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.

Day 10 reflections

It’s Tuesday and I keep thinking that there’s no way things here could get better, I keep thinking that it’s just not possible that we’ve only been here nine days. Maybe it was the night in the tent together, maybe it’s just the point we’re at in the trip, but despite the general exhaustion, everyone in the group is getting along great. We really have become family. I mean sure there are cousins you don’t know that well and don’t always hang out with, but they’re still family.

We begin the day with breakfast at the camp and then a camel ride. It feels unreal to even write that. Yes, our mornings began with a camel ride in the desert in Israel. The camel ride was followed by a two hour hike through the desert, which was amazingly beautiful and great exercise. I wish I could describe the peace here.

After touring some sights, we went to a farm and enjoyed a delicious lunch. After lunch we were treated to a tour of the center. It was so interesting learning about the way they grow crops here. And then we headed to the hotel for dinner, discussion and much needed showers and rest.

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

P.S. Mom and Dad we’re excited to see you soon. Love you.

Yesterday, Tuesday, was breath-taking. I woke up spiritually refreshed after an amazing night in the Negev desert where we did some soul-searching beneath the stars. Sleeping in the refreshingly simple Bedouin tent was all that I could ask for. I was able to clear my mind and get in touch with my thoughts. After breakfast, we went on a fun camel ride. Kate and I named our camel Betty. She was a sweetheart. After this fun morning ride, we went on a hike through the desert. The hike lasted just over 2 hours, one way. It was, in my opinion, more challenging that the Snake Trail of Masada. The view was absolutely amazing and I now have a new appreciation for hiking. The scenery was so beautiful that it felt like I was walking through an IMAX movie. Once we reached the end, Raz pointed to where we started the hike and I couldn’t believe that we had done it. I felt so proud and was so pumped that I would have loved to continue for another couple hours. I think that we all surprised ourselves with our ability to climb the final part. I have learned that we are all stronger than we think we are and not to doubt myself. I really can do anything that I set my mind to. As we now approach our final day of the trip, I am filled with so much happiness and appreciation for the opportunity to take part in so many amazing experiences that we have been given. I didn’t take this trip for granted, even for a moment. Before leaving, I challenged myself to say yes to absolutely everything, to seize each opportunity with enthusiasm, and to live in the moment. This was the best decision that I made and I think that a positive attitude has made all the difference. Cheers to next year in Jerusalem!

Ella Rose, George Mason University

Monday, January 16, 2012

Day 9 - Masada and the Dead Sea

My Shabbat experience in Jerusalem was wonderful. I have not attended services at my synagogue since my Bat Mitzvah, so it felt good to celebrate our day of rest, especially with the close friends I’ve made on this trip. There were different services you could pick from to attend: reform, conservative, orthodox, secular and an alternative conversational one. I attended the reform service because that is what I went to at my old synagogue. Memories came rushing back as we sang familiar songs like Adon Olam, and recited prayers such as the Kaddish to mourn the deaths of others. I really liked how during the service, the English translation of prayers mentioned Jerusalem and Israel and we were there! The mood was happy and joyous. A big thank you to Josh for leading the songs. The service made me want to attend Shabbat services in the future, especially those at school now that I have friends in Hillel.

As for today, we left Jerusalem to hike up Masada. I am not the outdoorsy type, nor do I ever hike, so I was dreading the hike a bit. But once I started on the “Snake Path,” I was not intimidated in the least. There was much support from everyone, and everyone had different hiking skills so I was not alone. Some parts of the hike were steps. Dave (not from GMU) counted a little over 800 steps. Other parts were just walking uphill. Once we got the top, we were exhausted and hot, but the hike was definitely worth the effort. The view was spectacular. We were high above the desert, and even higher than a plane that was flying below us. The clouds casted magnificent shadows over the desert which was a sight to behold. We walked around and explored an old palace overlooking the desert. It had three parts to it and we were all the way at the top. At the top, we had a Hebrew naming ceremony for five people, including myself. It was a special moment for us as we embraced our Judaism with our new names. We were all surprised to receive letters from our parents which we had no idea we would be getting! Thanks Mom and Dad for your lovely words.

Then we visited the Dead Sea. It was everything I imagined it would be, except it surprised me that you had to purchase the mud. For some reason, I always thought the mud was natural and you could just take it. Nevertheless, we rubbed mud all over our bodies and it made our skin soft. We also floated, of course. I found it hard to stand in the sea because the water is so salty, you cannot do anything but float. Everyone passed around an Israeli newspaper to pretend to read while floating in the water.

Tonight, all forty-something of us will be staying in a Bedouin tent. I am curious as to what this experience will be like.

Miranda Lapides, George Mason University

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Day 8 - Visiting Jerusalem

Today was quite the day here in Israel. Our day started out with us listening to the first director of the Taglit, Avraham Infeld. While speaking he made the point that being Jewish is NOT a language but rather a way of life. I had never taken the time to actually think about this idea, but I feel he couldn't have been closer to the truth. He talked about how there were four different types of Jewish people and how the differences are a troubling fact that must be dealt with. He further goes on to state that there is a way to mediate the problem and that is to do 3 of the 5 things that make up the pillars of our Jewish people. The five things include memory of past events, family, Mount Sinai, the land and the state of Israel, and finally language. These important factors make us who we are and to have at least three of these traits be a part of you it will bring the Jewish people back to a United front. This speech was truly inspiring. It changed my outlook on what it meant to be Jewish. Being Jewish is not just a religion and a language to read, but it is a way of life.

After our speech we went to Theodore Hertzels’ grave and the military cemetery. This truly was moving. I learned that when you are a Jew you always have a home, no matter what happens to you in any other place you are always welcome to Israel. As Raz said “if Hitler felt you were Jewish enough to kill, then you are welcome to Israel no questions asked.” This really hit home for me. I never thought I would feel so proud of not only my people but my country. I also learned that every soldier who died is buried with the same grave stone. This is because in the eyes of G-d we are all equal. Too many bodies laid there at this site, and unfortunately the number will only continue to get larger. Hopefully one day soon Israel won’t have to bury another one of its beloved sons or daughters.

The final place we went today was the old city of Jerusalem. We got to tour the city a bit and found our way to the Western Wall. This site was remarkable. To see a wall built over three thousand years ago was truly unlike any other experience I have ever had. Seeing the wall of the second temple still stand and being able to see things that you only hear about on CNN and what thousands of people have given their life to preserve was indescribable. When I got before the wall I took time to talk to my grandmother and to my aunt, both of which passed away a few years ago. When I got to the wall something inside me gave me the feeling that they were not only listening but they were there. My time there made me realize how great of a place Jerusalem is and how before my life comes to an end I will return to this holy place and spend more time learning about my heritage.

Brad Gross, George Mason University (Jan. 15th 2012)

Mifgash (Encounter) Reflection

For the pat five days we have were joined by eight outstanding Israelis who opened up themselves to experiences Israel together with Bus 979. The poured their hearts and souls into the experience and opened our eyes to seeing Israel in new and different ways. We too opened their eyes to the amazing story we share together as a Jewish people and one large Jewish family. It was bitter sweet yesterday late afternoon when we said L'hitraot (until we meet again) and they departed back to their bases. They and we have been forever transformed after having shared the experience with together. This is their reflection.

Tiberias station, 9 am
Sitting on the bus waiting for them.
Half an hour speech the day before
Suddenly Moti opened the door
8 strange people, intimidating and loud
Suddenly became part of our crowd.

Nir, Almog, Tomer, Maya and Galit
Shmid, Ariella and Dan joined Taglit
In uniforms with big bags they arrived
To get to know them we all strived

From Tiberias to Tzfat the bus did go
On the way our Israelis we got to know.
Where they are from in the army, what they like to do
We believed them when they said “we’re just like you”

From Tzfat to Jerusalem, with wine tasting on the way
Seems like we sat on the bus all day
At the entrance to Jerusalem we all did dance
All excited we got a chance
To see Jerusalem in all its glory
We have eight body guards! No need to worry!

Sitting in the lobby, crashing on the couch
Before Shmid arrived we didn’t know Raz was a grouch
Playing cards for hours, sitting at the bar
Seems like we’re having fun so far

Yad Vashem on Friday, lunch at the mall,
It seems like the rain will just continue to fall
Yoga on Shabbat (after all it is a day of rest)
Talking for hours, getting to know each other best
Bar and Bat Mitzvas, excitement in the air
“Never have I ever” and “Truth or Dare”.

Skits from the Israelis, and conversations filled with passion
Who knew that Shabbat had its own code of fashion
Havdallah (Twice), and Ben Yehuda Street
With the Israeli dancing we could not compete
Back to the hotel for our new friends last night
The deep conversations reaching a new height

Har Hertzel Sunday morning, then The Old City
Look everyone! Another kitty!
We reached the Kotel, Went to touch the wall
When we regroup iron numbers we did call
“I am forty seven” got everyone to laugh
It even raised a chuckle from the staff
Five thirty came, time for our new friends to depart
although they will always have a place in our heart
Thank you for an amazing trip, we had a great time!

Sababa y’all,
Nir, Almog, Tomer, Dan, Ariella, Maya, Galit and Shmid

Saturday, January 14, 2012

My Shabbat/trip Reflection

Often when walking through the New World one can find someone stopping to admire the rodent population. This has been immortalized in the Disney Pixar movie “UP”. However as I wander around the Promised Land I find myself shouting “Cat!” instead. I’m not complaining (though that seems to be the thing to do in Israel) I happen to like cats. But my sense of distraction also comes with a sense of wonder as I try to take in all of my surroundings. So much here is different from what we have back home, though much has odd sense of familiarity. Obviously, stray cats are just one example. Since I’ve been here [in Israel] I find myself looking every which way to take in as much as I can and straining to hear every sound, often missing things despite my vending observation. It doesn’t help that I’m trying to take pictures of everything I see, which as you may know, can often detract from the experience. But Shabbat has given me a nice opportunity to slow down and take a look around the city. Just look. And what do I see? Cats.

Shavua Tov!
Josh Renne, George Mason University

Day 7 - Shabbat in Jerusalem

After visiting Yad Vashem Friday morning we changed our lunch location to the Malcha Mall in Jerusalem instead of going to Machanei Yehuda (outdoor market) due to the heavy rain that kept up all day. The mall was crazy with shoppers getting in their last minute shopping before Shabbat. Everything closes early on Friday afternoon to prepare for Shabbat. We transitioned from the fast pace of our trip schedule and the Malcha Mall to welcome in Shabbat at the Rimonim Hotel in Jerusalem. Shabbat comes in early now and we began our Shabbat with candle lighting at 4:15pm. Students had the opportunity to choose from different Friday evening service options which were followed by a festive Shabbat meal with all Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel busses at our hotel. After dinner we had and oneg Shabbat in which all members of our bus contributed something they purchased from the mall earlier to our oneg Shabbat. At the oneg everyone shared something good that happened to them during the past week.

Shabbat provided a much needed chance for rest and relaxation. The slower pace gave everyone a chance to reflect on the experiences of the past week and think about what is yet to come. Shabbat day also featured a very special opportunity for four members of our bus who became bar/bat mitzvah. This incredible experience was shared by the entire bus who enthusiastically supported their fellow bus mates at the Mincha (afternoon) service where the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony took place which was followed by a festive celebration. Later we participated in a discussion lead by our Israelis who have been joining us for the last five days. Finally we marked the close of Shabbat as a bus community with Havdalah and then a night out on Jerusalem's very popular Ben Yehuda street pedestrian mall. Students were very excited to spend time having dinner out and shopping in all the Judaica shops.

We are looking forward to a dry day tomorrow when we will visit Mt. Hertzl and the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Shavua Tov!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Day 6 Memory & Remembrance

We woke up this morning at the Rimonim Jerusalem Hotel with a healthy Israeli breakfast. Israeli breakfast are filled with salads, yogurts, cheeses and more salads. After refueling we attended a lecture with Paul Liptz who spoke about the Israeli political landscape and Israeli society. After the hour long lecture and discussion we loaded up the bus and headed to Yad Vashem (Israel's Holocaust Memorial). This will be a powerful day filled with memory, remembrance and reflection as we remember the 6 million of our people that perished in the Holocaust and make sure that we never forget.

Later this afternoon we will go to Machanei Yehuda, the popular Jerusalem street market, for lunch and get a real taste of Jerusalem life pre-Shabbat. We are looking forward to welcoming in Shabbat this evening here in Jerusalem, a festive Shabbat meal and oneg afterwards. Shabbat will provide us a much needed time for rest, relaxation and rejuvenation of our physical and spiritual selves.

More to come...

Day 5 - Road to Jerusalem Continues

Finally… bus #979 is Jerusalem-bound! We made stops along the way, such as taking in the pleasant view of the Mt. Gilboa, and other sights mentioned in the Bible. Being here made me appreciate our book more, and made me want to read it. We then drove southwards along the Jordan Rift Valley. We were suddenly surrounded by desert instead of the mountains and trees we were getting acclimated to. The landscape was surreal. It looked like a picturesque backdrop. While driving through this area, eight of our bus members got the pleasure of interviewing the Israeli soldiers, and I was one of them. We then presented our soldiers. I showed off Almog, a soldier in the Navy who is from Tel Aviv. We got to be good pals. During the interview, we compared life in America and life in Israel for Jews. For example, he taught me about the doughnuts eaten during Hanukkah in Israel, and I taught him about latkas, because I guess they do not eat them in Israel.

We ate lunch in a mall near Jerusalem, which was fun because I got to have an Israeli mall experience. I had simple chicken in pita and fries, and for dessert, I had a mixture of Ferrero Rocher and coconut ice cream. It was fantastic! Much better than the ice cream in the US!

The best part of the day was when we finally pulled up to Jerusalem and stopped before entering. We had the best view of the old city. Bus 979 met up with the other Taglit-Birthright buses and we all recited the “shehechiyanu” blessing, which is when you do something for the first time. We all had challah and “wine,” and one person from each bus came up to talk about how they felt about coming to Jerusalem for the first time. We then had a dance party and I felt so alive and free. Almog placed me upon his shoulders and I was high above everyone. At that moment, I really embraced my Judaism, because to me, that is what it is all about: people coming together for a common purpose in celebration of something unique. I cannot wait to see what Jerusalem has in store for us tomorrow!

Miranda Lapides, George Mason University

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Day 5 - Road to Jerusalem

We woke up refreshed and ready for day 5. After spending three days in the north of Israel we have now departed Hotel Genosar and are heading south on our way to Jerusalem. More to follow later.

Day 4 Continued

We first visited the city of Tzfat. It is best known as a center of Jewish mysticism and the study of the Kabbalah. I enjoyed learning about the history of Tzfat, the Kabbalah and Judaism in general, especially how Tzfat became a religious hub as a result of refugees from countries such as Spain in the 15th and 16th Centuries. Before arriving in Tzfat, we picked up eight Israeli soldiers who will be staying with us for a couple of days.

In Tzfat, we visited sights that helped to cement my understanding of Judaism and deepen my connection to Israel and its history. We visited two famous synagogues; the first one, the Ari, was Ashkenazy, but its interior was designed in the style of a Sephardic synagogue; with the bima in the center of the room and the seats surrounding it. The synagogues were beautiful and had ornate and colorful paintings on the walls and ceilings. The second synagogue, the Abohav, was destroyed in an earthquake in the late 19th century and beautifully rebuilt. Both synagogues, like many other buildings in Tzfat had blue detailing, a local tradition that believed that blue fought off evil spirits such as the devil and the evil eye.

We then had time to wonder around Tzfat and explore the many art galleries and gift shops. The art was attractive and suited the style of Tzfat: religious but with creative expression. Next, we saw a demonstration by Sheva Chaya on glassmaking. She also shared her outlook on life, in which she stressed the importance of self-improvement through seeing good in people and in otherwise negative actions. Her story was intriguing, as she started life as a Jewish American with little knowledge of Israel and suddenly picked up and left Denver Colorado to settle in Israel as a result of a trip to Israel when she was 17. It was interesting to see how someone’s life could change so dramatically as a result of a trip similar to a Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trip. I could relate to her story because she came from the US and found her connection with Israel. While I don’t think my connection will mirror hers, I do see how Israel can dramatically change a person—both with its stunning landscape, rich history and unique political situation.

On our way back, we stopped in Tiberius for dinner at an Italian restaurant. The Israeli soldier Nir joined us, and rescued us numerous times with his knowledge of Hebrew. I enjoyed hearing his and the other Israeli soldiers’ backgrounds and stories. Possibly as a result of their service to the state, the Israeli soldiers seemed a lot more engaged in Israeli politics and culture in comparison to Americans their own age. This is more striking when considering that the Israeli soldiers had not yet been to college like the American students on the trip.

Once back at the hotel, we had a Hillel conversation on Jewishness and how it is viewed by Jews on this trip. More specifically, we discussed issues such as whether being Jewish makes one feel different or whether or not it is even important in today’s world. Scott brought up the issue of how Jews have viewed themselves as a chosen people—a kind of aristocracy of the world—and whether or not this had a positive impact on Judaism in general. My general feeling on the matter is that Jews for a long time have been a successful people both financially and culturally in wherever they have lived. This success comes as a result of strong values of education, family, and ambition. Unfortunately, this can inspire jealousy and hatred among others around them, especially when Jews have been in the minority. Therefore, it is important that Jews be conscious of how they act and are viewed, in an effort not to inflame tensions. Because in the end, Jews thrive as being a distinct ethnicity/religion in relation to and in cooperation with the rest of the world.

Daniel Boger, George Mason University

Day 4 Reflections

Day 4 in Israel and we were finally able to sleep in. And by sleep in, I mean 7 a.m. Because it is winter, the sun goes down sooner, so we start earlier! We left the kibbutz for Tiberias to pick up the Israelis at 9 a.m. When we picked them up, I had the pleasure of sitting next to an Israeli on the bus ride. I am so excited to get to know the Israelis and get their perspective on Israel and Judaism. Although we have many evident differences, we are so similar. You can see it when we talk about songs we both like and movies we have seen. So we headed to Safed, one of the 4 holy cities. The most prominent and eye-catching part of Safed was the beautiful blue that was painted all over the city. The connection to the blue is that it represents the sky. In the synagogues, the Rabbi speaks from an elevated stage, making you look up and therefore encouraging you to have a higher way thinking. So when you are looking toward the sky, you are thinking at a new higher level, which scratches the surface of Kabbalah. Also, it is said that blue keeps the evil eye away because it gets confused when it sees the blue because it thinks it is in the sky so it turns around and leaves. We visited 2 beautiful synagogues and shopped along the markets that consisted mainly of jewelry and artwork. We then visited the workshop of an American-born glassblower. She had some very interesting views on Kabbalah and the workings of the universe. Her views kind of promoted a certain harmony between yourself and the universe. The glassblowing woman was from Denver who came to Israel on a trip similar to a Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trip when she was a young adult. I found it inspiring to see an American who was born Jewish and who originally had no intention of ever coming to Israel, had come to the holy land, became inspired by it, and is now living here and doing something shenever dreamed of doing before her experience. Honestly, it makes me wonder if something like that will happen to me…who knows!

Sarah Steurer, Ithaca College

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Day 3 - Mifgash & Tzfat

We began day 3 excited and refreshed after a good nights sleep having been given and extra hour to sleep. After embarking for the day we drove to Tiberias where we picked up new members of our group, seven Israeli soldiers (and anxiously awaiting our eighth member to join us later today) who will be with our group for the next five days. This mifgash (encounter) is a wonderful opportunity to spend time with our Israeli peers and have a first hand exchange about Jewish life and Israeli culture. Next we depart for the ancient mystical city of Tzfat where we will walk through the old city streets, visit the synagogues, visit with a local glass blowing artist and participate in a tzedek project with L'vnot U'lehibanot and take time for lunch on our own.

Visiting the Golan Heights

Sights at Rosh Hanikra

Images of Acco (Acre) [Jan. 9]

Images from our Monday, January 9 visit to the old city of Acco (Acre)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Day 2 Reflections Continued

We began the morning running ten minutes early, so we had time to head through the hills of Zichron Yakov, where Yael is from. She showed us her home, the park she plays with her nephews in, her favorite shoe store, the main square in her town and of course the synagogue. Zichron is a mix of people, it sounds like a blending of old and new, Jew and non-Jew, the kind of place where you are forced to be a part of the world. As we head down from Zichron, we pass the German Factory that makes gas masks, the irony here is obvious and we acknowledge it. We head to Atlit, a detention camp that was originally used by the British to detain Jews immigrating to Israel (before 1948) and later taken over by Israelis to house prisoners’ of war. It’s a reminder of the struggles and maybe it should be a sombering place, but to me its an inspiring place. Its inspiring that people wanted to come to Israel that much, that they believed and still do in this place so much. Heading out from Atlit we hear about the white book and the tension within the Israeli population during WW2 over fighting the British, to be allowed to immigrate to Israel and joining the British to fight the Germans. The history here is so palpable, everywhere there is the fusion, this juxtaposition of old and new.

We head to Acre, one of the few cities here with a large Jewish and Muslim population. We see the Bay of Haifa, the Templar’s fortress that the city used to protect itself during the Crusader period, we eat a delicious lunch of chicken shwarma and falafel and climb through the Templar tunnel. The drivers here are crazy. They don’t stop to let you cross and they park as they feel. I wonder what driving here would be like, I’d imagine nerve wracking. Then we drive to the Rosh Hanikra cliffs and take the cable cars down to the grottos. There is a storm raging so we don’t get that far into the grottos, but we do go out of the ledge above the water. The waves crash and about half the group gets soaked. Our guide Raz tells us this is the worst he’s ever seen the caves. We board the bus, gathering dry clothes to change into and begin the drive to our hotel, by the Sea of Galile, Kibbutz Nof Ginosar. So the first day ends and I’m wondering how it possible to feel so connected to a place your parents aren’t from and you’ve only been in for a day.


Leah Kieff (University of Mary Washington)
Carrie Aefsky (George Mason University)

P.S. Mom I’m getting lots of compliments on the shoes.

Jaunuary 10, 2012

I woke up this morning to the sound of the wind ripping through the palm trees outside my window. I looked at my clock. 10:45 PM in the US. 4:45am in Israel. I knew it would be a long day, but jet-lag got the better of me. After waiting the extra two hours until I knew everyone else would be awake, I went down to the lobby of our first hotel, in Netanya (a town outside of Tel Aviv), and experienced a very different type of breakfast. Instead of muffins or bagels, there were several types of salads, fresh cheese, tomatoes, guacamole, and many types of fish. It was all delicious. After we had tried our fill, we departed for Atlit, the site of a British internment camp. Although we were in beautiful surroundings full of flowers and palm trees, we arrived to the site of the camp, where thousands of Jews were imprisoned when trying to migrate to Israel during and after WWII, where they had been promised a free state. The British, who occupied and controlled Palestine at the time, forced the Jews into the encampments, calling them illegal immigrants. These camps, although still using the same rules and layouts of the concentration camps during the Holocaust, were meant to just keep the Jews in one place, not to harm them in any way. Many of the people that were detained were survivors of the European concentration camps. When taken to the camp in Atlit, the Jews, most of who had just travelled by boat and by train, believed that they were once again going to be imprisoned and treated the same as they had been in Europe. Although they were separated (men on one side, women on the other) they were never harmed and were given three meals a day. The conditions they lived in, though, were far from ideal. Close to eighty people were squeezed into small barracks where they were locked in every night. I had never heard of the camp in Israel before, or that the Jews were detained while trying to reach the state where they believed they would find sanctuary. Learning about the horrible conditions of their travels to Israel, by boats which held up to thousands of people at a time (then being taken to further camps, after their experiences in the Holocaust) really made me realize what they had to go through in order to finally gain a place to call their own. I had never known what the Jews really had to go through in order to reach Israel. This experience today, and learning more about the determination of my people really made me connect to and respect what was done so that we may live in relative peace today.

--Kate Manstof, George Mason University

Boker Tov! Today was a lot of fun, we visited an old British prison for illegal Jewish immigrants and then we went to the city of Acre. The food was good, and it was really interesting walking through the narrow thousand year old tunnels even though it got a little tight when the ceiling started getting lower. After that we went north to the border to see the caves and that was really fun. The waves were really intense because it had been raining all day. I remained dry while others were not so lucky. We’re at the kibbutz now, and we’re all pretty tired. It’s been great so far though. Happy birthday, Dad!

-Aaron Isaacman, George Mason University

Day 2 - Traveling Up North

Day 3 began at different times for each person in bus 979.
The flight from the day before meant that many of the group members had
difficulty sleeping through the whole night. I personally woke up at 2 AM
because my body thought it was 9pm the night before. But with the light of day
came a new appreciation of our location. Our hotel was literally a street away
from the Mediterranean sea. After a delicious and unique breakfast, the entire
group was ready to begin our birthright trip. With a lack of traffic, we were
able to traverse the beach-side road with relative ease. After the oohs and ahs
of the first few minutes of driving next to the sea wore down we were able to
learn a little about the area we were driving through. My first impression of
Israel in the daylight is that this is a magical place. The beauty and peace of
the area are awe-inspiring. Agriculture and houses are everywhere. After only
an hour of driving, I can tell already that this trip will be full of adventure, excitement, and beauty. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

– Daniel Singer, George Mason University

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Day 1 - Departure Day

Part 1 - At JFK

So we're here... And Shockingly we all somehow managed to be on time. So after a bit (or in our cases-hours) of waiting we gathered our things and began to process through El Al Security. And what a process it was.
We had been warned to expect some rather extensive questioning from El Al staff, but we had no idea what we were in store for. Let's just say their reputation for strict security is well deserved. After processing through and laughing over that we naturally wanted to get in a last meal in America (if airport food can even count.) Dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings gave us a chance to bond, make new friends and try Benjamin's unique sandwich of cheddar, butter, mustard and pickles on french bread. We regrouped, circled up and did the mandatory ice-breaker. We learned some cool facts about our soon to be BFF's and got a taste of just how awesome Yael and Scott are. So now we're playing the name game, seeing who we know in common from home and waiting to board our ten hour flight - to begin our adventure.

Part 2 - Arriving in Israel

So we're on the bus. We've picked up our cell phones (well those who ordered them did) and we've exchanged money. Learning you get 365 shekels for $100 and we are ready to head to the hotel to shower and eat.

We met our tour guide, Raz, who is really funny, we'll see how long that lasts. We're running about an hour late thanks to Israeli Customs lines. We met Moti our bus driver and found out our bus has free wi-fi (This is amazing!!). We also met Yaniv who is our medic/security guard. The free stuff just keeps coming tonight as we got itineraries, maps and journals. We honestly think we're just happy to be off the plane as we were forgetting what life was like outside the plane. Guess being stuck for that long made us melodramatic.

So post-plane we have a few tips for future travelers -
1. Don't touch people's seats as you walk down the aisle. ("Dude, I was sleeping")
2. Don't lean your seat back all the way, it's just poor form.
3. Don't try to push past people when the aisle is clogged. "Excuse me" doesn't give me anywhere to go.
4. Wake up0 your neighbor for meals.
5. Just remember the golden rule.

Leah, University of Mary Washington '11
Carrie, George Mason University '13

P.S. Mom - I'm safe, having fun and love you.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Some more pre-trip comments

As the trip date gets closer, I get more excited each and every day. I can't wait to see all the places that we are going to visit. I am so glad that I am embarking on this journey to Israel, not only with some friends, but with my sister. I hope to get more in touched with my Jewish heritage as I explore and take in the sights and sounds of Israel and everything around me. Not only am I excited to travel, but this will be my first time outside of the country. I can't believe that I am finally getting to go to a place that I've always wanted to go.

- Heather Silverstein, George Mason University

As the trip approaches, I'm very excited and nervous at the same time. I'm glad I get to share this experience with my sister and good friends. I'm looking forward to see all the sights of Israel and explore more of my Jewish heritage. I also want to learn more about Israel since I heard of the many experiences and wonders from my family and friends who have been there. I never been out of the country before so this is a new experience for me, but I'm thrilled that the first place I'm going to is Israel. I can't wait to start this journey and come back with many memorable stories and much knowledge of Israel.

- Ashley Silverstein, George Mason University

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Pre-Trip Thoughts

Student share their thoughts before our ten day trip to Israel.

As I think how our arrival date is quickly approaching, I am anticipating inspiration. I can’t wait to see the views, experience the culture, and learn more about the history of this beautiful country I’ve only heard and read about. I want to capture the soul of Israel, both the land and the people, with my camera as best as I can and I can’t wait for the challenge.

I can already feel a connection to Israel even though I have never been there and I am hoping to build it even stronger, starting with this trip. It’s going to be interesting to be in a country where the majority of the people are Jewish and I’m curious to see what that feels like. I’m also really thankful we’re all able to go on this trip; it’s an amazing gift. I can’t wait to start our journey!

- Katie Isaacman, George Mason University

As the trip rapidly approaches, I am thinking about all the sights we are going to see. I think that emotions will come into play as the sights before me unfold. Also, I must admit I am a bit anxious about all the traveling that we are going to be doing in such a short period of time, however I feel up to the challenge and excited all in all. This trip is going to be a completely new experience for me as I have never been out of the country before. I have wanted to go to Israel for as long as I can remember to connect to my Jewish heritage and finally it is happening!

- Leslie Steiger, George Mason University