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Experiencing the Holy Land

Although I consider myself a world traveler, Israel is one place I thought I would never go. Israel was grouped together, in my mind, with places like North Korea, Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. These are places that I would love to go, but I value my life too much to risk getting on the wrong bus, talking to the wrong person or believing in the wrong God.

But with all this in mind, I still decided to take a trip to Israel. One reason because the Hillel Foundation on campus was paying for it. The other was that I wanted learn about and feel closer to my ancestry. Right before I found out about the trip, I had been looking into my genealogy. I wanted to see how far back I could trace my lineage, so the trip to Israel seemed fitting.

The first thing that went through my mind when I signed up for the trip was the same as most people: “What are you doing going to Israel? Are you crazy?” The answer is no. I am not crazy. I decided that fear will not rule my life, only the love of travel along with meeting new faces, seeing new places and acculturating myself to the maximum. So I signed up for the trip without further hesitation. OK, maybe a little.

After being in Israel and seeing the people, the culture and the sights, I felt very at home and I did not feel as if I was in danger at any time. I even found out that more people die in traffic accidents than in suicide bombings and after seeing our bus drivers drive around winding mountains and through small side streets, which I didn’t think were possible to fit buses through, I realize why.

While in Israel I got to see many sights that I have only heard about while growing up. The group I was with visited the Old City in Jerusalem, the Kotel (The Western Wall), the Dead Sea, Massada, Tel Aviv, Kibbutz Yehiam, the Golan heights, a Canaanite tent in Tel Arad and the West Bank.

The Old City in Jerusalem was beautiful and it was where I finally got to taste an authentic falafel straight from Israel. I know the hotels that we stayed at provided us with enough food to feed an army, but I would rather have eaten falafel all day long.

While I walked around the Old City, I couldn’t believe that there was a place where so many different religions staked a claim. At different sections of the wall around the Old City, I could see different languages signifying different religions. There was the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter and the Armenian Quarter. If we could only build something like that today where people of all faiths could come together and worship their own invisible man, in the sky or underground, the world might be a more peaceful place.

Although I am not religious, walking through the Massada, the Old City and Kotel really made me feel closer to my Jewish heritage. In Florida, you rarely see people walking around with yarmulkes, or skullcaps, on their head. But in Israel a majority of the people wear yarmulkes or have peyas, little curls of hair that hang in front of the ears. Walking around you might think you are in New York or Palm Beach.

There were many things that we did in the cities of Israel, but my favorite was the activities stuff like taking a Jeep ride through Golan, exploring Massada and floating in the Dead Sea. Everyone says that you can float in the Dead Sea, but what they don’t tell you is that after floating for a few minutes your whole body might start to burn.

Another great outdoor adventure that we had was visiting a Canaanite tent out in the dessert of Tel Arad. Some local musicians came and performed a drum circle for the visiting groups. While the drums rang out through the night, people danced, tea was served and many of the underage birthright travelers indulged in some imported beer from the states.

But my favorite thing that we got do was stay at a Kibbutz. When we arrived at Kibbutz Yehiam, we were all taken to a castle on the grounds and we enjoyed a fun night of music, food and haggling. Fire-eaters dazzled the night sky with hues of red and amber, clowns scared those who had a bad childhood experience and bodies danced to the sounds of Israel. I even discovered I might have an ancestor working at the Kibbutz.

Overall, the trip was exciting and educational, a rare–but often stimulating–experience. It was a lot to take in at once, but I enjoyed the trip thoroughly and I hope to return to Israel some time in the near future. I have made many friends on the trip both in Israel and from the United States. I hope we all stay in touch and I hope to see our armed guards from the trip, Eldad and Guy, sometime in the spring or summer.

One thing that I really took away from this trip is that Jewish people from the United States are exactly like those in Israel, minus the semi-automatic weapons. We are all funny, sarcastic, pushy and family-oriented.

Last, but not least I want to thank Hillel for the trip as well as thanking Leanne Milner, Shira Weinstein and David Solomon for an outstanding experience in Israel. Although they had to corral us around like cows at times, they made the trip exciting, educational and a once-in-a lifetime experience.