Friday, January 20, 2012

10 Amazing Days In Israel

As a native born Israeli who loves hiking and learning about Israel’s history – it’s not so easy to surprise me when it comes to traveling around the country. But this Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trip, or more correctly – journey, of Jan. 2012 with GMU students and other students has done it.

10 amazing days in Israel are over now and I’m writing, trying to understand what this amazing experience meant for me and how come it made me see Israel in such a different light then I’m used to. I’m trying to do all that – in a short time before I get back to the condensed, busy and amazing routine of being the JCCNV Community Shlicha and GMU Israel Fellow.

Thinking about it I understand that what made this journey so special was the basic fact that for many of the students who were on it – it was the first time coming to Israel, the Jewish home land they have only heard about. Another part of the students on our bus have never gotten a profound Jewish education and this was their first real opportunity to explore this part of their identity, in a special place and with special people – people like them, and Israeli soldiers who joined us for a half of the journey.

It was amazing for me to see Israel and Israelis through the student’s eyes. To see them making new friends with other students as well as the Israelis, learning about places in Israel, asking themselves questions and talking about the different answers with their friends, looking at what it means to be a majority in this special country, and enjoying things they have never done before.

One of the most powerful moments for me and also for some of the students was going at night to a quiet and remote place in the Negev desert. Getting a bit away from the Bedouin tent where we spent the night, allowed us to see the amazing sky and stars of a clear night. We could see very clearly many stars systems and we learned a bit about them and how to find our way in the dessert according to them. Then the darkness and the size of the dessert were less intimidating and we could connect more to the spiritual atmosphere and to the long connection of the dessert to the Jewish people. We took a few minutes for ourselves to think. It came out as very special moments for us, being alone and together, being silent, personal and deep.

I want to thank everyone who made this trip possible for me and for the students, and hope that for all of us going on this special journey this was just the beginning of a long, life-long hopefully, connection to ourselves, our Judaism and to the state of Israel.

Yael Ingel, GMU Israel Fellow and JCCNV Community Shlicha

Thursday, January 19, 2012

What a journey

What an incredible ten days in Israel with Bus 979. We traveled the land of Israel, met it's people, made Jewish connections and so much more. We came as forty two distinct participants and came away a united bus each with our own stories along with a new community and greater connection to the Jewish people and the land of Israel.

We arrived safely home today ready to pay the gift forward to find others who can participate in this once in a lifetime Jewish experience.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

B'nai Mitzvah Ceremony

On Shabbat four Bus 979 participants, Alex, Aaron, Katie and Amanda, all became Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Each publicly stood before their Jewish community and were called to the Torah with an aliyah (the parsha was Vayera) and then made a public declaration to the Jewish people about why they chose this opportunity. Here are two reflections on the experience.

Before going on Birthright I found out about the opportunity to have a Bat Mitzvah and I was immediately interested, but not completely sure I was ready. I attended Hebrew School up until it was time for me to have my Bat Mitzvah, but I backed out at the last minute because I wasn’t sure I was ready to make a strong religious commitment.

I didn’t have any expectations at all before coming to Israel, which is part of why I wasn’t sure I’d be ready to make that same commitment I’d backed out of nine years earlier. From the first full day of the trip, exploring just a small part of what Israel had to offer, I automatically felt a connection with the land, the people and most importantly, the culture. After participating in the group’s meaningful conversations and immersing myself in Judaism, I made the decision to have a Bat Mitzvah. I thought I’d be upset not having my family with me, but the group had become my family on this trip. Everybody gave their support, and even the visiting soldiers offered to help me with my Hebrew pronunciation.

Having my Bat Mitzvah with Jerusalem in the backdrop and the supporting faces of Bus 979 in front of me completed my experience. I may not have been the usual age of a Bat Mitzvah girl, but Birthright gave me the necessary preparations and I’m glad I waited.

Amanda Martin, Hofstra University

When I heard about the opportunity to have a Bar Mitzvah in Jerusalem I pondered that it might be a good idea. Then, I thought about it and didn’t really feel as if it would be right because I didn’t feel too connected with being Jewish. At the same time, there was a little voice in the back of my head telling me to consider this once in a lifetime opportunity.

When we were staying on the Sea of Galilee and the topic came up again of having a Bar Mitzvah, I suddenly got this strange unexplainable strong emotion that told me I had to do it. This was something I had to do. All of a sudden I felt like I needed and wanted to have a strong connection to being Jewish; I wanted that to have the religious and spiritual connection with being Bar Mitzvah’d. It was something that became very important to me.

I was not raised religiously at all. When I was younger we sometimes lit Hanukkah candles, celebrated Passover and did the typical Jewish things…besides going to Temple. In my entire life before I came to Israel, I went to Temple once for my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah. I never thought that I would want to be Bar Mitzvah’d and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to do so in the holiest city in the world.

Alex Romano, George Mason University

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Day 11 - Wrap Up Day in Tel Aviv

We woke up at the Dan Gardens in Ashkelon after a much needed good night's sleep having been so tired from the hike and early morning the day before. We began the morning with our final conversation and each member of Bus 979 shared one thing they will take home with them and one thing of themselves they will leave behind. Many memories, experiences and trip reflections were shared. Many said they will take home a new found discovery of Israel and their Jewishness and leave behind their preconceived notions about being Jewish and of Israel. All were encourage to pay the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip opportunity forward and find at least two people they can encourage to apply for the next trip window on Feb. 15. A thought was shared with the group that says, "a tourist is someone who goes to a place and passes through it and a pilgrim is someone who goes to a place and lets the place pass through them". It was the hope that each and every participant found something that touched them that they will carry with them forever.

After our discussion we loaded the bus one last time and departed to visit the moshav of our tour educator Raz. Later we will travel to Jaffo and Tel Aviv. More to follow.

Bedouin Camp Reflections

Tonight was possibly one of the coolest, not just the temperature, but also awe inspiring nights we’ve had here. After arriving at the Bedouin camp and placing our belongings in the tent, we were introduced to some aspects of Bedouin culture. It’s unreal the number of experiences that we’ve had in the last days, I can’t believe it’s only been eight days, when it feels like it could have been a lifetime.

But after the family style Bedouin dinner, we re-grouped and followed our guide Raz into the desert. The air there is somehow different, its purer. We walked far enough that the lights of the camp faded, the cars passing on the road in the distance and the airplanes that flew overhead, being the only indications that we were only steps from civilization.

After stargazing, we each walked to a spot alone in the desert, not far from the group and took some time to meditate on the week, to reflect, to stare at the sky, to just be with ourselves, removed from each other, removed from all those things that we use to distract ourselves.

I think that those ten minutes in the desert were some of the most powerful minutes of my life. That time, that time taken in this place, with this silence, after this week, was beyond explanation. After re-grouping, we headed back to camp to enjoy the bonfires and the group sleepover.

Leah Kieff, University of Mary Washington
Carrie Aefsky, George Mason University

P.S. Mom and Dad, we loved the notes, so thank you.

Trip Reflections Looking back

On Monday, we woke up for the last time in Jerusalem. After breakfast at the hotel, we were on our way to climb Mount Masada. Riding to Masada was the first real view of the desert that I saw. It was really cool to be completely surrounded by desert and by only a few colors. Finally, we were riding next to Masada on the road and from far away on the bus it did not look like such a bad climb. As we got out of the bus and walked closer to the mountain, some of us were wishing we had taken the chair lift up. But all of us climbed over 800 steps up to the top in less than an hour! It was so great to finally be on the top when I made it. We explored the top for about an hour and learned about the history of the mountain as well as the land surrounding it. The last part of the top of the mountain was the Hebrew naming ceremony. Some of us were never given a Hebrew name and we had the option of picking one that meant something to us. Five of us chose to get a name. Then Yael and Scott surprised us with letters from our parents, which was such a touching gesture on their part and was a cool moment.

Then we had to go down the mountain. For most of us that was easier and more fun. At that point we were all very hungry so we ate at the food court there and also were able to do some shopping in the gift shop there. After lunch we were all excited to go to the Dead Sea which is the lowest place on the Earth! We went to a little beach along the sea. The water was super freezing so it took some of us a while to go in the water all the way. I was about ready to get out myself without floating because I didn’t want to freeze, but then I just went for it and it was totally worth it for me and everyone else. It was so cool to be floating. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. After an hour of fun there, we were back on the bus and on our way to where we were going to spend the next night.

We arrived at Chan Shayarot, a Bedouin camp. We learned about how they live and at dinner sitting on mats and off of a tray. The dinner was delicious chicken, potatoes, rice, corn, and hummus. After dinner we took a walk in the desert and looked at the stars. The sky was so clear so we got to see a lot of consolations. We ended the night by sitting around a fire and then spending the night in a nice heated tent underneath sleeping bags.

Susie Easton, George Mason University

Day 10 - Exploring the Negev

We woke up from our sleep out in the Bedouin tents at Chan Hashayrot excited to ride the camels. What an experience riding the camels. After our camel ride we loaded up Bus 979 and then went on a 2 hour hike through Nachal Hachaim. The beauty of the desert came through with the sun shining down on us. Our hike culminated with an invigorating climb up to Sde Boker where we visited the tomb of David Ben Gorion, Israel's 1st Prime Ministry. We were also able to see the desert ibex that Israel is known for. After learning about Ben Gurion we are headed west for lunch and then our "green" activity. More to follow soon...

We drove west from Sde Boker about an hour to a moshav (cooperative) in the Negev desert where we had lunch and then toured the different agricultural crops and learned how they efficiently use water to grow their crops. Along the way we had the chance to sample the freshly grown strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, carrots and fresh herbs. After this activity we headed northwest to Ashkelon for the night at the Dan Gardens. After dinner we had a great conversation about Jewish memory.

Looking forward to a good night's sleep and our last day in Tel Aviv.