Taglit: My trip to the Motherland

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had a constant case of wanderlust. Then again, I think just about everyone would be lying if they said they didn’t.

After years of putting off my trip because I didn’t want to take the time off work, I finally decided to take my biggest vacation in a long time: Taglit.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, Taglit is a 10 day trip to Israel, also known as Birthright. As described on their website:

Birthright Israel began with a bold idea—offering a free, life-changing trip to Israel to young Jewish adults between the ages of 18 and 26 and, in doing so, transforming the Jewish future.

Our mission is to give every Jewish young adult around the world, especially the unaffiliated, the opportunity to visit Israel.

Today, Birthright Israel is the largest educational tourism organization in the world.

There are multiple trip organizers, all with various trip options. I wanted a full trip experience but personally was not looking for something overly religious, so I opted for the Israel Quest trip by the organizer Israel Outdoors. It is the most basic trip option offered by Israel Outdoors, who is also known for trips like Israel by Foot and an extreme biking trip.

I ended up planning my trip from Jan 16-26, just a week and a half before I turned 27 and become ineligible due to my age. I wasn’t really sure what to expect ahead of going. I didn’t know anyone who’d gone on an older trip (they range from 18-21, 22-26 and 24-26), and I’d heard that the younger trips are fun, but not as meaningful since people’s priorities are not always the same.

When I got to the JFK International Airport to meet my group I was a bundle of nerves. What if I didn’t get along with anyone? What if I got lost? What if something happened while we were there? So many thoughts we rushing through my mind. But within 5 minutes they were all eased as I started meeting members of my group and found a group of girls to walk around the airport with.

I won’t drag you through the full itinerary: let’s just say that because this trip is funded by donors, they make sure to pack in as many things as possible. We made it from the most Northern part of Israel, all the way to the most South, East and Western areas. We went from activity to activity to lecture to activity to bus ride to hike to activity all day every day. I got very used to sleeping for only a few hours a night and then napping on some of our longer bus rides.

On top of the 40 American Jews on my trip we had our two American leaders, Zissy and Raoul; our Israeli tour guide, Shabi; an Israeli body guard, Gonen; and 8 amazing Israeli soldiers who were with us for the trip. Our trip was a pilot trip, testing out a few new things, so we also had a representative from birthright, Hila, who joined us for the trip.

One big thing that was different about our trip was that our Israeli soldiers were all officers in the army. While Taglit is usually accompanied by soldiers, they are usually 18-19 years old and just starting in the army. Ours ranged from 22-29 and were all off of their required duty and continuing to serve as officers in their respective units. They ranged from working in intelligence to a paratrooper to a member of the Navy and everything in between. Our also joined us for the full 10 days of the trip, where on other trips they only join for 4-5 days.

I absolutely loved this aspect of our trip. Getting to know them was by far one of the best parts of my trip. They were so open about sharing what their lives in Israel were like, about what it was like to join the army at 18, genuinely cared about hearing about the US and overall were a joy to be around. My bus buddy, Maor, was especially wonderful. I loved getting to see pictures of his friends in his unit and learning about where he was from. Omer and Gonen both taught me Krav Maga. Natali and Arielle were a joy to be around. Yaniv and Ali both saved me on different hikes. Shani was the best roommate I could’ve asked for. And Yuval was always so sweet.

The trip itself was overwhelming. Imagine meeting 51 strangers and then having to spend all of your time with them for the next 10 days. Now imagine doing that in a foreign country. It’s definitely a lot to handle. But luckily, the people on my trip were a joy to be around. That’s not to say I didn’t call my boyfriend in a panic a few times because I was deprived of personal space—but it’s definitely easier to have that panic attack when you at least enjoy the people you’re surrounded by. Everyone’s passion for adventure, desire to take in a new culture, and understanding of different personalities made the trip a much more enjoyable experience.

As I said, I won’t bore you with the nitty-gritty details of the trip, that would take far too many words and you’d never make it through my post. But here are a few highlights:

The Dead Sea

deadsea3

There is no stranger feeling than effortlessly floating in water. When we first went into the Dead Sea I was a little worried. No matter how many times you’re told you won’t sink, it’s still hard to just trust sitting back in the water and having to believe you won’t go under. Getting to cover myself in mud (something I never thought you could pay me to do) and float around was so much fun.

dead seaTwo warnings:

  1. Don’t get water in your eyes. I did and it was miserable. But if you do, DO NOT TOUCH YOUR EYE. It’s really hard not to, I mean it’s a natural reaction after all, but you have to avoid touching it or you’ll make it worse. You have to get out of the water and rinse it out.
  2. Do not shave the day you’re going to the Dead Sea. Thankfully I knew this ahead of time and didn’t shave for two days prior. But a few girls on my trip didn’t hear this tip in advance and their legs were burning.

Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl

yad vashem

Yad Vashem was a humbling experience. I’ve been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington before, but at the time I was young and did not really understand the magnitude of it. At Yad Vashem I could not get past the magnitude. The memorial does a beautiful job of not only portraying the events that took place during the Holocaust, but also gives a wonderful portrayal of the life of Jews in Germany prior to Hitler’s rising, giving you an even deeper understanding of what they were stripped of during that time. I made it about halfway through before breaking down in tears.

Our tour guide was also fantastic. She did a wonderful job of touching on topics and going in-depth where it seemed fit, while making sure we made it through the museum in our allotted timeframe.

After the main memorial, we went to the memorial for the children lost during the Holocaust. It was a stunning monument that, once you entered, was dark except for candles and mirrors showing the reflections of those candles, making it appear as though there was hundreds in the small room.

mount herzl
Tombstone of an Israeli soldier

After Yad Vashem and a quick-lunch, we walked up to Mount Herzl, where we saw Theodor Herzl’s grave, the resting places of the Great Leaders of the Nation, and of those soldiers who died in war. During this walk not only did we learn about those buried in the cemetery, but we also stopped in a place where the names of those written as casualties of terrorist attacks were written, where Shabi proceeded to tell us the story of his cousin and uncle who lost their lives the night before his cousin’s wedding. It was heartbreaking, but so eye-opening to hear.

 

At the end of our walk through the cemetery, our soldiers did something special for us – they shared part of the ceremony that all military hold on Israel’s Memorial Day. They shared stories, read prayers, and shared with us something that most birthright trips don’t get to experience. It was easily one of my favorite moments of the trip.

Sunrise Hike of Masada

masada

masada2

The sunrise hike of Masada was memorable on so many levels. We had to wake up around 4am after arriving at our hotel just before midnight. We were all exhausted, but eager to see sunrise at Masada.

We hiked up the Snake Path as the sun started to emerge, and were able to watch it reach its peak from the top of Masada. Our exhaustion turned into excitement as we took photo after photo of the sun beaming over the plateau that was once a fortress.

After what felt like hours, we continued our trek through Masada. We walked through what used to be pools and churches and towers and dwelling; places where we later learned 960 people committed mass suicide or killed each other.

When we reached another peak we joined together to celebrate the Bat Mitzvah of two members of our trip. We gathered in a circle to celebrate with song, then each girl having her Bat Mitzvah shared a story of which mitzvah they would strive to achieve throughout their life.

Then, we danced. We sang and danced and celebrated them, celebrated all being together, celebrated our hike, and celebrated the gift we’d been given for this chance to be in Israel.bat mitzvah

Then, we descended. And I panicked.

I’m terrified of heights. But not in the “I hate all heights” sense of the term. I’m fine on airplanes, fine on rollercoasters, fine hot air ballooning, but I cannot handle anything where I feel like I can fall. In fact, a ladder with more than three steps makes me anxious. And of course, the way down was a lot of very high steps.

We descended Masada on the Roman Ramp, a mix of steps and hill that, in some areas, have hand rails, and in others don’t. When we first began on the ramp I had to cling to the railing. I hadn’t realized just how high we’d climbed until I saw where I had to go to get down.

Suddenly, the railings ended and there was nothing stopping me from stumbling down to my death (ok, I know I’m being dramatic, but that’s what heights do to me). I started panicking. My legs shaking, tears streaming down my face and every step I took felt like I was going to pummel to my death. Then, Yaniv came to my rescue.

After seeing me struggle with the descent, Yaniv came over to help. He grabbed my hand and walked me dow the rest of the path – a task that felt like hours though it was probably only around 30 minutes. Really, I have no clue how long because it felt like a lifetime.

Yaniv held my hand the whole way down, constantly switched sides of the path with me so he would be between me and the edge of the path, and kept talking to me the whole way down, asking questions about Chicago to distract me from the task at hand.

When we finally made it to the bottom of the Roman Ramp I wanted to cry. In fact, I think I shed a tear or two. My legs continued to shake for about 15 minutes and I still felt a knot in my chest, but I had conquered my fear and made it to the bottom. There was no greater feeling than making it down that hike.

Kotel: The Western Wall

kotelThe Western Wall (Kotel) was one of the most humbling experiences of my lifetime. Not only did we have the opportunity to experience visiting the Kotel, but we were able to do so on Shabbat.

kotel2We first visited on a Friday morning, getting the chance to view the Kotel. We learned the history, the significance, and about everyone who came to visit what is known as the holiest site that Jews can pray. We then all had a chance to go up the wall, pray, and leave a prayer note within the cracks in the wall – one of the more well-known traditions upon visiting. I grabbed a pen, wrote down my prayer, and asked one of our soldiers to help me translate it into Hebrew for me. Then I made my way up to the wall, leaned in to pray and left my note to G-d so that my prayer would stay there to manifest. When I finished, I backed away from the wall and made my way back to the group so that we could head back to our hotel to get ready for Shabbat.

To celebrate Shabbat, we made our way back to the Kotel to join the prayers for Kabbalat Shabbat, or “Welcoming Shabbat”. These were unlike anything I had experienced in the past. The only word I have to describe them is magical.

Once we made our way into the Kotel, we said a group prayer and danced together as a group. We could not use our phones or electronics, so we came up with a time and place to meet so that we could all go off and enjoy the prayers and experience the evening.

The men and women were separated for the prayers, so I made my way with a few girls to the female section. Before making our way towards the wall we took a moment to take in everything. In the men’s area there were hundreds, if not thousands, of men gathering, singing, dancing and greeting one another in celebration. The women’s section was more reserved, though a few groups towards the back were laughing and dancing.

We wandered into the back of the women’s section to see what it was truly like to experience Kabbalat Shabbat. While there, we met a girl who was originally from the United States, but was living in Jerusalem for the year to study Hebrew. She shared stories of her experiences with us and welcomed us to pray with her.

From the dancing to the laughter to just seeing the wide range of people of all ages and backgrounds coming together to joyously gather for Shabbat the experience was truly moving. And when it came time to leave we all got to walk back to the hotel together – we could not drive until sundown the next day.

Shabbat Services in Jerusalem

On Saturday morning we were given the option to either sleep in (which honestly sounded amazing with how jam-packed the 10 days were) or attend Shabbat services at synagogues in Jerusalem. While the majority of our group decided to catch up on sleep I joined about 7 others to synagogue-hop and experience what different services were like.

We attended about 4 different synagogues, making it to both Conservative and Orthodox services. Not only was this my first time attending a service fully in Hebrew, but it was the first time I ever attended an Orthodox service.

The Orthodox service was vastly different from what I was used to. First of all the dress code was more formal and modest than my synagogue here. For women we had to wear a long skirt and a shirt that covered the collarbone and had sleeve.

Men and women also did not sit together. At the two Orthodox synagogues we went to the men and women did not even sit on the same floor. The men were on the main level closest to the Rabbi and the Holy Ark. The women were seated a level above – at one synagogue we were able to see the first floor, while at the other the view was blocked by screens so that you could only see a sliver of the main floor.

While this separation was the most distinct part of my experience, it was interesting to see how a more Orthodox Israeli viewed our synagogue outing. When we went to one of the conservative synagogue’s there was a female Rabbi – something I’m very used to seeing – but work our body-guard had never witnessed before. It was very humbling to see the differences in our cultures and our denominations of Judaism.

Not to mention it was a fabulous walk since we could not drive anywhere.

The Food

Everything we ate was amazing. From the falafel to the shakshuka to the hummus to the salads, every single thing I tried was delicious. No words can do it justice, but the few pictures I took will make your mouth water.

labneh
Homemade Labneh
open air market spices
Nuts and Dried Fruits at the Open Air Market
frozen mint lemonade
Frozen Mint Lemonade
shakshouka on the beach
Frozen Mint Lemonade and Shakshuka on the Beach
shakshouka pita
Shakshuka Pita

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