On January 15th, I had the privilege and good fortune to travel with my older sister, Ariel, to Israel - a place I wasn't sure I'd ever make it to, let alone to be able to share it with her. We traveled on Birthright, an organized trip to bring Jews back to Israel to see the sites, hear the history, and experience the emotion of the land that witnessed the development of our religion. While I often joke and tell friends I'm more "Jew-ish" than anything else, I took this opportunity to educate myself about my inherited religion, learn about the State of Israel, and truly feel a familiar connection in an unfamiliar land.
Over seven days, we trekked through Jerusalem, Bedouin Tents, Masada, the Dead Sea, Jaffa, Tel Aviv, and probably others that are escaping recollection at this moment. In an effort to both process my trip and share my visual experience with you all, I've spliced the trip into first impressions, shenanigans, markets & noms, and closing thoughts (aka stay tuned for many more stories and shawarma pictures).
Going into this trip, I tried not to have any expectations. I really didn't know what I thought Israel would look like, but somehow I was still surprised by what I saw. Right off the plane we headed to Jerusalem, rested off the jet lag as best we could, and geared up for a day in the Old City.
Everywhere we turned, there were colossal structures of white stone, crumbling in places teeming with history. Let me preface this, I am not the biggest history buff. I sometimes find it hard to relate to the memorization of dates and wars and conquests, but with the extreme fortune of an incredible Tour Guide on our Birthright trip, I felt enthralled with each story of my ancestors and description of the spot we were standing in.
Our guide, Daniel, even explained the ancient architectural methods of rolling stones across logs by asking for volunteers to lay on the floor and recreate the motion (note to self: never volunteer for one of Daniel's stories).
While I was enchanted by the surroundings of the Old City of Jerusalem, and truly felt such a welcoming presence and comfort in the air, the most impacting part of the day had to be visiting the Western Wall. Growing up, even though I was never one to constantly frequent temple, or really be an overly active member of my Jewish community, I had definitely heard about the Western Wall. Whether it be in Hebrew School leading up to my Bat Mitzvah, or in 9th grade history at my Episcopalian High School, I came into this aspect of the trip full of expectations - which were subsequently exceeded.
There's something so powerful in standing amidst people with a common history. I'm not saying I completely identify with the ultra Orthodox Jews that ritualistically cleansed their hands before entering the wall, nor do I completely feel comfortable with the separation of men and women at the wall, but I felt very invited by the wall itself. As if it truly wanted to hear what I wanted to say. So I wrote my note, and left my message in Israel.
After the happy heaviness of the wall, we traveled to Bedouin Tents to learn about that culture and touristically ride some camels - but I'll save this story for another day. Post sleeping in the desert, we woke up before the sunrise to hike up Masada and learn about King Herod and his legacy. Aside from my tiny nasal passages impeding a pleasant hike, reaching the top of Masada truly felt like being on top of the world (probably because I'm used to living in flat Miami, and also because we floated in the lowest point in the world promptly after the hike).
Some people took this moment to connect with yoga, I, a dutiful Pinecrestonian Jew, made my dad proud by posing with a copy of our local newspaper for their front page travel tradition (I promise you, I only did this once and then left the paper behind to enjoy the experience in a less commercial way).
And, if one hike that day wasn't enough, Daniel thought it would be fun to visit Ein Gedi and precariously stumble upon a waterfall - which made it worth the trek. Some people sure worked up a sweat, and took the opportunity to rinse off before they got scolded...
All in all, though, my first impressions of Israel were ones of awe and admiration. My aunt, a definite fan of our finally making it to Israel, was right. She told me that in this unfamiliar land, I'm going to feel familiar - welcomed, happy, and with a beautiful sense of belonging.
So thank you, Israel, for the warm embrace and abundance of stories to tell with a profound tug in my heart and smile on my face.