The alarm went off at 4:30 am. Where am I? I wondered. I sat up and surveyed the room, quickly remembering that I was in the Negev desert, lying on a rather uncomfortable cot in a hotel room with two strangers. This was the beginning of my twelve day adventure in Israel. I was on a trip funded by the Israeli government, the Jewish Federation, and private philanthropists, with 39 other Jewish Americans, ages 22-27. I couldnt remember the name of the girl lying in the cot next to mine, but she reminded me that we had to get up. And she was right we were on our way to Mount Masada, the site of ancient palaces and forts on the top of a rock plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. If we were to summit by sunrise, we had to get moving!
Watching the sun rise from the top of Masada, the last stronghold for Jewish Zealots against the Romans over 2000 years ago, gave me chills. A group of Argentinean Jews raised an Israeli flag and sang the national anthem. Then we sat in silence, marveling at the rich history of the site. After cautiously descending down the windy Snake Path, our group reconvened for bagels and fresh squeezed orange juice.
Our next stop was the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. As we approached the sea, excited to float effortlessly and treat ourselves to mud facials, a few Americans warned us not to let the extremely salty water get in our eyes or ears. Well thats pretty obvious, we scoffed. But soon we realized just how dire their warning was. The tide was stronger than expected, and my eyes were stinging within minutes. I closed them tight to avoid the burning sensation. As soon as I grew accustomed to the agony of the salty water, I was able to enjoy my homemade mud facial. Then I looked down and realized that I was floating without even trying! Eventually, the pain was too much to bear, and I struggled against the current to return to shore. After a cold shower, a few of my new friends joined me for a cafeteria lunch of hummus, pita, and falafel, foods that would soon become staples of our diet.
Exhausted and, despite our best efforts, still reeking of salt, we piled onto the bus thinking that we were finished with the days activities. Oh how wrong we were. After several hours of scenic driving through the desert, we arrived at the Bedouin village where we were to spend the rest of the evening.
Little did we know that awaiting us at the village was another groupof camels! Since camels tend to go to sleep at dusk, our late arrival did not bode well for our next adventure. We clumsily climbed onto the camels and took a spin around the desert. What I thought was going to be a gentle zoo-like stroll became a fast-paced gallop. The camel behind me approached from the side and started sniffing me. Caught up in the moment, I let out a yelp and hoped that our tour would end quickly. Fortunately it did. Unfortunately, however, the dismount was tougher than I had anticipated. It felt like my camels legs buckled, and she fell suddenly to the ground, landing with a big thud. What could possibly happen next? Ahh, I thought, it must be time for dinner.
Ravenous after the days events, we were delighted to be treated to a lavish meal. We sat on the floor and were served a silver platters worth of food. My group ate everything in site, using the pita to soak up every last drop of hummus, as we listened to tales of Bedouin folklore.
After dinner, the Bedouins taught us traditional drum patterns. Then we started a bonfire and drank hot tea before retiring to bed. The next morning, I woke up to the sound of roosters crowing. This time I was surrounded by the whole group, as we all spent the night under one large tent. While it still took me a few minutes to orient myself, I was no longer surrounded by strangers. It only took one day, albeit a very long one, to feel at home.
Over the next eleven days, we worked our way north to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Haifa. We sat in Independence Hall where David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israeli Independence in 1948, shopped in open air markets, visited Rabin Square, site of the 1995 assassination of the Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, wrote letters at the Western Wall, and toured Yad Vashem, Israel’s national memorial to the Holocaust. Never before did I feel so proud of my Jewish heritage. I befriended Israeli soldiers, met Arab Israeli citizens, and discovered the rich, beautiful, and oftentimes complex history of this country which embraced me with open arms. I have returned with a renewed interest in my culture, a desire to learn more about current affairs, a need to share my experience with others, and a simple wish for peace. I am indebted to Birthright for granting me this unique opportunity and am honored to be one of over 100,000 Jews to have visited Israel through the program. It was my first time visiting Israel and hopefully not my last. If this trip has taught me anything, it is that there is so much left to uncover.
Posted by Rachel
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