At the break of dawn, about 40 college students and I stepped out of a tour bus and looked at the natural and historic site that greeted us: Mount Masada. We all stood ready to hike up the carved-out steps of the steep, rocky plateau in Israels eastern Judean Desert.
Masada was once a refuge to King Herod, a Roman who converted to Judaism and ruled Judea from 37 B.C. until his death 34 years later. He fortified Masada and built several palaces, dwellings, bathhouses and other buildings on the mountains rhombus-shaped top. In 72 A.D., the Romans attacked and burned down Masada and its residents were killed.
Some of these ruins have been excavated, so we were able to see the remains of a mosaic, a bathhouse and a synagogue.
Despite the violence and bloodshed that occurred at Masada, standing on its flat peak felt surprisingly calm and peaceful. The hustle and bustle of cities did not exist, and there was no sign of life anywhere except the group and a few weeds under my feet. This was the perfect place to meditate or get away from the drama and pressures of everyday life.
The short climb up Masadawas one of many group activities on my free, ten-day trip to Israel. It was coordinated by the Birthright Israel Foundation,which plans trips in the winter and summer for Jewish 18- to 26-year-olds. Funded by Jewish philanthropists, organizations and Israeli taxes, the Birthright program sends its applicants from all over the world to Israel to educate and expose them to Jewish culture and customs.
Prior to Masada, I got a taste of life in Negev, a desert region in Israel. We traveled to the Negev Desert and rode camels that were large enough to easily support two people. The camels walked at a slower pace than most humans comforting, since I was about seven or eight feet in the air.
After the camel ride, all 40 of us situated ourselves in one giant Bedouin tent, which was about the size of a small USF classroom. Under a canvas roof, we were given lanterns,mattresses and sleeping bags to place on the carpeted surface.
The Bedouin are a predominately Muslim, nomadic people. Many live in the Negev Desert and are Israeli citizens. Some serve in the Israel Defense Forces and advise military officials on desert geography for intelligence and security.
Staying in Bedouin tents and observing their way of life offered me a glimpse of their culture. The Bedouins set up tents, equipment, food, cattle and other possessions in one area of the desert for a few days or weeks before moving again. It fascinated me that this group maintains this lifestyle while being surrounded by technology, electronics and a mostly Western standard of living.
After I ascended the Masada and took note of the ancient ruins, I noticed the mountain overlooked the Dead Sea, the lowest point of elevation and one of the saltiest lakes on Earth.
Ironically, vast expanses of sandy, arid land and mountains surround the Dead Sea, making it look like a big puddle on utterly parched territory.
Swimming in the Dead Sea was different from anything I am used to. The bottom of the sea is an oily, gooey black mud that is rich with minerals used to treat skin and other health problems. I hesitated to spread the black goo all over my body, but many of my Birthright pals did. One of my friends put the mud of the Dead Sea all over her arms, legs, torso and face. By the end of our trip, her complexion had completely cleared.
In addition to visiting natural Israeli landmarks like Masada and the Dead Sea, I also traveled to Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust museum and memorial in Jerusalem. The museum has records of more than four million holocaust victims, as well as Nazi propaganda films from the 1930s and 40s. Though we didnt get to see the entire museum, our British tour guide led us through a myriad of artifacts, photographs and videos dealing with the identification, concentration and extermination of Jews in such camps as Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen.
We even got to hear an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor, Hanna Pick, speak about her experience at Bergen-Belsen when she was a young girl. She went to school and was friends with Anne Frank.
Though the museums and natural sites were full of meaning and historical weight, other activities on the Birthright trip were more lighthearted and fun. I felt a positive energy and warmth in Israel, which I havent really felt in many other countries that Ive been to. Deeply rooted in faith and spirituality as well as science and technology, Israel is a place one could travel to again and again.