Shalom, Israel! 10 days just isn’t enough!
It has already been four months since my incredible trip with Birthright Israel, which without doubt ended up being 10 of the most exhausting, unforgettable and insightful days of my life. However I never managed to keep a journal or any kind of proper record of the trip, so I’ve decided to frantically type out as much as I can remember… better late than never I guess!
Although my mum being Jewish and the fact that I had never been on a trip to Israel technically “qualified” me for a Birthright trip, I was still slightly surprised to be picked… mainly because I don’t really ‘do anything Jewish’ and thought it might be slightly more selective. Obviously not… hooray!
The downside of the trip was that we were flying out from London on Boxing Day. This meant Christmas Day had to be cut short in order to make the journey down. Me and my dad spent the night at Nana’s house, but I barely slept as I was too busy being gripped with PURE TERROR. We left early the next morning to drop me off at the hotel where we were all meeting, and I don’t think I have ever been so nervous. I was imagining a load of super-religious zionists who spoke only in Hebrew and shunned me for not being on close personal terms with a rabbi. Of course, it was not like this at all, and a number of people were in the same situation as me, with fairly “relaxed” links to Jewish life. We were introduced to our young leaders, Seb and Liat, and played a number of humiliating “get-to-know-you” games which went on far too long. Then it was onto the bus that would take us to Heathrow airport and the start of the long journey to Israel.
Getting past the security to board our El Al flight was exhausting in itself. We had already received strict instructions on how to behave (“DO NOT PANIC AND LIE”) but the interrogation was something else – “Do you speak Hebrew? Do you go to synagogue? Do you know a rabbi??” Besides me I could hear people reciting prayers in stuttering Hebrew and thought I’d got off lightly by answering “no” to everything. There was a slight issue of the Moroccan stamps in my passport (“When did you go to the Middle East???”) but it was quickly sorted out. I was just glad not to make any inappropriate jokes as I had flying home from Colombia… After getting through to duty free, me and a couple of the boys browsed the alcohol section and managed to get a few free shots of baileys in prep for the flight ahead.
The flight to Israel was uneventful and I had a great chat with Jamie next to me. We arrived at Ben Gurion Airport at 9pm, where we met Bar and Inbar, our country leaders, and the six Israeli soldiers that would be joining our group for the whole trip, and we had a small Hanukkah celebration just outside the airport, complete with doughnuts. Yummy! We then climbed into our tour bus (which we were to get quite fond of over the next 10 days…) and headed North to our first hostel, a converted Kibbutz. I was sharing a room with Katie O and Mika, and we had a great time over the next few days.
The next morning it was an early start for a buffet of typical Israeli breakfast – namely lots of salad and dips… not my normal cup of tea, but it worked. That morning we took a trip to Mt Meron, the highest peak in Israel, followed by a short tour of the city of Tzfat (Safed) where we bought delicious shawarma (meat stuffed in pitta bread with salad and hummus) and had a quick browse around the shops. Tzfat is the highest city in the Galilee in Northen Israel and the home of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism made somewhat famous by Madonna! It is also famous for arts and culture, which combined with its “voodoo-esque” souvenirs made it a very interesting place to walk through.
That afternoon we visited an Ayalim student village, where we learnt more about young Israelis who were building up small communities on the disadvantaged peripheries of Israel, while receiving student bursaries for the work they were doing. The idea behind the project was to bring young, energized people into the less developed parts of Israel to encourage them to settle, work and raise families there. It was an interesting talk and video but I was so exhausted I was fighting not to fall asleep. We then went back to the hostel for a delicious buffet dinner, where I tried schnitzel for the first time!
The second day was focused on learning about Israel’s surrounding countries and some of its security issues. After breakfast we travelled to a viewpoint that stretched over northern Israel and southern Lebanon. Seeing the close proximity of the two countries separated with a single fence was surprising, although we were assured that the border was under heavy security at all times, and only appeared quiet on the surface. Living in Britain we are not used to seeing such clear country divisions, particularly between countries with so much conflict between them. We also learnt a little about Hezbollah, a militant group based in Lebanon that receives financial and political support from Iran and Syria.
We then had a short walk at the Tel-Dan reservation, where myself, Deborah, Gila and Rebecca succeeded in getting completely lost. That afternoon/evening we visited a Kibbutz to see first hand what it’s like to live on one. It was definitely different to what I was used to, but after seeing the bomb shelters which were almost second nature to the people who lived there, it made me realise how much I would hate to live in a place of conflict.
That night we visited the city of Tiberias, a lovely city on the western coast of the Sea of Galilee where we strolled around taking in the view, ate pizza in a tiny waterfront restaurant and raised our eyebrows at the fact that even Israel has a McDonalds (Kosher, of course).
The focus of today was learning about some of the minorities in Israel. We had to wake up even earlier than normal (about 7am… ugh) in order to check out of our hostel. In the morning we visited the Biet Hagefen centre in Haifa, which promotes understanding and coexistance between Jews and Arabs. To me this was very interesting, as I do not believe in Zionism per say and feel quite strongly about the injustice in Palestine; I was glad this was an issue that was being addressed on a Birthright trip, and it wasn’t just about singing Israel’s praises. I was curious to see how Jews and Arabs were managing to live side by side and even become friends. We had some delicious turkish coffee and a very interesting question and answer session with an Arab-living-in-Israel named Achmed. He told us how he had been brought up to hate Jews for what they had done to him and only recently had he become involved in the project, begun to change his mindset and made a number of Jewish friends. However, he still refused to work or volunteer within Israel, as he refused to give back to a country that he felt no part of, and explained how difficult it is to be an Arab in Israel; alienated both by the Jews, and the Arabs in Palestine labeling him as a “traitor”. I found the conversation very interesting, and we spoke with Achmed for a long time before having a look around the fascinating ecological hub.
We then jumped back in the bus for our journey south into the Negev, a desert region in Southern Israel, where we would be staying in a Bedouin camp. The Bedouin are an Arabic, nomadic desert-dwelling population and those that have remained in the Negev have settled and formed communities. We would be spending a night in a traditional Bedouin tent, and had the promise of a camel ride when we arrived. Everyone on the bus was PSYCHED about the camel ride, and as it was getting dark on arrival we were ushered straight off the bus and onto the back of a camel. Apart from my brief zoo ride in Buenos Aires, I had never been on a camel before, and it was surprisingly bumpy and uncomfortable but hilarious enough that neither me nor Deborah wanted to get off. Meanwhile the other half of the group rode on tiny donkeys, who despite being tied together seemed desperate to run off in different directions. The funniest sight was Ewan on a donkey with his feet dragging along the floor and the donkey looking as though he wanted to die on the spot. When it was time to swap over, Adam managed to topple his poor donkey over before we even started.
After we’d all recovered from the experience, the Israeli soldiers taught us some of their favourite army games (“schwaaaaaarma sheep!”) before we tucked in to an incredible bedouin feast and introduction to their camp. At first glance the camp looked quite authentic, but we quickly realised that as well as fully-functioning modern toilets and showers, there were tourist shops full of scarves and jewellery… hmmm.
Just as we were relaxing we were then led away from the camp and made to sit on the stony ground for a ridiculous exercise (there were many of them throughout the trip..) that involved writing our own obituaries (..!) with only the light of our phones in the middle of a circle. When we were finally released, Bar then led us further into the deserted desert for some stargazing, which was beautiful (and only mildly disrupted by the hardcore dubstep and flashing lights coming from the camp – apparently it was party time). We returned to the camp for a brilliant bonfire and meet-up with several other Birthright groups who were also staying with the Bedouins. After several hours laughing and piling wood on the fire we crawled into our huge tent to try and grab a few hours of sleep before our horrendously early start the next day.
It was a ridiculously early start (I think 4 or 5am….) the next morning, where we sleepily grabbed handfuls of rolls and chocolate spread before climbing onto our bus that took us to the foot of Masada, a historic site of palaces and fortifications. I was absolutely exhausted from lack of sleep, but the walk up to summit was beautiful, where we saw the sunrise over Masada and had a brief history lesson from Seb (in costume, as per). The historic tale tells that in ~72AD, the Romans declared seige on Masada, and the fortress was finally breached with a battering ram; only then did they discover that all the inhabitants of Masada, with no way of escape, had committed mass suicide. They had chosen to take their own lives, to not give the Romans the satisfaction. After we had strolled around the site it was an easy, relaxing but deceptively long walk back down, where we grabbed some breakfast and drove on to the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea had been one of the things I was most looking forward to, and me and Deborah frantically charged off to find a toilet (standard for us on this trip…) and a place to change. Wading into the salty water had to be done QUICKLY as it was icy cold, but floating was almost impossible to resist and the results were hilarious. Only wish it had been summer so we could have stayed in longer!
As it was Friday and therefore Shabbat, we headed on to our next location, a Kibbutz, and spent a lazy few hours showering and making ourselves look presentable for the evening. I was sharing a room with Rachel (who became one of my closest friends on the trip) and Sara, and after the tent the night before it seemed like we were staying in luxury. The group Shabbat turned out to be a lovely occasion with lots of singing in both Hebrew and English. After a walk to the dining hall, a fantastic buffet dinner with lots of cake “ODD! ODD!” (“more!”) and me and Rachel firmly asserting ourselves on the ‘lad’s table’ we retreated to the activity room for some pirate games, having suitably dressed ourselves up as pirates. Ben felt like getting his feminine pirate out, so I kindly put make-up on him and supplied a long patterned skirt. The pirate games were mostly simple party games, with several highlights
- The How-many-marshmallows-can-you-fit-in-your-mouth game, where to everyone’s surprise Deborah stormed to victory in her usual glamorous way.
- The Cinnamon Challenge. All four participants ended up being sick while coughing up huge clouds of brown powder.
- The Toothbrush Game. It doesn’t get much more disgusting than this. Four of the boys passed around a toothbrush, small cup of water and toothpaste. After the first round which was simply brushing the teeth, they were able to rub the toothbrush on any part of their body before passing it on. With Jamie and Matan dropping out quickly and holding on to their pride, Ewan and Jack took the game to the next level! When the toothbrush had been rubbed between toes, down the bum crack and against sweaty balls, it was clear they would stop at nothing and the game was called a draw.
We went to bed still laughing and pathetically excited about our lie-in the next day.
Shabbat was a lazy day of playing Mafia, cuddling the cat who we named King Herod, and generally catching up on a bit of R&R. We then had a short session on Jewish identity and what was important to us, followed by several heated debates. Whether Jews should be allowed to marry non-Jews was a particularly hotly debated issue, with some people getting a bit too worked up!
After dinner we showered and got ready to go out and celebrate NEW YEAR which was a fantastic excuse to tart ourselves up a bit. We had all been psyched about the idea of going out in Tel Aviv, but it quickly transpired that instead we were going to some random shopping centre where there was a club. Unfortunately, our leaders put an excessively strict curfew on our night out (1:30am I think) and it was almost impossible to get served at the bar, meaning me and Rachel only managed one drink throughout the whole night before it was time to leave. Sigh. Luckily we had managed to buy some bottles of vodka. The party started on the bus back and continued all the way back into Ewan, Ben and Joel G’s room, right next door to ours. It ended with me fast asleep sandwiched between Joel E and Jamie, and thanks to my decision to wear a strapless dress, my bra on full show. I believe unfortunate pictures exist somewhere, hopefully never to be seen again.
The next day everyone was feeling a little delicate. Unfortunately we had to get up early in order to check out of the lovely Kibbutz Sde Boker and say goodbye to King Herod. Our first stop was a visit to Ben Gurion’s tomb. David Ben-Gurion was a passionate zionist and the founder of Israel, later becoming the country’s first prime minister. He believed the Negev offered the perfect location for Jews to settle in Palestine without disrupting the Arab population; he himself settled in Kibbutz Sde Boker where we had stayed. Ben-Gurion also believed in the equal rights of Arabs who remained in and would become citizens of Israel, although he recognised how unlikely it would be to form peace. This was followed by a trip to Ein Ovdat, a beautiful canyon in the Negev desert where we had a gorgeous walk, and Deborah impressed by doing the whole thing in peep-toe shoes.
That afternoon we drove to Makhtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater) which makes up Israel’s largest national park, before heading to our next hostel. Upon arrival there were several room mix ups, during which I stayed well clear of any impending “drama” and had a room with Sarah, Anna H and Sofia. A couple of the guys upstairs had somehow landed the penthouse suite, so after walking several miles to the canteen and stuffing our faces, it was time to head up there for some after dinner banter, heavy discussion about “top 10s” and a heart-to-heart with Joel.
Today was our first of exploring Tel Aviv, something that I had definitely been looking forward to. Only wish it had been sunnier! It is easy to see why Tel Aviv attracts tourists from all over the world; it rivals New York as the “city that never sleeps” while enjoying a beautiful location on the Mediterranean coastline. After breakfast we were given a tour of Jaffa, the most ancient part of the city which has functioned as a port city for (according to some sources) 4000 years! It is believed to be one of the oldest port cities in the world, and was incorporated into Tel Aviv in 1950. Jaffa was lovely, the highlight being when a tractor followed us down a very narrow flight of steps. We were then given free time (although like always, never enough!) to stroll around the market purchasing fresh fruit, souvenirs and falafel for lunch.
By this point the weather had gone predictably downhill so we retreated to a shopping centre for some strange activities to try and make us interact with strangers. It was then time for a visit to Independence Hall, where we listened to a tape of the moment Ben-Gurion announced Israel’s independence in 1948, which was made even better by the fantastically enthusiastic lady who led the talk.
After our return to the hostel and a delicious dinner we had a really interesting talk from a young guy about the politics of Israel in a way I could actually understand. This was followed by a fantastic session by young musicians called “Sulema” who we would be going to see play the next night. This was a chance to get familiar with a few of their songs, and “meet the band”.
By this point the trip seemed to be drawing to an end alarmingly quickly. After breakfast our first stop was to the “Save a Child’s Heart” charity base, where we met children from all over the world who could not afford the cardiology treatment that would save their lives, so had been brought to Israel for treatment. Whilst the charity itself seemed a fantastic cause, the visit itself was quite uncomfortable and I felt that our group was really intrusive for the children who we almost forced to “play with us”. So I was glad to move on to our next stop, a museum/exhibition focused on raising awareness of deafness and non-verbal communication, where we wore thick headphones to block out all noise throughout.
Before dinner we had a short session in preparation for our visit to Yad Veshem, the Holocaust museum, the following day. We had dinner and then a quick change of clothes as we were going to see Sulema perform (Sulema on youtube) – it was a fab night out filled with dancing and our terrible attempts to sing in Hebrew.
We all woke up knowing that today was going to be a long and emotional one. After breakfast we said goodbye to Tel Aviv and drove to Jerusalem and Yad Vashem, where we were given a tour of the museum. It was very emotional, but beautifully put together and some of the displays were incredibly moving (particularly a glass floor filled with the shoes of young children who had been killed in the Holocaust). Lunch was provided for us in the restaurant, and we moved on to visit Herzl tomb (where the founder of Zionist is buried) and Mt Herzl, where the Israeli military ceremony is also located. This was especially emotional for the Israeli soliders, made more so when Danny sang a beautiful Hebrew version of “Let it Be”.
After such a draining morning, I was definitely not in the mood for the Birthright Mega Event – a big coming together of all the Birthright groups currently in Israel, which would undoubtedly involve a lot of mingling and having fun – something that in that moment I could not be bothered with. Even less amused when we had to put on massively oversized birthright t-shirts over our clothes. The event itself involved huge amounts of young people wearing the same birthright t-shirts bumbling around a massive building, before we all took seats to watch a display of dancing, singing, and a speech from the prime minister. It was all far too cheesy for my liking. However I was much happier once it was over and we all headed downstairs to the disco and danced away for the rest of the night. Actually one of my highlights of the trip (which is ridiculous, as I could have just gone to a nightclub in Britain…)! For our final night we headed to a semi-fancy hotel where I shared a room with Sofia and Anna H again, after purchasing vast amounts of delicious Bamba (peanut butter flavoured crisps!!!) at the small shop.
After an early start and breakfast, it was time to begin our final day in Israel, leaving me to wonder where on earth the 10 days had gone! This was the only day we had to really see Jerusalem, which is a shame – I would have liked to spend longer there. We started with a tour of the old city and Jewish Quarter, and a visit to the Western Wall. The Wall itself was fascinating, with its separate divisions for men and women(by far the smaller) but what was really surreal was watching the women praying at the wall. Many were rocking back and forth, burying their heads in the Torah, and outwardly sobbing or moaning hysterically – in a way it was quite frightening to see. I have never seen so many orthodox Jews in one place; it seemed like we were the ones that stood out!
In the afternoon we had a closing ceremony over the view of the old and new city, before heading to a burger restaurant for our final meal as a group. The burgers were delicious, although turned out to be questionable as three people came down with food poisoning on the plane…! Our final trip on our bus was to the airport and was punctuated with emotional goodbyes to the Israelis, and when we reached the airport, to Bar and Inbar. We would all miss the ridiculous bus games, Bar’s “eeeehhhm” facts and Inbar’s rambling “Hebrew word of the day”. As I was lucky enough to not have food poisoning, my plane journey back was as enjoyable as it could be, very happy to be sitting next to Jamie again. We arrived in London early in the morning and made our scattered goodbyes with promises of a reunion in the very near future.
Nana picked me up at the airport which was lovely, and I made my way home hardly able to believe how much we had done and seen in just 10 days. The trip had been everything I’d hoped for and more, whilst not being any of the things I had been afraid of! There had been no crazy attempts to convert me to Zionism and a variety of different viewpoints from both the Israeli and Palestinian side had been offered throughout (of course, with some bias towards Israel but that could hardly be unexpected). What came across to me the most was how none of the Israelis seem to have any negative feelings towards the Arabs, and only a desire for peace, which I found encouraging. The political situation is more complicated that I can even begin to fully comprehend, but travelling to Israel has certainly given me a taster. I also learnt a lot about Jewish culture, and left Israel feeling a lot closer to my heritage than I had just 10 days earlier, and with a desire to get more involved. I also sincerely hope to return to Israel one day soon, to spend more time in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and swim in the Dead Sea when it doesn’t resemble ice water. I also hope, and think, that I have made some fantastic friends for life!