Friday, January 20, 2012

If you will it, it is no dream

I woke up thinking it might have been a dream. An entire trip to Israel, come and gone in what feels like the blink of an eye and a lifetime. Then I took out my notebook, only to find the IDF Air Force pendant given to me by Sharon, one of the Israeli participants. Turns out it wasn't dream after all.
A week and a half of discovery. We took in so many sights that my head is spinning. we ate such great food that filled my stomach with delight, we walked so much that my feet hurt, and we got to know each other better than anyone could have ever expected.
I cannot say that I have a truly favorite moment - so many stand out. From taking in the view in the Golan Heights, to dinner on Tiberius' shore, to riding camels, climbing rocks in the Negev and going to two different IDF bases, this trip not only provided an opportunity to experience Israel, but to experience several facets of Israel.
I'll speak about Masada, because that, for me, might be the real high point of Birthright. At 6am we anxiously gathered outside, in the cold semi-dark base of the mountain. Eagerly we ascended, bumping into each other along the way. At the summit we stopped and began to watch a miracle. I've always had an affinity for sunrises, but a sunrise shared with fifty peers, over a glittering pool of water from Masada's beautiful vantage point? I will remember this for life.
Of course, often times it is the company you are with, and not the venue itself that makes a moment memorable. In this case, both the place and the people made all eleven days special. Our walks through the cities of Jerusalem, Tzvat, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jaffa were opportunities to get to know each other while simultaneously sight-seeing a land not our own. During these walks, the Israelis might talk about the last time they were in some city, or we would be discussing the differences between American and Israeli culture - although it turns out we have much more in common. We had so little time to exchange lives and information, but we used what time we had to the best of our abilities. I remember walking along the beach, learning Hebrew words and taking in the fresh air.
I could go on for days and days, naming every little nook and cranny of our experience, but such long and stretched out descriptions would not do any of it justice. In eleven days, a group of 42 Americans and 9 Israelis discovered the bonds of friendship, of laughter, of tranquility in nature, and of the Jewish nation. What did we have in common? Judaism. Some of us are religious, some aren't. What did we come together over? The smiles. Eleven days created for me a lifelong connection to the land of Israel. I've been touched not only by its physical beauty, but also by the beauty of its people. Eleven days can go by very fast - so fast you can't stop to think about all the wonderful times you're having.

For me, I'm just glad those eleven days were real, but if they were a dream, then they are the best dream I ever had.

-Mitch Mosk '14

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Mt. Hertzl

Friday morning, we went to Mt. Herzel, the Israeli military cemetery. We heard from some of our soldiers who spoke about friends and brothers-in-arms that were killed in the line of duty. It was a very emotional day. The following was a poem that was written after this experience.

Mt. Hertzl

The godly man cries
Out in mourning
As the boy descends.
His mother stifles laughter (a smile)
Remembering her baby’s eyes
With flecks of gold and copper
They could always pierce her heart
Now cleaved in two.
The father holds her hand
And shudders
as he grasps that hand,
That tie to life and hope and the world outside his grief-stricken mind,
Squeezing tighter each passing moment.
He will never again
Hold his only son
Who it seemed like only yesterday,
As they played catch on freshly-cut grass,
Would grow up to be a doctor
A baseball player
An astronaut
Or a stock-trader
Who would fulfill his dreams
And Change the world.
The trees bow to the fallen soldier
As if to say:
“I know your sacrifice”
The boughs sway
In the rain-swept wind
Alongside his parents’
Quivering lips
As if to say:
“We feel your pain”

And somewhere else,
Not too close,
Not too far,
A seed begins
To grow

By: Cameron Seitzman '15

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A morning on top of Masada

            Bus 153’s Birthright trip is nearing the end and we THINK it is day nine, but no one can be quite sure. I am not sure if I can say this since we are on a free trip to Israel, but these Jumbos are certainly getting their moneys worth. In the past two days we have done and seen so many things that it is almost comical to group them together. On Wednesday we hiked through the Ein Ovdat canyons, picked fresh cumquats straight from the orchard and munched on purple carrots. To mix things up we headed to a Bedouin camp to get a taste of their sweet tea and sample their style of electricity-less tent living (no one has to know that our “modified” experience included a tent equipped with a green exit sign by the tent’s flap).  We concluded the sh-ga-on (Hebrew for crazy) day with an amazing walk into the desert for some stargazing.
Hiking in Ein Ovdat

            The following morning, Chaim, the faithful bus driver, dutifully brought us once again straight to our destination of interest. While our parents were just beginning to turn in for the night, Bus 153 was on their way to the base of Masada. We raced up the Roman just in time to see the sun rise across the Dead Sea, over the mountains of Jordan. There is no doubt Facebook will provide our number one fans with incredible pictures, but nothing can match standing at the top of one of Israeli’s most historic and meaningful places and experiencing it as a group.
On Masada right before sunrise! 
            Spending the morning at the top of Masada is a perfect model of what this Birthright trip has been for me. Sure I was craving breakfast, and shivering inside my borrowed IDF jacket, but our trusty guides managed to provide an experience that was packed with fun, excitement, learning opportunities and a chance to consider our own beliefs. While learning about the history of the mountain, my peers and I got to enjoy a Broadway caliber performance of King Herod’s marriage. Alyza, clad in a toga-sheet, wig, crown and fabulous glasses starred as King Herod, while Noam, our security guard stole the show as Queen Miriam.
            Hearing the story of the battle on Masada is what made the morning so memorable. A recurring theme of our travels through Israel has been the fight for our land. Our Israeli soldiers have taught us the most about this when they explain that even though they would love to travel the world or go to a university after high school, they understand the importance of serving their country. Many historical confrontations, including the Holocaust, have showed us the necessity of fighting to protect a homeland for the Jews. Everyone I speak to here conveys the immense pride they feel for the State of Israel, something I have never experienced anywhere else.
            When the Roman Empire was in power, some of the Jewish people decided to rebel because of anti-Semitic laws that hindered their ability to practice their faith. Masada was the last remaining settlement. Only 900 people lived on top of this mountaintop and only a third were potential warriors. The Romans drastically out numbered and over powered the Jewish people. However, the Jews at the top of Masada fought until the end. When at last the remaining thirty families realized that their fate was either to be killed by the Romans or taken hostage, the Jews took matters into their own hands. In order to fight one last time for the religion in which they believed, the men of the community killed their family members and then killed themselves until no one remained.
            What is interesting about this story is that the thing that the Jewish faith values the most is a human life. Stories have showed that we will go to great lengths just to preserve a life. The story from the top of Masada, therefore, presents a challenge. This story shows that these people chose to steer in a different direction from tradition. Rather than valuing the human life above all else, the people of Masada decided it was more important to make a final act to display loyalty to their religion.
Are there exceptions to Jewish teachings and values? Can we only judge situations based on circumstance? These are questions with which I struggle, and this trip to Israel has taught me that we need to constantly challenge our thoughts and asks questions. Being with this group on Birthright has been a great opportunity to hear from my peers as a resource for beginning to understand different aspects of my Jewish beliefs.
- Samantha Tye '13

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Yad Vashem

Yesterday the group went to visit Yad Vashem. The night before, we did an activity where we all gathered around papers on the floor, each of which had a different emotion typed on it. Although a lot of us expressed that we felt a combinations of many of the emotions, we were to choose the one we identified with most. I decided to choose the paper that read “Confused.” For me, a grandchild of survivors, I was confused about what my reaction should be, would be, and how I deal with it. Indeed, upon exiting the museum, I did feel very confused. I had just seen and taken in so many things that touched me so deeply and made me feel so many different things, I wasn’t sure how to react or what to say. Through talking with people in the group (and our many wonderful bus rides), I found the time to be able to reflect and sort through how this museum made me feel.
We started off our experience with a tour down the Path of the Righteous where we were offered the opportunity by our tour guide to share if we had any family who survived and to say where they were. I couldn’t believe how many people in our small group had families who were personally affected by the Holocaust. Later, our tour guide explained that when some survivors were asked about wanting revenge for what they were forced to endure, the survivors said their revenge came in the form of their children, the continuation of the Jewish people. So we, as a group of these children or these children’s children, all delved into this exploration together.
            One particularly prominent thought I kept returning to came up when we heard about those Jews who were not lucky enough to survive the camps and ghettos. I kept coming back to the question, “Why me? Why my grandparents? Why am I standing here instead of someone else’s granddaughter? What made my family so much more deserving than the families of these amazing, talented inspirational people who everything, including their lives, taken away from?” Room after room, I stared at dioramas, photos, and objects, and my tear-filled eyes took everything in while these questions remained unanswered.
            I don’t think I could accurately convey how much the group supported each other through this rollercoaster of emotions. For me, the smiles, arm pats, back rubs and understanding eyes proved to me that I had chosen the right time to go to Yad Vashem, an amazing place I never thought I would emotionally be able to handle. I found myself pushing myself past my limits, and as a result gaining so much perspective and knowledge that I will take with me forever. At one point I was asked if I was okay and if I wanted to keep going (this is when I knew that I really looked like a mess). I thought for a minute, and responded that even if I didn’t want to continue for myself, I would continue for my family, particularly thinking of my grandfather who has done so much for Holocaust and tolerance education and awareness in the United States. When leaving, I even signed the book, “I am here not only for myself, but for my family members as well-both those who survived and those who did not.”
            In the room full of Holocaust victim’s records, I took a deep breath and walked into a back room with computers, each of which had an internet page pulled up to a search engine to find records of those who perished. Not wanting to lose the group, I went for the first person I thought of. Next thing I know, I was staring at a photo of my grandmother’s brother, Benjamin (Benno) Soep. I was overwhelmed by the intense combination of thoughts and emotions that hit me like a wall. Looking back on this moment, I am so thankful for the unique opportunity that Yad Vashem gave to combine broad, general ideas and the big events, with small, personal moments like this in an absolutely moving way.
            We ended our visit by being fortunate enough to hear a survivor speak. Asher Ud touched all of us with his eloquent and straight-forward delivery, expressing so wonderfully everything he had to do to simply alive. I believe that his strength and openness, and the unbelievable nature of his story, left our group understanding the importance of taking opportunities to talk to survivors as their numbers decrease and the Holocaust moves further into the past.
            I did not come up with an answer to my “Why me?” question until much later on that night, right before I was going to bed. I realized, “why” isn’t the important part. No matter who is here as survivors, or children or grandchildren if survivors, we should not question why us over somebody else. My grandfather often says to me, “I should not say this, but I should not be alive, so you should not be alive. So you much appreciate and use the life G-d gave you, and make sure that nothing like the Holocaust happens again.” So, after sorting through all of the emotions, I realized that the visit to Yas Vashem made me want to fight for tolerance and justice as a representative of the survivors, and of those who were unable to create families of their own. Our visit to Yad Vashem was an extremely powerful experience for us all, and something I don’t think any of us will ever forget.
-Sofi Shield '14

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Israel is a land of contradictions

Israel is a land of contradictions.

Most of the countryside seems made of rectangular, sand-colored, blocky buildings nestled just as comfortably on rolling hillsides or patchy desert. Then there’s Jaffa – an ancient city of twisting, narrow cobblestone pathways, tucked between impossibly modern studios.

Above it all towers Tel Aviv. Skyscrapers burst out of the horizon, cranes high in the sky peering down at the beach below. It’s almost quiet for such an urban center, despite the occasional buzz of traffic, a flickering reminder of the scale on which Israel considers its cities. Even its name is contradictory – the old new city.

So much of Israel is both so old and so new. It’s amazing that Jaffa can be both the city where Jonah embarked on his fateful journey, and, at the same time, border the museum commemorating Israeli’s 1948 declaration of independence. For such a new country, Israel has an astonishing amount of history. Not the ancient biblical history, although that too is astounding – every hillside, no matter how commonplace, seems to have been the epicenter of dozens of historical events. No, Israel’s last century and a half, the story of the birth and struggle of a nation still coming into its own.

Sunset over Jaffa

We had, of course, studied Israel’s declaration of nationhood in school, and the war of independence. It was another thing entirely to sit in the very room where it took place, listening to a scratchy recording of the original speech and staring at an enormous portrait of Theodore Herzl. One can almost feel the energy and excitement that must have filled the room and the country.

Later that day, we went to the site of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, an unassuming memorial at the corner of Rabin Square, bordered by busy streets and restaurants ranging from falafel stands to vegan burgers. We wandered around the square in small groups, and stopped passer-byers, politely inquiring about their memories of the assassination, and their opinions of the event.

One of the women, older than most of those we talked to, didn’t speak English. Our Israeli friend Bar translated, interjecting a few words when she stopped to think. “We must be careful,” she told us, “to make sure it never happens again.”
Cohen sisters asking passers-by about the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin. 

After visiting the Holocaust Museum, that’s a message that rings true. As sisters, we held each other for comfort against the stark and tragic truths that assailed us. We faced together the knowledge that somewhere in the museum, we might have seen the face of a relative we will never meet. There’s another contradiction inherent there – the museum highlights both horrific tragedies and beautiful moments of incredible human goodness.

Our time here is too short to even begin to uncover all the contradictions Israel holds. Jerusalem’s Old City holds the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa all pressed close together, surrounded by layers of history. We can only hope to leave with a sliver more of understanding than what we came with, a tiny corner of insight into this fascinating country.

- Isabelle and Amelia Cohen

Monday, January 9, 2012

Boston-Haifa Connection is alive and good!

Through the Boston-Haifa connection, we were able to go to Airforce Base 21. One of our Israeli participants, Sharon, is a drill sergeant at this very base! We went on a tour of the base and learned about the different planes and helicopters that the Israeli Defense Force uses. Additionally, we met with high school students who attend the technical school. This school enables high school students to train to be airplane technicians and pilots before they are even 18 years old. We played sports and these students introduced our participants to a local favorite treat, CREMBO! 

More to come later!    

Lauren Witte writing her blog! 

Our guide at the air force base described some of the different planes and helicopters at Base 21. 

Everyone was really excited to be there! 

Some of the group in front of the F16 fighter plane.

Group picture with the Israeli HighSchool students who attend the technical school at the airforce base. 

Julia gets a look inside the cockpit of the F16!

Scott's birthday present was sitting in the cockpit! 

Not only did we see planes and helicopters, we also had the opportunity to play sports with some Israeli students. 

Saturday, January 7, 2012

It is all good in the Kibbutz!

     I can only imagine what we looked like as we stepped off the plane after close to twenty hours of traveling. Seven Israeli soldiers greeted us at the airport dancing and singing and carrying balloons, but the forty of us were too tired to dance along with them. Since then, though, we’ve been on the move and going at a hundred miles per hour every day guided by our tour guide Dikla, our leaders Sam and Alyza and our bus driver, Chaim. So far, we’ve been to the old city in Jerusalem, the city of Tzvat, the Golan heights, and Kibbutz Chukuk, where we have been staying for the past two nights. 

     This weekend was very relaxing and peaceful. I had no idea what to expect when I read that we would be staying on a Kibbutz. I thought there would be animals roaming around and we would be staying in cabins, like on a camping trip. While my general idea was right (some kibbutzim have livestock and this one has lots of dogs and cats), I’ve learned that the idea of a kibbutz is more about community and sharing. We had a full Kibbutz experience as we stayed here for our first Shabbat in Israel. We had a Kabbalat Shabbat service last night and Havdalah tonight and in between we slept in (yeah!), played soccer, and listened to a few of our group mates play the guitar. Every day we do lots of activities and today we did one of the most interesting activities thus far. We got into groups and discussed topics related to the torah portion of this week, such as what it means to be Jewish in Israel versus in the U.S., how we identify as Jewish in our daily lives, and how our lives have changed now that we’ve been to Israel.  It may not seem that exciting on paper, but it was one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in a long time. 

     A few of my friends who have gone on birthright came home and said they felt more connected to their Jewish identities. I thought this sounded a bit corny at the time, but I can definitely tell how the trip has and will change my Jewish life at home. While I probably (ok, definitely) won’t become any more religious, I can say that I will think more about Israel and my connection to Israel. Tomorrow we are off to Haifa and Tel Aviv. For all of the parents who are reading this just to see if their kids are alive and having fun: the answer is yes! You can look forward to another blog in the coming days. Shalom!     
Lauren Witte ‘14