After flying myself from Los Angeles to New York and meeting up with 26 other young Jewish Americans, we gathered our things and hopped on a long flight over Europe and into the Middle East. Our 13-day all-expense-paid birthright trip was about to begin.
Airport security for Israel is unlike anything I’ve experienced anywhere else. Just to get to the point where I could show my passport took somewhere around 20 minutes of questioning – “Why are you coming to Israel? Have you ever been here before? For how long? Did you like it? Do you have family here? Friends? Are you Jewish? Do you attend services? Why not? What about celebrating Passover? When was the last time? What do you do for a living? Why can you take off enough time at work for a trip like this? What made you want to go on Taglit? Is that the only reason? Do you plan to stay longer? Why? etc, etc, etc…”
This level of tight security is a trend that remains true throughout other parts of the country as well. Everywhere you go there are troops walking around with automatic weapons larger than themselves. To enter a hotel or shopping mall you invariably have to put your bag through an X-Ray and possibly submit to questioning. Random road checkpoints are commonplace, and tour groups – schools, birthright, anything – will never be seen without an armed escort. Outside the cities you’ll regularly see signs warning of landmines or military firing ranges. It’s a bit surreal at times, yet somehow, with all the guns and explosives and tanks you see about, I’ve rarely felt in any danger. Naive, perhaps.
After arriving at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv and meeting Avner, our tour guide, we immediately hopped on the bus – our home away from home for the following week – and headed to the first night’s destination: Kibbutz Harel.
The concept of the Kibbutz was originally created as a form of “communal living,” where persecuted Jewish communities could band together and help each other survive. Everyone would work and live for free – what you could afford to give, you’d give, and what you needed, you’d receive. People often spent their whole lives on Kibbutzim, however like most socialist systems, they’ve changed and grown more capitalistic over the years. My understanding is that Kibbutzim no longer exist in the true sense of the word, most of them now operating more like guesthouses: you can work in exchange for free food and lodging, or just rent out rooms like anywhere else.
Still, they offer quite an interesting and inviting place to stay, retaining many aspecs of a self-contained community: parks, cafeteria, community centers, and of course, lodging.
Judaism stipulates that all Jews observe Shabbat, one day of rest per week, which lasts from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. The concept is that you free yourself completely from the work and commitments of everyday life: no answering e-mails, no repairing bicycles, and no delivering pizzas. There are of course many definitions to what this “rest” entails, depending on your religiosity – the strictest of observers won’t even flick a light switch on Shabbat. In the case of our trip, it simply meant a day of relaxing around the Kibbutz and doing whatever we want.
It was a pleasant day to relax, get over the jetlag, and meet the group. But remember how I said that bad logistics were the trip’s biggest plague? Doesn’t it seem like it would’ve made WAY more sense to start the trip with a few days of activity, THEN have Shabbat as a day to rest and recharge? Rather than STARTING with rest?
(A note about Shabbat on this trip: Although Birthright is obviously a Jewish organization, I made sure to choose as secular an organizer as possible – one that wouldn’t have a hidden religious agenda, and one that wouldn’t push its practices on me. In this, Israel Outdoors succeeded with flying colors. Not for one instant did I feel like I was being recruited – all it was was an introduction to my cultural heritage and a tour of the Jewish homeland of present and past.)
After Shabbat ended on Saturday night, we took the bus into Jerusalem where we were given an hour to roam freely around Ben Yehuda St followed by an “Evening of Culture” at the Psik Theatre. What this meant was a show of an old performing art whereby masks are used to hide the actor’s face, and booming voices and physical humor are used to compensate for the lack of facial expressibility.
Well, when arriving at the theatre I made the mistake of bursting in with my usual umph of energy. I was loud and social. And the host noticed it. Guess who was the first one called up to try his hand at “becoming the mask?” 😮
One of the things that makes Birthright such a unique experience is the fact that the participants aren’t limited to the Americans and Canadians you might ordinarily find on an organized tour. Instead, real Israeli soldiers also join, and spend each day and night with us as both our peers and friends. The morning after our evening in Jerusalem we were first introduced to the soldiers with whom we’d be living and traveling for the following week.
Our soldiers were the awesomest soldiers Birthright has ever seen. I never imagined it would be possible to feel so close to someone after having just met them one week earlier, but by the time the trip was coming to an end and the soldiers had to return to their posts, half the bus was blowing their noses and holding back the tears. And since the trip’s conclusion, those who’ve remained in Israel have been seeing, partying with, and even staying with them regularly.
We met the soldiers and spent the day touring the old city of Jerusalem, the holiest place in Judaism (and a few of the world’s other mainstream religions as well).
It’s truly astonishing how much history and significance lie within that city’s walls. Civilization after civilization, street after street, stone after stone, the history is so dense and the faith is so powerful you just can’t help but feel it. Within five minutes’ walk lie the site of Jesus’ crucifixion at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed’s ascension to heaven at the Dome of the Rock, and the stone upon which the Ark of the Covenant was placed after being brought from Mt. Sinai. I’m not a religious person in any sense of the word, but when you walk through the gates of Old Jerusalem, something in the air just changes. You have to go there to experience it, but it’s unmistakable.
It was inside the city that I also had my only brush with death thus far on this trip.
In my experience, there are are two types of travelers: those who think and those who act. While some spend their time worrying about safety, stressing about risk, or backing down on account of social instability, others jump in the water limbs flailing. I don’t think I have to tell you which category I fall into.
Well, one thing that makes Old Jerusalem so unique is that despite its tiny size, it houses four completely distinct sections – the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, and the Christian Quarter. During our tour, we were given an hour to do a bit of souvenir shopping in a small area of the Jewish Quarter. But I already knew what souvenir I wanted: a small travel hookah.
I was so close to the tip of the Muslim Quarter, with its twisting and turning alleys, bustling markets, and mouth-watering hummos that I could taste it. Surely a little ten-minute peek couldn’t hurt. So my roomate from the previous evening, Mike, joined me and we headed out. I made my purchase and we started back.
Or so we thought.
Left…left…right? …Left? Damn, all these alleys look the same! Hey, where the hell are we? I think it’s up this way. Nope, I don’t remember that inside-out cow hanging there. Over here? No, I definitely would’ve noticed that camel-skin canteen on the way in. Damn, how the hell do we get back??”
A huge rock comes sailing down from the roof and smashes on the wall just inches away from me. I swing around and look up. A young Arab man is scrambling away across the rooftops.
“Call the police!” A bystander shouts, “He just tried to kill you!”
“No, I have to get back to my group – call the police and I’m guaranteed to get sent home.”
Mike and I managed to find our way back just 5 minutes late for the meeting time. Avner noticed we’d strayed beyond our boundaries and gave us a bit of a verbal beating, but all things considering, we were satisfied with the result.
The entire event remained a secret between the two of us until you finished reading it just this moment.