Upon completing the daunting task of blogging my thoughts prior to embarking on the Boston Young Professionals Birthright trip this past January, I breathed a sigh of relief and considered my authoring duties complete. To my surprise, some kind of whimsical sentiment, or perhaps severe sleep deprivation and deliria, ultimately led me to announce that I would be completing a Post-Trip blog as well. The purpose: to recant the numerous adventures, misadventures, shenanigans, tomfoolery, and legitimate learning that took place over the 10 days that comprised our Birthright trip. This blog is my meager attempt at fulfilling my foolish proclamation.
By my clear lingual procrastination and lack of any legitimate content thus far, it is clear that this blog will be much more difficult than the former. Alas, I digress and will end this prologue with a statement: I am writing this so that my fellow Birthright participants, friends and family will have a basic written recapitulation of the many great adventures we experienced. It is by no means the “Torah of the trip,” and many important and meaningful items will assuredly be left out. I encourage all involved to use this as a building block to add your own personal stories and anecdotes. I truly hope this piece is not the end of the story, but merely an introduction.
“This is NOT the greatest song in the world. This is just a tribute.” – Tenacious D
As I browse the itinerary from the trip the first thought that comes to mind is “How the @#$% did we do ALL OF THIS in less than 10 days!” The answer: a breakneck schedule implemented by Sachlav, our trip organizer/purveyor of knowledge and all things Jewish. In human form Sachlav was represented by our trusty guide Marav and group leaders Eric and Alexis. From the very beginning it was clear that these enthused Jews meant business! No lollygagging! No complaining! And No boozin’ if it put in peril the group’s opportunity to learn and to keep on truckin! While this may have been a bit of a shock to some, the unique merits of our particular group came to light early on. The quest for knowledge out-dueled the need to quench the thirst of our inner-alcoholic (this is not to say it was a completely dry trip – The surprise existence of a dance club at the Afik Kibbutz and a rowdy night out in Tiberias were highlights of our late-night rendezvous’).
The first memory of note came during our excursion to the city of Tsafat – Israel’s center for “Mysticism and Kabbalah.” We visited a “unique” artist named Avraham who provided us with the trips most oft-used expression: “Awwwwwesssssommmmme.” Yes I know this is just a word, not an expression, but it took on a new life given the way in which Avraham used it to describe just about everything that ever existed. The Jews have been united for 4,000 years: “Awwwwwsssommmme.” Your Jewish name: “Awesssommme.” This book on Jewish Meditation: “Awwwwwwsssommmme.” This Pita bread smothered in Hummus: “AWWWWWSSSSOMMEEEEE.”
You know what wasn’t awesome: Several members of the group nearly getting flattened by a runaway car in a narrow Tsafat alley. From my perspective I saw three noteworthy items:
1) The awkwardly comedic change in facial expression of the vehicle’s operator as he lost control of the clutch and his car came roaring down the hill. Terror and confusion are not oft-observed from men with large fuzzy beards.
2) Some nifty footwork and serious hops from members of the group. Some chose to scatter and others took the “high road,” using the car’s hood for protection.
3) Eric’s already pasty white skin turning CASPER white as his biggest fear almost became a reality. Yes, I dare say Papa Eric was scared silly for his cubs.
Thankfully, none of America’s youth were injured in this incident so it’s quite easy to make light of. Clearly we are all grateful that this potentially disastrous occurrence was just a minor blip on our trip’s radar.
Next up we hit the Yiron Winery near the Lebanese border prior to Shabbat. After sipping on some delicious Israeli wine we were able to sleep in until 11:30 am the next morning. Ahhhhhhh…the good ol days! This was the last night of trip that I slept through the night, so it is a fond “non-memory” for yours truly.
After a refreshing night’s sleep the group took what the consensus seemed to say was the most enjoyable hike of the trip – an excursion up Ein Pik, one of Israel’s largest fresh water springs. While the hike didn’t boast of anything particularly noteworthy, the weather was beautiful and we were still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to take on the world. Speaking of bushy-tailed, we gained a 41st group member for this hike in dog form. Don’t know the little gal’s name, but she was game for the hike.
That night we hit the city of Tiberias for a taste of Israeli night-life. We had a blast getting to know one another and imbibing a few choice beverages at a local bar. Unfortunately for Lauren and I, one of those choice beverages was some kind of hyper-caffeinated concoction that purported to be coffee (I later learned this is pretty much what Turkish Coffee is – not your classic American home blend). We both spent that entire night staring wide-eyed at the ceilings of our respective rooms with hands shaking.
The following day is a prime example of “right place, wrong time,” as we visited a Magnet Elementary school in Haiffa – Israel’s educational center. I say right place because the kids were awesome and it was a rewarding experience to spend time with these under-privileged Jews from all over the world (Primarily Ethiopia) thriving in a fantastic academic setting. I say wrong time because we all know Elementary schools are a Mecca for germs and working on zero hours of sleep, I had an extremely compromised immune system. This would be my last few hours of good health on the trip. Addendum: the children knew virtually no English so communication was difficult. Four English words that one of the children apparently knew: Cat, Fat, Tomato, Giraffe. I deem these the four most important words in the English language.
Subsequent to our time spent with the youth of Israel was a journey to the ancient ruins of Caesarea – a site rich with history and lore. The ancient city, occupied at different times by the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and more, was also the site of two Jewish revolts and countless other conflicts. As we saw it, the city was preserved as an archaeological park and popular tourist destination. If the history of the ancient city was lost on you, it was still impossible to deny the beautiful scenery of this port city. It is also impossible to forget the stunning rendition of “Happy Birthday,” sung for the group in a preserved Roman theatre (not to be confused with an Amphitheatre, which is a full circular structure – thanks Marav), by the born-entertainer Erica White.
Back at the hotel in Tel Aviv we were visited by renowned keynote speaker and Pro-Israel advocate Neil Lazarus. Opening with a spot-on Israeli accent, we soon found out this guy was one funny Brit! While his accent was a farce, Neil was brought in to provide us with a slice of truth about the tenuous situation in the Middle East. While the short, stocky and more than slightly goofy Lazarus was delivering one-liners, he also was delivering valuable information regarding the political situations in Lebanon, Egypt, Iran and more. I personally found him extremely entertaining and informative. For those who failed to collect his business card, you can learn more by visiting http://www.awesomeseminars.com/
The very next morning was a turning-point in our Birthright experience – it was time to meet our Israeli soldiers! I know that for many on the trip, meeting our Israeli counterparts was one of the coolest parts of the trip. After only a few minutes of rapid-fire questioning, we learned more about our soldiers than we knew about most of our American comrades. The most important thing we learned is how similar we truly are, and I know this fact helped many to feel that much closer of a connection to Israel.
**Anybody notice this is getting alarmingly long? As a result, WARP SPEED AHEAD!!**
· Visit the markets in Tel Aviv. Very cool experience. Learned Israeli haggling terminology. Quote of note: “How much for a bag.”
· Visited Independence Hall where we learned the incredible story of the proclamation of the Jewish State. Quote of note: “It’s now or never.” – David Ben-Gurion referring to the decision to declare the Jewish state.
· Travel to the Desert and stay in a giant tent. Sing awful songs around the campfire. Roast weird gluten-free Israeli Marshmallows. Go star gazing. Quote of note: “I can’t believe they have urinals here.”
· “Enjoy” a camel ride in the desert. All men on the trip become sterile. Quote of note: “Look at my camel toe!”
· Hike up Masada and learn a gruesome history of the mountain fortress. I have nothing much to add here as at this point my fever got the best of me and my interacting/listening skills departed [Insert interesting or funny quote here].
· Visit the Dead Sea. Float in the Dead Sea and get many great pictures. Quote of note: “Is there anything living in the Dead Sea?”
· Participate in a soldier activity that involved dressing up in military uniforms. Hilarity ensues. MVP goes to Dan “Hassel” Hoffman for his unintentional impression of “Officer Doofus, reporting for duty.” Kirkland Kraines wins the “sportsmanship” award for unfortunate sizing issues (Why is everything in Israel so small?). No offense Gil – don’t Thai Box my face.
· Discover that three of our lovely ladies, Arin, Greer, and Jami, have had their room broken into and robbed. This very sad and disappointing event is counteracted by the entire group coming together for several group hugs in support. Quote of note: “Unfortunately, we have witnessed the very worst of people, but also the very best. I am proud of the group for the way they rallied around their friends.” – Eric
· Engage in a beautiful hike across the Desert. Photos, not words, tell the story of this hike.
· Beleaguered and exhausted, we enjoy a much needed dip in the hot springs. Not what we expected exactly – more of an indoor heated pool/giant Jacuzzi then a natural wonder, but exactly what we needed nonetheless.
· Enjoy a delicious BBQ at the home of Sachlav founder Divon. Listen to his very confusing stories. Learn that if God calls you on the telephone, you should put him on hold while you talk to your other friends. Oh wait, maybe that wasn’t the message? Can anyone fill me in on what the heck Divon was talking about? After 11 children, I probably wouldn’t make much sense either!
The next morning we visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. Doing so was a sobering experience, yet a necessary one as well. Experiencing the horrors of the Holocaust on Israeli soil was particularly meaningful given the fact that so many Jews perished during the Holocaust after being turned away from other nations. Now Israel exists as a true homeland for the Jewish people and this is quite a reassuring realization.
Why anybody in our group chose to participate in the next activity is beyond me, but needless to say, crawling through tiny, narrow underground caves (the narrow tunnels of the Midras caves hidden underground) is not my idea of fun. After giving it the old college try, I gave up on the possibility of participation when I realized that my 6’7 frame was going to have to snake through these caves on my stomach in order to fit. Much respect to Big Mike and Adam as fellow tall guys who managed to squeeze their way through these narrow passages.
Side note: On our way to the caves we were afforded a unique opportunity to view a live excavation of an ancient Byzantine Church thought to be over 1,500 years –old! The church was located in the Judean Hills and the floor was considered “unusually well preserved.” We were informed the site was only going to be viewable for another week before archaeologists were to cover it over again for preservation. This was major news and you can read more here: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/ml_israel_ancient_church
Next up was another sobering yet meaningful experience as we visited the Har Herzl military cemetery. The first thing that struck me about this cemetery was its beauty. Various forms of vegetation were planted throughout the grounds and the site more closely resembled a city park than a cemetery. Pine trees stood tall directly next to Palms while green grass and flowers abounded. The other striking item about this cemetery was the fact that it is the resting place for both famous Israeli heroes and average soldiers. The sentiment that all of those who gave their life for the Israeli cause deserve to be buried in this cemetery is a noble one. To that end, we were able to visit the graves of the cemetery’s namesake Theodor Herzl, while also viewing the resting place of Itamar’s uncle (Itamar being one of the Israeli soldiers who accompanied us on our trip). Unfortunately, directly after this experience it was time to bid farewell to our Israeli soldier comrades. Thankfully through the miracles of modern communication, we will be forever linked through our Facebook accounts.
For many, the next activity was the culmination of our trip, as we visited the “Old City” of Jerusalem. Understood to be the holiest city in the world, those in the group who were more spiritually and religiously inclined were notably affected by this opportunity. Visiting the Kotel (Western Wall) was emotional for some. My experience was less dramatic, but I did take the opportunity to put my own personal message into the wall, and even donned Tefilot and recited a few prayers (quite uncharacteristic for me, but “When in Rome,”…or Jerusalem as it were). We visited the Kotel on two occasions during this day – once during the tourist-heavy daytime and once on the evening of Shabbat. The experience was quite different on each occasion as the hustle and bustle of shuffling tourists and the clicks of cameras turned to communal hugging and dancing with the echoing sounds of jubilant song.
Our final day in Israel was a quiet reminder that our adventure was nearly over. With the streets quiet in observance Shabbat, some in the group enjoyed a quiet walk through the streets while others rested and recovered. At sundown we enjoyed a pleasant Havdalah ceremony and further prepared for our departure. Yes, our trip had just about come to a close. Mixed emotions of craving the comforts of home yet already missing the wonders of Israel ran through my head. Now if only this @#$% fever would break, maybe I could enjoy my last moments in Israel. Farewell.