Back from Birthright Israel Blog

Back from Birthright Israel Blog

Exploring the North

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We arrived Monday in Israel to meet our group, Bus 536 looking over the Mediterranean Sea. From there, we traveled to our home for the next two evenings, Kibbutz Gadot. Bus 536 then went to a beautiful lookout over the Golan Heights. The next day, our new family woke up bright and early to hike through the Golan Heights and go swimming in a natural spring, followed by rafting down the Jordan River. On Wednesday, our Bus 536 family traveled to Tzfat to see some of Israel's oldest synagogues and visit Israel's finest art galleries. Our afternoon concluded by swimming in the Mediterranean Sea and preparing for our night out!

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Tel Aviv

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On Wednesday, we received a brief history of the beautiful and ancient city of Jaffa. The old stone streets were worn shiny and smooth from thousands of years of pedestrian erosion, which is juxtaposed with the far more modern look and feel of the city of Tel Aviv.

In Tel Aviv, we experienced the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of an open air market, where you can find anything from counterfeit merchandise to hand made jewelry; all manner of Israeli meat, which is, in my opinion, best with generous amounts of hot chili sauce and amba mango sauce.

After the market, we ventured to Rabin Square, where our guide Shany, as well as local people in the street taught us about the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and the polarizing effect the man and his death had on the nation and people.

We then made our way to the beach, where we swam in the Mediterranean Sea. It's difficult for me to put into words why it was as much fun as it was. I suppose it was one of those classic " you had to be there" moments. Something about the perfect temperature of the air and water, the taste and feel of the salty sea, and the incredible feeling of being surrounded by so many new friends made it a fantastic outing.

We had dinner at the hotel, then headed across the steer where we were met by Shorashim leader and musician Udi Krauss. He played a powerful and energetic set made up of Israeli music, most of which was written by himself and his band mates. He ended the set with the song Salaam, and expressed the Israeli people's and Israeli artists' desire for peace in the region.

Our group ended the night by sampling a bit of Tel Aviv's nightlife. We went out not as a structured group, but as new friends celebrating our time together in a new and exciting city.

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Yad Vashem and Shabbat

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By Jacob Witten
This Friday morning, we went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.It was a guided tour, with an incredibly knowledgeable guide – he has lived in both Israel and the US and has been in education for a long time, so he was able to 
connect with everyone. Unlike most of my museum/memorial experiences, where I tend to try to at least skim everything with the result that I don’t feel like I have the time to go deeply into one story, the visit was structured as a series of vignettes. It 
worked really well. The Holocaust was such an unfathomably, tragic event that the mind can’t really encompass it, like the quote from Stalin about how one death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic. It helped me understand the magnitude 
of the Holocaust to hear about it on community-level stories like life and the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, or individual stories like the Jewish artist in a slave labor camp who managed to steal enough supplies to make a beautiful book for his child, but was then killed for smuggling out paintings depicting the terrible life in the camp. Those individual stories helped me understand how the Holocaust was a mosaic of millions of stories like that: beautiful, tragic, but almost invisible if not for the work of Yad Vashem and other keepers of Holocaust history.
Certainly the most meaningful moment of the trip, and a useful reminder of how important it is to have a true home where Jews can live without fear of persecution.The thing that stuck with me most was the guide’s description of the planning of the Holocaust. He pointed out that we emphasize education quite a bit, sometimes as though it’s a panacea for all the world’s problems, but the Holocaust didn’t come about as a result of lack of education. It was planned by highly intelligent people with elite educations, who just happened to utterly lack a moral compass. It was a useful reminder that all the technical know-how in the world is meaningless if we don’t couple that with a moral education.
After that, we wandered around neighborhoods and a market, and then went back to the hotel for Shabbat dinner. Before the actual dinner, we sang some songs and did the traditional Shabbat prayers, which was a fun way to get in the mood and a nice communal Jewish experience. Our resident Israelis set up a great series of games that night, a group competition in everything from identifying Israeli logos to singing Israeli songs (yours truly’s group came in third out of five).

All We Can Say Is Wow!

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Bus 32-528

Wow! What an amazing experience it has been so far!

We've been so busy exploring Israel and enjoying ourselves we barely found the time to write home!

Today, we woke up in the Bedouin tents in the southern part of Israel. We spent the night experiencing Bedouin hospitality and meeting other birthright groups. We got to ride camels this morning before heading off to a desert hike and a visit to a the "salad trail" farm, where we got to taste the freshest, perfectly ripe Israeli produce.

We have spent the last week discovering the old city of Jerusalem, including a visit to the Western Wall, and exploring the vibrant city of Tel Aviv. We enjoyed a personal concert from Israeli singer Udi Krauss and have been enjoying all of our "shopportunities" and chances to taste the delicious Israeli cuisine.

We spent Shabbat at a beautiful kibbutz called Neve Shalom, where we enjoyed a relaxing and meaningful Shabbat, the first for many of the members of our group.

The trip has been amazing so far!

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The End of Our Trip, The Start of Our Journey

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After spending 10 amazing days together, I think it's safe to say we made the right choice signing up for a Chicago community trip. Our group bonded so closely, and now we have our community to bring back home with us. We will forever be thankful to the Israelis who joined us from the moment we landed in Israel until the moment we checked our luggage to leave. They shared so much about themselves, their culture, army service, their pains and sorrows, their happiness and successes, and their deep pride for their country, our country, Israel, the Jewish state. They will be greatly missed, but we've been told over and over again by them that we're always welcomed back. So, until next time Israel. L'hitraot!

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Day Four - Bonding in the land

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Blog by Daniel K. & Photos by Alina S.

Day four was our final day in the north and it promised to be a challenging one, physically and emotionally. We started with a delicious buffet breakfast, and were on our way shortly after. Before our hike, we stopped in Tiberius to pick up our last piece of missing luggage; finally our group was whole. After a 20 minute bus ride, we found ourselves most of the way up Mount Arbel and walked the rest of the way, about 5 minutes, to the peak. Moose held the group up at an overlook where we enjoyed the view and used Omer, a member of our group, who just happens to be the coolest officer in the Israeli army, to illustrate where we were geographically by pinning different landmarks on his body. We started our descent down the mountain, which at its steepest, provided us with pegs as assistance.

As with many group hikes, we naturally split in two, the more experienced hikers in front and the others in back. Less expected was the willingness and determination of some select hikers to stay back with the slower group to provide physical support and general positivity. As we sidestepped things we didn't want to stand in and held hands while crossing narrow paths, we made it safely down the mountain quite triumphantly.  Some were even moved to tears by how helpful and positive the group was. This really set the tone for our second part of the day.

We boarded the bus and made our way to Tzfat, one of the most religious and spiritual cities in the world. After perusing the streets and boutiques for lunch, we crammed ourselves in a tiny art shop, one of many. The owner Avram, formerly known as Robert, detailed his history and path that lead him from Detroit to the spiritualism of kabbalah as he made his way to this holy city. He spoke about the connection of kabbalah and his art. One particular piece that stood out was in fact the simplest. It represented two attitudes, one of a taking nature and one of a giving nature. The latter attitude really resonated with what occurred earlier as our group was so willing to help each other earlier in the day. As our view through the window of kabbalah concluded, we finished touring the city. Sadly, we were denied entry into a synagogue due to a difference in cultural identities. However, this did not sour our attitude towards our trip, our group, or our home away from home.  We departed Tzfat and made our way back to our base, ate dinner and celebrated two birthdays. It is clear that out group is not just bonding with each other, but the land and culture around us. We went to bed early to prepare for our trip to to Tel Aviv, with a stronger group dynamic and spiritual resolve than we had started with at the beginning of the day.

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Reflections on an Amazing Experience by Geoff S

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I was really hesitant about the trip I took to Israel. First, for safety reasons. Secondly, for meeting so many new people and spending 10 days with them. Group dynamics are a tricky thing and can make or break an experience. It is with these hesitations that I boarded a plane to journey to a place I've never been across the sea. It is important to note, I was so wrong about both of my previously held concerns. Despite western media, Israel is no less safe than Chicago.
I believe that with Taglit-Birthright Israel & Shorashim you put into the trip you get out of it. I didn't hold back, and for that I can say I experienced more than I could have ever expected.

The 49 individuals I traveled along with made this journey something truly special. They accepted me, allowed me to grow, challenged my perspectives, and were open to new ones as well. Truly, some of the most delightful people (and jews) I have ever had the privilege of meeting. My only regret is that you all don't live in the country of Texas, but I know I will see you all for a drink before you know it. We may lives states away, but I have a feeling (or at least a hope) that we will be friends for a very long time.

The land of Israel was everything I hoped for and more. The history, the culture, and (oh my g-d) the landscape: BEAUTIFUL! I climbed streams and valleys, mountains and grasslands. I touched this land that, for so many, was only a distant dream or memory. I have so missed the feel of Israeli soil under my feet these past four days, but I know I will be back someday soon.

Israeli's, I will never forget you. Though our time together was short, I felt like it lasted years. Getting to know you was a lot of fun. Your humor and sarcasm is unparalleled and will be greatly missed. Traveling through Israel with you by my side helped me to better understand the world around me. You give me hope for a better world and a better tomorrow. I hope I see all of you the next time come to Israel, especially you Nitzan Mulay.

I truly feel this experience has impacted me for the better. In 10 short days, this journey helped me better understand Judaism and where it fits into my life. It helped me more clearly see the struggle both today, and in the past, that the Jewish people had endured. Lastly, it has instilled a new sense of pride in me and my heritage.

I don't think I'll ever be able to say enough positive things about my experience or the people that made it so incredible. I am so blessed to have so many new friends and memories. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for everything. It has meant the world to me.

To conclude, I want to send a special thank you to Yossi. Before we left, Rebecca Gold said that to be a story teller is a true talent and I could not agree more with that statement. To take something, especially something that you are so well versed in, and turn it anew. Well that is truly something masterful. I believe that had it not been for you my experience would have been vastly different. Thank you for your time, and your wisdom. You rekindled a long lost flame for me, and though we said goodbye on Sunday I am sure we will see each other for falafel and conversations again. Toda Raba!

Geoff and soldiers