Beyond Words: A Self-Reflection on Israel

Extras, Israel, Middle East, Spiritual Travel — By on March 24, 2011 at 2:00 am

In a follow up to her piece on reasons to go on a Taglit-Birthright trip, Maggie Parker reflects on moments during her time in Israel that made her just about speechless.

“You won’t like it, you have to wake up at like 6 a.m. everyday.”

That’s what my friend told me when she got back from her Birthright trip to Israel 5 years ago. So I listened to her and ignored all of my other friends and family members who told me to go to on this free trip of a lifetime. I never felt the urge to go to Israel. It didn’t have the same appeal to me as Paris did, for example. I didn’t feel a connection to the country and there were so many other places I wanted to visit more even though I had to pay for those trips. I also don’t like traveling on a set itinerary. I like to sight-see on my own schedule.

There was really no debate; I just went to other places instead. I studied abroad in London, traveled all over Europe, and went to Central America and Africa. However after being ejected from England this past summer, where I was supposed to live for the next six months (read about it here), I had nothing else to do. Luckily, a close friend of mine was fed up with my lame excuses for not going on Birthright. She bugged me every day about the registration deadlines, and constantly sent me e-mails with more information. It couldn’t hurt to apply, so (to shut her up) I did. A few months later I was accepted for a trip departing in the end of January, and I ran out of reasons not to go. So I was going.

I wasn’t particularly excited about the trip. I was perfectly fine with this being a time for me to be by myself and reflect. Needless to say, I wasn’t really counting down the days to the trip. It just came and I went to the airport to meet everyone. Our leader told us that in 10 days we would be back in this exact spot, wishing we could rewind time. In response, I thought: “I hope it goes by as fast as he says it will.” I am embarrassed to admit that now.

At First Sight

For a Jewish person, there is really no way to explain your first sight of Israel. It took my breath away. When our group gathered in a circle for our first activity, overlooking Jerusalem, tears came to my eyes unexpectedly. I thought of all the people who would be so proud of my being here, and I immediately about forgot about all the doubts I had before coming. I officially surrendered myself to Israel.

One thing I actually looked forward to seeing was the Western Wall. I went to a reform Hebrew school and had a Bat Mitzvah, so I knew all of the stories about Judaism. However, for some reason, the Western Wall really stuck with me. After years of making pretend walls and putting notes in them at my Jewish day camp, I was excited to see the real thing.

Our group leaders knew seeing the wall for the first time would be a powerful moment for us. To heighten these feelings, they made us close our eyes and hold hands as we approached it. When I walked up to the wall by myself and put in a note, it hit me that I was actually in my homeland. I saw all the other notes and women crying and praying there, and I just felt so united with them.

For a former Hebrew school student like myself, this is what is really astounding about Israel: seeing in person all of the places you heard about while growing up in a Jewish home. The stories my teachers told me finally made sense and connected once I was able to see the setting. For example, as a child, I pictured the Jews walking through the desert but I had never seen a real desert until the third day of my trip. As we approached the desert by bus, and the amount of buildings, houses, and trees dissipated, I was transported back in time. I may have ended up in Aladdin’s time instead of Moses’ time, but either way I was amazed. I was clearly not in New York City anymore, and I was fine with that.

One similarity between New York City and Israel is that they are both cold in February. Though not as cold as New York City, it was definitely not beach weather in Israel but that didn’t stop any of us from taking a dip in the Dead Sea. We Americans stripped down to our bathing suits and ran into the water together before we could realize how cold we were. We didn’t care that the Israelis were laughing at us for being such tourists. We were determined to get those cliché photos of us floating in the Dead Sea no matter how uncomfortable the salt and cold made us. We were all enjoying ourselves so much, we barely noticed how uncomfortable we were until we got out, and then we just complained and cringed together. The shared suffering only brought us closer together.

Making New Connections

Well, I was definitely wrong about making friends. How can you not bond with the people surrounding you during this emotional and eye-opening experience? I immediately connected with the group’s leaders and members. Then we were joined by 6 Israeli soldiers who traveled with us for 4 days. I had no idea what to expect from the Israelis. These brave, young, and intelligent people melded into our group as if they had been there the whole time. They taught me things about life in Israel I would never have learned had I not met them. I couldn’t help but admire their bravery and poise as they guided us through a military cemetery and calmly told us stories of people they knew who died during combat.

I never thought I would make new best friends on this trip and that some of them might be Israeli soldiers. And that is exactly what happened. Israel can bring the most distant people together. Weeks later, I miss these people like family.

The bottom line is if you are lucky enough to be eligible for this Birthright trip, go on it. I wish I could better explain in words what I felt during these 10 days, but I’m finding it to be impossible. Words that come to mind are: fun, eye-opening, powerful, life-changing, exhausting, love, beautiful, emotional, and connection.

I now have 35 new friends that I love, and a strong connection to a country and religion I never felt before. For a Jewish person, Israel is unlike any other country because there are automatic ties to this country that you don’t even know exist until you get there and feel at home. You are surrounded by “your people,” and, as corny as that sounds, it is a heartening and comforting feeling. No matter how different you are from the Israelis or the other people on your trip, there is always at least one thing tying you all together and it is always present.

When we arrived back at the airport, where we all first met, tears were streaming down our faces as we said goodbye to each other and this experience that unfortunately had ended. Our first trip to Israel was behind us, and we knew we would never experience anything like that again. However, it won’t stop any of us from going back.

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