Shorashim Trip - Part two

Trip Start Jun 20, 2005
Trip End Aug 09, 2005

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Sunday, July 31, 2005

"Israel belongs to me just as it belongs to you and every other Jew in the world."

After spending a couple of day in Jerusalem we headed to Tel Aviv for a day. Tel Aviv means, "old new land." Today, Tel Aviv is the most modern and cosmopolitan city in Israel - rivaling any western metropolitan city. To be honest, it reminds me most of New York City with it's endless city blocks, high-fashion and insane nightlife. Although Tel Aviv is the center for commerce nowadays, it's most well known for (and considered one of the most important places in Israel) because this is where David Ben Gurion declared Israel as an independent Jewish State, on May 14, 1948. For this reason, Independence Hall became our first stop in Tel Aviv.

Independence Hall was the location of Ben Gurion's monumental press conference. The invitations that were distributed only days before the announcement requested that invitees keep the location of the press conference an absolute secret from the public. Our guide told us that everyone in Israel knew that the announcement would be made at 4'00 pm on May 14th....but nobody knew of the location. The reality of the situation was that if the location of the announcement were leaked the building would have been bombed by Israel's Arab neighbors. The Jewish State of Israel was established in less than 32 minutes. As expected, within 24-hours, Israel was attacked on all sides by her Arab neighbors. 1% of the Israeli population was killed in the year-long War of Independence. Women were expected to serve in the defense forces regardless of marriage status and even if they had children at home. This was a war for survival. They served. To this day women and men alike participate in the defense of Israel (men 3 year & women 2 year commitments).

Some minor history on the "State of Israel." In 1897, Theodore Hertzl arranged the first Zionists Congress in Basel, Switzerland. He is known as the visionary who foresaw the Jewish State because exactly 50 years before the establishment of the State of Israel he proclaimed that a Jewish State would be a reality in 50 years time. On May 8, 1945, Winston Churchill (who was at that time controlling what is today Israel) declared the fall of the Nazi Regime. 400,000 Jews were at once "liberated" and as a result became displaced. The "Partition Plan" was the name of the November 11, 1947 U.N. Security Council Resolution that called for two separate states in Palestine: one Arab and one Israeli. With the withdrawal of British troops in 1948, David Ben Gurion seized the moment and established the Jewish State of Israel.

Although Independence Hall is very small and simple, it's been one of the highlights of my time in Israel. We were able to sit in the room, which appeared to us exactly as it had on that day in 1948, and we listened to a recording of the announcement. We all stood and sang Hatikva, the national anthem of Israel, in unison with Ben Gurion's voice and the voices of those others who were present during that historic moment. It was an overwhelming sensation.

(English Translation)

So long as still within our breasts
The Jewish heart beats true,
So long as still toward the East
To Zion looks the Jew.

So long as our hopes are not yet lost,
Two thousand years we cherished them,
To live as a free people in our land,
Land of Zion and Jerusalem.

After a quick trip to the beach, where I was enthralled by handsome men, fantastic music and cocktails, the group headed south to the Negev Desert. During our night in the Negev, we were hosted in a Bedouin tent village and treated to traditional Bedouin hospitality. It was very special to say the least. We drank, we ate, we sang, we danced, we sat around a fire, and we listened to traditional Bedouin music and enjoyed our host's VERY humorous stories. He was quite the chauvinist and very oblivious to that fact. For the rest of the night we performed an alcohol induced "talent show" for one-another and then slept under the stars.

In the morning we woke up, a little damp from the morning dew, and enjoyed breakfast under a massive tent with extraordinary views of the Negev Desert. After quick showers (I call them "Israeli showers" because of the water shortage - you're always conserving) we went on a camel trek into the desert. The desert was loaded with variations of arid plant life including flowers and cacti. I saw some wild rams, called Ibex, which was awesome. My camel was very ornery and the camel behind us kept shooting us mean we kept our hands to ourselves. To be honest, the camels were super cute but they make very nasty, vile noises and they make you think they're going to bite tried not to tempt them with fingers.

After cleaning camel slobber off of my legs I loaded my equipment and boarded the bus to head north to the Judean Desert, to the Dead Sea and Masada. On the way we stopped off and did some cliff rappelling into a massive crater (I think it's one of the largest in the world and unique to Israel) but unfortunately I had heat stroke, so I stayed on the bus to catch up on sleep (something we got about 3 hours of during the entire trip!). I was very sorry to miss the rappelling...but I knew that I'd get the chance again during my next (B'nai B'rith) trip, which begins tomorrow - on July 12th.

The Judean Desert is incredible. The coloring really can't be described but I'll give it a try. The sky is always some hue of pink or purple and the horizon is mountainous and completely rich in shades of yellow, orange and brown. The edges of the road are layered in coarse brush that's draped in purple and yellow flowers, which are closely guarded by harsh thorns and cacti. As we approached our hostel, which seemed more like a five star hotel, the sun began setting over the Dead Sea. The only way to describe the way it looked (from my balcony!) is to say that it looked like a sheet of glass covered in pink and purple sheen. Between the sky, the mountains and the sea, I could only vaguely catch sight of where one began and another ended because the colors worked together in such beautiful harmony. Later, an Israeli told me that the air around the Dead Sea is loaded with natural gases that create "screens," essentially layering the way light hits the landscape, which causes this picture perfect scenario.

The hostel we stayed at was brand-new and was situated at the base of Masada (the mountain we were to climb the following morning) and less than a half-mile from the edge of the Dead Sea. My balcony provided an intense view of the sea, with Jordan on the opposite side. Across the water I could see lights flickering in the homes of Jordanians. (!!!)

The following morning we rose at 3'00 am and like sleepwalkers we went to breakfast. I will never forget looking at Mazal (one of the beautiful Israeli girls taking the trip with us) during breakfast. She said, in the most pathetic voice imaginable, laced with accent, "it's going to be a nightmare." Ha. In a way, the hike was a nightmare, but so exilerating. I remind you it was 4'00 am. By 4'30 am we were hiking, in the dark, to the top of Masada. The hike was tough. Although there were 45 of us hiking together I think we managed to insert enough space in between to enjoy a solitary ascent. I kept turning around to watch as the Dead Sea and the mountains in Jordan altered in coloration from the approaching sun.

At 5'25 am I reached the top where I saw the ancient Jewish settlement across the entire plateau. The mountains across the Dead Sea illuminated from the east by the rising sun. We took in the spectacular view - watching the sunrise over the sea and observing silently as Jordan woke up to a new day. I know I keep saying this, but hiking Masada for the sunrise was definitely one of my favorite moments on Shorashim.

Masada is significant to Jews because a very important event occurred here during the Roman invasion of the 1st Century CE. Struck with the reality of Jerusalem's imminent invasion, many of Jerusalem's most Orthodox Jews fled the city to Masada and sought refuge there. Those zealots lived at the top of Masada in the village that accompanied one of King Harrod's more extravagant palaces. When the Roman legions finally reached Masada, the zealots were faced with a grueling situation. They knew that the Romans would rape and pillage their families before eventually enslaving them. They actually took their lives to avoid subjecting their descendents to a life of slavery. When the Romans reached the top of Masada they found a site of mass suicide and it was written "even they, the Romans, felt admiration for the Jewish zealots." For the piety and ideal that these Jews upheld, Jewish culture has since held Masada very close to the heart. Jews will never endure slavery again. Masada shall never fall again.

After touring the complex and ruins of Herrod's palace we descended the mountain and returned to our bus. Within an hour we arrived at the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea is more than 400 meters below sea level, making it the lowest place on Earth. The Dead Sea contains the most mineral rich water (and mud) in the world. To give you an example of just how salty the water is: 30% of the water in the Dead Sea is composed of salt compared to just 3% in the Mediterranean Sea. That's an enormous difference. Floating in the Dead Sea was truly a unique experience. First of all, the water is so salty that even the most minor abrasion of the skin burns like hell. Luckily, I only had a couple of minor scratches on my skin and so I was able to cope. Another cool feature is that your skin feels very very very smooth under the water because, compared to the salty waters of the Dead Sea, human skin is heavy in oils. For this reason, all of the oil from the depths of my flesh rose to the surface of my skin to balance the ph. The result was super soft skin! At all costs I tried to avoid getting my head wet because even a drop of Dead Sea water in my eyes would have induced massive pain, as I'm sure you can imagine. I got few drops in my mouth, which was horrifying, because it was disgusting and burned. It was like putting my mouth on a salt-lick (x 100).

Floating was an interesting experience. As a result of my buoyancy, I was able to do "the pencil" and just bob there....pretty cool. You can also float on your back and not even work, in the slightest, to keep your body above water. This is how some people were tanning....just lying on their backs in the water. It was really cool (and the only place on earth to enjoy such oddities!). I imagine it felt a lot like it must feel floating in space, since you have no control over gravity.

Because of the mineral rich deposits in the Dead Sea, it's the best place to do a mud mask. People come from all over the world to enjoy the benefits of the mineral rich water. The water is said to be a source of healing. I coated my body in black mud, which was conveniently bought in hot bag. The mud was really hot and I slathered it all over my body. After twenty minutes I immerse in the salty waters and rinsed. Walking around the beach coated in dark mud was an experience worth a thousand words - all we could do was laugh at each other. If you ever get the chance to visit the Dead Sea make sure to do the was a lot of fun and it made my skin ultra-soft for a very long time.

The following day we were back in Jerusalem and hiking Mount Hertzl (named for the 19th century visionary of the Jewish State of Israel). Mount Hertzl, located in Jerusalem, serves as the national cemetery. Mount Hertzl is home to the graves of military personnel, victims of terrorist attacks, Israeli pioneers, past Presidents and Prime Ministers, and the grave of Theodore Hertzl (who is buried at the peak of the mountain). Going to Mount Hertzl is an incredibly moving experience. Our guide took us to some special graves and those of the former Presidents and Prime Ministers including those of Yitzhak Rabin and Golda Meier (the first and only female president of Israel and the Prime Minister of Israel during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973).

Everyone in Israel has an immediate or an indirect personal connection to the war on terror that's being waged against Palestinian extremists. I may have mentioned to you that there were a number of Israelis taking the trip with us. At Hertzl they shared their personal stories of loss. It was very difficult. Some of my new friends have lost loved ones in suicide bombings. Almost all of them have lost friends in battle. Israelis live with the constant threat of terrorist attacks. I've said it before and I'll say it again - Israelis are among the strongest and most resilient people I've met in the world. I myself am now indirectly connected to the loss that affects Israelis. Even amid the enormous loss that they struggle through... Israelis are fun loving, generous and kind-hearted people. Israelis are an intrigue in and of themselves, really. It's hard to explain....I'm in love with Israelis though, perhaps that's the easiest way to say it. As I'm writing this I'm thinking of each of the people in Israel that I call my friend....they're simply beautiful.

While visiting Mt. Hertzl we talked a lot about the concept of memorials. One of the most interesting things we discussed focused on the differences between Memorial Day in the United States and Memorial Day in Israel. In Israel, Memorial Day is a day of mourning and a day of ceremony. The day begins with the simultaneous wailing of sirens around the country. Every Israeli observes silence during this memorial. I'm told that cars on the freeway halt and people remove themselves from their vehicles as the sirens blare over their radio speakers. The entire day from there is dedicated to memory.

Israeli Independence Day is celebrated at midnight as the day of mourning (Memorial Day) comes to its conclusion. The logic is that we would not be able celebrate the independence of the Jewish State without the sacrifice of those soldiers and pioneers who offered their lives toward the realization of a nation for the Jewish people, which had been born of the ashes of the Shoah (Holocaust).

One of our guides told us that when a person dies in uniform or as the result of an act of terror the family remains very close with their loved one's friends in order to remain close to something that belonged to their beloved. There is a respect for life here in Israel that makes me feel as though entire countries (mine?) are asleep to the purpose of life. Israelis seek only what's necessary to live and to be happy. I have no doubt that Israel's call for peace is authentic. It's more authentic than human words allow.

I'd like to say a couple of words on just being in Israel. It's a very special place to be (especially on Shabbat). For starters, it's mind-boggling to see mezuzot on every single door...especially in hotels where they seem to stand out the most. Hotels also come equipped with "Shabbat elevators," which stop on every floor to allow observant Jews an elevator without requiring them to break the Sabbath. So impressive - only in the Jewish State is what I keep saying to myself.

The weekend in Israel falls on Friday and Saturday, as opposed to Saturday and Sunday, since shishi (Friday) Shabbat (Saturday) is when the day of rest falls, according to Halakhah (Jewish Law), which is commanded in the Torah (Bible). For this reason, most people don't work on Fridays and hardly a soul can be found working on Saturday. I was so confused during my first Friday in Israel when I saw so many people leisurely enjoying themselves in the cafes. I wondered..."doesn't anyone work around here?" but then I realized...I was in the only Jewish State on Earth...and that on Sunday, everyone would be back to work at a normal hour. (Sunday is essentially Monday!) I have really enjoyed this difference because it seems truer to nature.

Shabbat is observed for 25 hours beginning at sundown on Friday (shishi) evening and lasting through the day until the sun sets once again on Saturday evening. At about 2'00 pm on Friday I began noticing that things became rushed... people were doing their last minute shopping to prepare for the Shabbat. By 4'00 pm or 5'00 pm all establishments begin to shutdown for the 25-hours. By 6'00 pm the streets are calm and quiet. The various synagogues around town initiate the call to worship by blowing the shofar....a sound American Jews only hear once a year (at Yom Kippur)'s a typical sound in Israel on Friday evenings. (A shofar is a ram's horn.) By no means however am I insinuating that Israel is a hugely religious country because it's not. Although there are places in Israel (mainly the holy cities that I mentioned before) that are religious majorities, there are also places in Israel where synagogue is just as foreign to Jews as church is to many Americans.

After enjoying the sun in the Negev Desert and floating in the Dead Sea we headed north and west toward the Mediterranean coast again. We stopped off for the day at a city called Bet Shemesh, which is located in the Yahuda Plains. Our first stop was at the community center where we began our decompression. Since the birthright Israel trip was such an intense experience and so incredibly bonding, we needed time to process, with the impending reality that most of us were going home in two days. We headed to a winery where we sampled voluptuous Israeli wines. We toured the vineyards and relaxed in the shade sipping on our wine and sampling the olives and cheeses that our hosts had prepared for us. Israel is sooooo "Mediterranean." After appreciating the wine we headed to a gymnasium where we participated in an Aharai program. Not necessarily the order I would have selected...

"Aharai" means, "follow me" in Hebrew. Aharai is a values training program for youth ages 16 to 18. In the American military a commanding officer "sends his soldiers in" and is specially trained to coordinate efforts and carry them out from behind. In Israel commanding officers are trained to always lead their groups into battle. For this reason, the Israeli military is constantly training new commanding officers because they are typically among the first casualties. Aharai, then, is an appropriate name for the organization that physically and mentally prepares youth for their military service.

Because Israelis are able to select the unit to which they serve (pending their test scores are high enough for the branch of service they request), programs like Aharai can make a profound difference in whether a young adult performs well enough to gain acceptance to their desired unit. In Israel, your tier of military service and ultimate rank play a major role in what types of work you're eligible for as an adult. I'm told it's typically among the first questions you're asked during a job interview. Every Israeli citizen participates in military service and for this reason an elite unit and rank of leadership are the equivalent of going to top-tier schools and making honors, essentially. The volunteer instructors of Aharai impart important values and real world wisdom on the youth who pass through their program, preparing them for success in both their military and general careers. This is where I met my friend Eli Landau. Eli is a volunteer instructor at Aharai and one of the best people I've met in Israel.

After Aharai we drove to our final dinner together. It was absolutely beautiful. We arrived at this gorgeous open-air restaurant (it was more like a ranch) in the rolling hills of the Yehuda plains. The sun was setting over the olive and grape fields, the tables were outdoors and candlelit. There was a dj playing Israeli music and the first course of our dinner was displayed on vibrantly colored table linens with huge pitchers of cucumber and lime flavored water. We ate, we sang, we danced and we reminisced over the past incredible ten days. Perhaps the best ten days of our lives - certainly of mine. My Shorashim group was awesome. We had immediately bonded as a group and this dinner was a celebration of the lifelong friendships we had formed and of the life-altering journey we had taken together. As Jews, we had embarked on a journey of self and community exploration and we undertook that voyage as a collection of individuals from remarkably varied backgrounds and interests. Among us was every variation of Jew. Among us was every sort of American. Among us were each type of leader and every kind of person I've ever hoped to get to know in my life. From this trip we emerged, as a transformed group of people, who will forever be connected by experience, religion, community and our beautiful summer together in the heart of the Jewish experience - Israel. Thank you so much to everyone who helped make this trip happen but most importantly to those people who experienced Israel by my side. You, both Israeli and American, are the reason this trip was so successful. I love you all ~ xoxo.
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