered to the world. They sacrificed in the hope that that may one day be possible for future generations.

Throughout the trip, we kept hearing that Israelis get sadder about the deaths of soldiers than citizens. At Mount Herzl, we could truly see why.

***

Here are some pictures, taken by my friends Tsachi (who should have a web site filled with wonderful art and pictures for me to link to, but doesn’t yet) and Rebecca of some of the beautiful scenery:


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