On Monday, I returned from the most incredible trip of my life thus far: my 10-day-turned-11-day trip to Israel (photos at the bottom of this post).
As many of you know, I’m Jewish (the rugelach and hamantaschen recipes may have given that away). Even though I’ve always considered myself to be more culturally Jewish than religiously Jewish, Israel has been on my dream vacation wish list for as long as I can remember. As what I can only think of as the greatest gift I have ever – and will ever – receive, Birthright granted this wish – all expenses paid.
If you have never heard of Birthright, in the most simple of terms, it is an all-expenses paid, 10-day trip to Israel for Jewish young adults, aged 18 to 26. Flights, hotels, tours, and even two meals per day are all included. Since I’m – as I said earlier – more culturally Jewish than religiously so, I chose to go on Amazing Israel‘s tour because that organizer seemed to be more focused on the culture of Israel (and Judaism) than on the religion itself.
When I arrived at the airport on July 2nd, I must admit that I was a little nervous. I didn’t know anybody on my New York-based trip and I was more-than-slightly terrified at the idea that I might be going on a 10-day excursion in which I would be and remain entirely friendless. Yeah… in case you didn’t previously know this about me, I’m pretty much the queen of illogical, ridiculous, and unjustified fears. Needless to say, I made friends on this trip. Good friends, great friends, even a few friends whose friendships I already have the feeling will be lifelong.
Now for the trip. Over the next few days, I went to Tsfat (the birthplace of Kabbalah – yes, that religion with the red string bracelet that Madonna famously follows), toured and tasted wines at Galil Mountain Vineyards, ran into a friend from college while out at dinner in Rosh Pina, hiked alongside the stream at Banias National Park, “rafted” down the River Jordan (really we just floated… there was no paddling done on my part), looked out upon Syria from the Golan Heights, and got to experience what life is like on a Kibbutz at Kibbutz Malkiya. And that was just in the first three days!
At this time, I must mention the food in Israel. Before my trip, I heard a multitude of conflicting opinions regarding Israeli food: “the breakfast is great but the other meals are terrible,” “the meats are delicious but everything else is weak,” “just eat hummus the whole time,” etc. I’m going to take a moment to clear up this argument once and for all: Israeli food is delicious. Yes, it is a little weird that they serve salad with breakfast, but their cottage cheese and fresh fruits are delectable enough to be eaten by Zeus himself. And don’t get me started on the hummus, felafel, shwarma, or kebabs. Seriously, they’re like an explosion of the senses. I swear that the first time I tried an authentic, Israeli felafel was seriously my most intense religious experience of the whole trip.
One of my favorite parts of the trip – if not my absolute favorite part – was the fact that we had six Israeli Defense Forces soldiers and two Israeli college students (in addition to our already-present Israeli driver, guide, and gun-slinging medic) join us for the second half of the trip. They ranged in age from 19 to late-twenties and quickly integrated themselves in [and pretty much became the stars of] our group. We met up with our “Mifgash” (the name given by Birthright for the Israelis that join the trip) on the beaches of Tel Aviv and, after about 30 minutes of semi-awkward, 50-person get-to-know-you games, we were let loose in the market in the port town of Jaffa. One of the Israeli soldiers and I lost track of the group and spent the next two hours haggling with shopkeepers (apparently I have a hidden gift in this art), walking around the marketplace, and discussing our backgrounds. This afternoon remains one of my fondest memories of the trip not only because it was when I first got to know the guy who would end up being one of my closest relationships forged on the trip, but also because it was when I first realized that – despite the fact that the two of us grew up half a world away from one another – we had so much in common: likes and interests, senses of humor, desire to see the world, and (the most strange for me since I come from Texas) religion. Our conversations that afternoon both set the tone for our future interactions throughout the rest of the trip and also helped me open up to the other Israelis… as well as my fellow Americans on the trip. For me, the trip really started that afternoon in Tel Aviv.
Check back in tomorrow for part two of my trip!