10 days in Israel

For those of you wondering where I’ve been and why my remarkable penmanship has not made its way towards your computer screen in two weeks, I have spent the better part of that time halfway across the world, visiting the Motherland, also known as Israel.

Among my meticulous pre-trip planning and organizing — albeit one night before my departure, but meticulous nonetheless — I neglected to post here that I would be MIA for a little while. I tried one time to post it in Israel in a short time I had WiFi, and then I remembered that I’m on vacation and that I should put my phone away. No offense to you all.

My trip was free, courtesy of URJ Kesher, a trip organizer for Taglit-Birthright, an organization that sends young Jews to Israel for 10 days to visit the place in which their lineage originated.

As a young Jew, I have had many friends who have gone on this trip, only to come back reborn, resurrected, a new person with different beliefs and priorities, memories, and an entire new outlook on how they perceive day-to-day living. So I had to go and give it a shot. I wasn’t necessarily expecting to have any type of spiritual catharsis, but hey, if I did, then why not? I could use some structure.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I knew to expect the unexpected. It’s been quite some time since I went on a long vacation, and I knew it would be good for me to get away, and force myself to go somewhere where the trivial things that bother us in our normal lives would become meaningless.

10 days later, I wouldn’t exactly say I am a new man, but I definitely feel like there’s at least a part of me that is forever changed. A little orb now exists somewhere in my chest labeled “Israel” that will stay there forever.

As somebody who is content to spend an entire Sunday in bed in his pajamas — which is exactly what I plan to do today — one can only imagine how different it felt to visit the Old City of Jerusalem, hike a 1,500-foot mountain, swim in the Dead Sea, ride a camel and sleep in a tent with 40 other Jews, all in a 96-hour span.

The trips work to combine 40 people from across the country (including Canada) of approximately the same age, so that you can share the experience with one another. Needless to say, after spending nearly every moment with these people for 10 days, you’re going to form extremely close friendships, and that is exactly what happened.

The purpose of the trip is naturally to educate young Jews on Judaism and the state of Israel, to form a connection to the Homeland, to create friendships with other Jews, and to hopefully stay and/or become a practicing Jew for the rest of your life. I can certainly say that I learned a lot — as someone who grew up in a mostly secular household, I am pretty ignorant to the happenings in the Middle East and to religion altogether. I can’t say I’m an expert now, but at least being there for a week-plus has given me some perspective, and also taught me not to trust the American media too much when it comes to the topic.

It was my first time entering another continent (I’ve been to Aruba, which is really in Central America, but technically considered North America), and the trip definitely inspired me to want to see more of the world.

But what will stick with me the most is the friendships. Not that I don’t love my friends back home, but when you progress through life and enter your mid-20s, you don’t really put yourself in a position to meet a ton of new people. So to meet 40+ individuals and spend so much time with them, learn about who they are and where they come from, is really special and something you don’t experience besides your first few weeks of college. 

I’m particularly glad I went to Israel when I did. I could have went as young as 18. But as ignorant as I am now, at 26, I could say with the utmost certainty that I wouldn’t have appreciated the trip back then as much as I did now. At such a young age, my priority would have been to go to Israel and get drunk — the Israeli drinking age is 18 – instead of focusing on the people, the land, the culture.

Which is pretty magnificent, might I add. Everywhere you step in Israel, a breathtaking view surrounds you. You don’t get that too often in the U.S. The Dead Sea, for the record, is actually a pretty damn exotic place, and not just a historical and iconic novelty. It’s Earth’s lowest elevation on land, and the water is so salty that you float without even trying to. I was actually doing sit-ups at one point while floating in the water.

It’s not to say that I didn’t appreciate the religious aspect of the trip, either. What really stuck with me was learning that the original Jews were forced out of Jerusalem with the intention of getting it back, so that one day, Jews could return. That’s why cedars always end with the line, “Next year in Jerusalem,” to pay tribute to our ancestors who had that wish 2,000 years ago. And it came true.

My group was also fortunate to have quite possibly the best tour guide on the planet, who went by the name of Ayal Beer. His mix of knowledge and humor made the trip what it was, and even though he’s spent his entire life in Israel, his knowledge of American pop culture was impeccable. One night, after returning to our hotel from a night out in Tel Aviv, he walked by a group of us and said, “’80s dance party in room 408.” Naturally, I thought he was joking, but lo and behold, as I walked back to my room, I hear ’80s music blasting nearby, only to see Ayal and a few others dancing chaotically at 2:00 in the morning. I jumped in without hesitation.

It’s still going to take quite a while to decompress, and wrap my head around the whole thing and what exactly it meant to me. Two days after returning home, it’s safe to say I’ve never been more disoriented in my life, between missing the land, my new friends, jet lag, and the shock of returning home and having so much time to myself.

There’s nothing more cliché in life than saying “it felt like it was a dream,” but that’s really what it feels like. 10 days is nothing. It flies by in the blink of an eye, and then so does the next 10 days, and the 10 days after that. I just happened to spend the past 10 of them in Israel. We did so much in such little time, that I’ve never had a more exhausting yet fulfilling experience in my life.

I think what I’ve learned over the years is that the goal of having an experience is not to isolate it. It’s easy to do something memorable and then keep it solely to yourself, and separate it from your every day life. What I really want to do is exactly the opposite — to incorporate it into my life. I want to wear it on my sleeve, and take the things I learned over there — about the world and about myself — and use it to better my life over here. Because that’s the true meaning of an experience, and there’s no reason why the two things have to be mutually exclusive.

Kesher

But don’t worry, some things will never change, and tomorrow, I’ll be back with my typical asinine and childish narratives, tackling today’s relevant issues under a humorous lens.

And next time I go away, I promise I’ll leave a note.

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