10 Extraordinary Days on Birthright
by Jose Matiella ’17
I was never a religious person, and I don’t plan on becoming one. However, my birthright trip made me feel closer to the Jewish people and made me embrace my Jewish heritage. It’s an extraordinary experience that words can’t describe. You must check it out for yourself to understand what I’m saying. Here’s what I did each day:
Day 1: Intro, Arrival, and the Sea of Galilee
I had the luxury of travelling for 10 days with Israel Outdoors Bus 134 organized by Rutgers University. I knew I was going to have a blast as soon as I started getting acquainted with the people on my bus at the orientations. At the airport before heading off to Israel, I learned that you didn’t need to be a Rutgers student to be on our bus. Our group was lucky enough to be accompanied by friends from Maine, Massachusetts, California, Tennessee, and the great state of Texas. So we weren’t only going to learn about life in Israel, but also life in the rest of our country by interacting with people from other states. I love diversity!
We arrived in Israel 11 hours later and got into our bus so we wouldn’t be late to our first “light hike” – keep in mind that “light hike” will be a recurring theme throughout the rest of our trip. The bus rides through the country were incredible! I was impressed by the signs because “everything’s in Hebrew!” I might have passed some extremely offensive signs, but I wouldn’t have known because I wasn’t as familiar with the language or the curse words as I was by the end of the trip. Also, the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets are beautiful, and I like seeing those letters put together into words.
Our tour guide, Hannan, took us on a “light hike” on Mt. Arbel near the Sea of Galilee. We saw breathtaking sights from the top of the mountain, and we climbed it down to the bottom. Most of us don’t climb up or down mountains on hot days very often, if ever, so this “light hike” was seen more like a “march of death”. We were sweating and panting by the end of it. It was a breathtaking experience (literally).
Then, after a stop in the beautiful city of Tiberias, we went to our hotel in Kinneret, and had a series of fun ice breakers to learn a lot about each other, our deepest darkest secrets, and our quirks. Then we had a Shabbat dinner and hung out all night long. It was really cool to return to the place where our ancestors walked around thousands of years ago.
Day 2: Shabbat and Deganya Aleph
I spent most of Shabbat hanging out with friends, throwing a Frisbee, and watching a TV show about an entrepreneur who made a fortune by turning a cooler into a portable picnic kit. We were only a walking distance away from the first kibbutz established in Israel, Deganya Aleph, so we walked there, played with cows, and fed them hay. If you enjoy getting your hands licked or chewed on, then cows are the pets for you.
Later in the hotel, we had a very enthusiastic Israeli woman teach us how to throw down some dance moves… Israeli style! The whole time I thought, “This is a pretty solid workout. I’m going to lose weight here!” only to drink a beer and eat schnitzel afterward. That leads me to my next point: Don’t expect to lose weight on a Birthright trip. That’s a ridiculous expectation. Israeli food is too good to miss out on, and you will regret not trying the local delicacies. So unless you fast, you will most likely fail to lose weight. Sorry, but it’s not going to happen. You still look great!
Day 3: Golan Heights and Jordan River
I was very excited to go to the Golan Heights. It’s a geopolitical prize and strategic military position captured from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967. I thought it was going to be an adrenaline rush because there are mine fields everywhere and a civil war going on just a few miles away in Syria. However, it has some of the most beautiful landscapes in Israel, and you can even get a good view of Syria and Lebanon from a distance. It was an oddly relaxing experience, like imagining a painting coming to life.
Then we had a “light hike” on the waters of the Jordan River and take a rafting journey down the river. Not only did I enjoy this part because of the rafting, but also because we had the chance to interact with Israeli strangers who were hanging out on the river banks. We jammed out to the music from a family cookout, saw kids jumping off trees into shallow water, learned an obscene phrase in Hebrew from some teenagers, and watched some women scream at them for teaching us the phrase. I learned a lot of colorful phrases like that during the trip. You never know when they’ll come in handy.
Day 4: Tzfat and the Negev
This was an exciting day because we were introduced to our Israeli peers! Besides the fact that they were conscripts in the IDF, they were all around our age and had a lot of things in common with us. I was excited to learn about them, how they view the world, and learn some Hebrew with them. We went to the mystical city of Tzfat and learned about the mikvah ritual. Tzfat was a beautiful city with fascinating architecture, delicious food, and cool souvenirs! If there was one place that reminded me of Aladdin, it was Tzfat.
Then we took a long bus ride down to our hotel in the Negev to get ready for our hike up Masada in the morning. We played games in a tennis court and had fun, which was cut short because the hike up Masada was going to be a heck of a “light hike”. We went to sleep early at around 1:00 AM.
Day 5: Masada, the Dead Sea, and the Bedouin Tents
“Wakie wakie!” It was 3:00 AM, we were half-knocked-out, and we hiked up the ancient mountaintop fortress of Masada. We took the long snake path up the mountain, which took us a few hours to climb. Once we got to the top, we saw an incredible view of the Negev and the Dead Sea. It’s amazing to think that an army of thousands of Roman soldiers climbed up there during a siege. How was this place built on a mountaintop? What a spectacle! Afterwards, we took a dip in the Dead Sea to get rid of the sweat from the hike. I enjoyed floating around like a rickety raft while making my skin feel softer than velvet. That being said, it was the saltiest experience of my life.
Later that night, Hannan took us deep into the desert. We could see thousands of stars in the night sky, as well as some fighter jets whizzing around. We all laid down next to desert shrubs and looked up at the sky, and Hannan guided us through a meditative journey. “Breathe in… Breathe out…” I didn’t realize I fell asleep until my friend woke me up from my out of body experience. It felt very peaceful. The rest of the night, I walked around the camp with some friends and met people from other buses. Some groups sang together, some just quietly stared at each other, but none of the groups there were as fun or interesting as my group.
Day 6: Sde Boker, Ein Ovdat, Salad Trail, and Sderot
Time for more “light hikes”! This time, we visited the beautiful desert wonders of Sde Boker and Ein Ovdat. Sde Boker was David Ben-Gurion’s final resting place in the middle of the desert. It’s an oasis-like place with plenty of wildlife and cats. I forgot to mention that Israel has a lot of stray cats. They’re like the Israeli equivalent of squirrels in America. It’s crazy to think that they’re common in places in the middle of the desert. What I’m trying to say is that this place in the middle of the desert is flourishing with life.
On the other hand, Ein Ovdat seemed to be a geologist’s dream come true. It’s a spectacular trail in a canyon full of impressive rock formations and springs. If you want to take any kind of picture in a desert canyon, then this is the place you want to take them! I felt like I was in Star Wars.
We went to get lunch in a town famous for its salad trail. We got to eat pretty much everything that grew from the ground there: tomatoes, carrots, mint leaves, etc. Apparently, this place was situated right next to Egypt and the Gaza Strip. However, the lunch wasn’t as intense as the location makes it seem, in fact, the food here was insanely good! The next town we visited was far more intense than this one, though.
I’m talking about Sderot. You may recognize this name from the news whenever the conflict with Gaza kicks off. This town is only 800 meters away from the Gaza Strip and is constantly bombarded with rockets. Practically every corner, bus stop, and playground in this town has a bomb shelter. Apart from the distant gunfire, the town is very quiet and the people here seemed to keep to themselves for the most part. Most people in this town have been deeply affected by the conflict. They’ve seen it all. That, however, doesn’t mean that they have lost their ability to laugh and have a good time with loved ones. Depression and misery will eat you alive if you let it take over. Making the best out of difficult situations is certainly possible. You just have to want happiness in your life, and welcome it with open arms. That’s one of the greatest takeaways from the trip, and it resonated with me when I had a great time partying in Tel Aviv that night.
Day 7: Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv is a captivating city. Imagine all the cities in the US mixed with some European cities… you end up with Tel Aviv. This place has it all. The city was expecting everyone from Birthright the day we went. We were led around by a Klezmer band and Brazilian samba drummers. It was like we were on parade. I wondered what the locals thought about Birthright or Americans in general. So I met some friendly Israelis on the beach. One guy was a soldier who wanted to be an Israeli peer on a Birthright trip, but was rejected because the selection process is very competitive. That’s how I realized how lucky everyone in my group was to be there exploring Israel together. All in all, Tel Aviv treated us very well and I’m glad I got to share the experience with other Birthrighters.
Day 8: Jerusalem Part I
Day 8 was an incredibly humbling experience. The theme of the day was memory, so we visited Yad Vashem (Holocaust memorial and museum) and Mount Herzl (the national cemetery). Everyone in my group has had a family member or friend who was taken away from this world too soon. The point of visiting these sites was to remember them, not just as memories, but also as the people they were in their lifetimes.
Day 9: Jerusalem Part II
Today, I and a few other people became Bar/Bat Mitzvahs! I never expected to have a Bar Mitzvah, much less in Israel, so it was a very special occasion. If you’re speaking Hebrew to me, then call me Yaakov.
That night, we went clubbing and I felt like everyone in Jerusalem was on Ben Yehuda Street! I thought that maybe Israel is the world’s largest party zone because it sure as heck seemed like it.
Day 10: Jerusalem Part III
We started the day by going into the Old City of Jerusalem. This was probably my favorite part of the trip because we saw stone buildings that were around for thousands of years! I’ve never seen buildings that ancient. The Western Wall was an intriguing site because it’s the only remaining wall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. We went to the Mahane Yehuda market afterwards, and there were a lot of (flightless) carpets there. I wanted to negotiate a price for something there, but I couldn’t find anything with a negotiable price. I found a lot of cool souvenirs here, though!
Then we said our farewells to our Israeli friends. I’m really glad we got to meet them and make lasting connections in Israel. They were an essential part of the trip because they would answer every question we had about their country and we got a sense of how they saw their country. They’re awesome people, and I hope to meet them again someday!
I highly recommend this trip to anyone who wants to have a life-changing experience in a remarkable country on the other side of the world. I’m very happy and grateful that I went on this generous trip, and I’m already longing to go back and check out more of it. I’d like to give a big thank you to everyone who made this trip possible! THANK YOU!
Registration for the Winter 2016-2017 Rutgers Birthright trip with Rutgers Hillel (December 29, 2016 – January 9, 2017) opens September 12th! Visit www.rutgershillel.org/birthright and click the link to reserve your spot on our winter bus!
Through the Rutgers Hillel Center for Israel Engagement, students strengthen their connections to Israel and the Jewish people. After they return from a transformational Birthright experience, students continue to explore their love for Israel. The Rutgers Hillel Center for Israel Engagement exposes students to positive messages about Israel to help them develop stronger Jewish connections to our homeland.
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