By Cecily Spindel | Emory University Class of 2018
“Being here, seeing the sites — their locations — cannot compare to anything you read in the Torah or learned in Hebrew school. I mean it, guys. I really do,” our fearless tour guide, Eytan, said as he led us to the Western Wall.
The monstrous stones seemed to stretch on forever. I stood at the wall, unsure what to think or do. My first day in the Holy Land on a Birthright Israel trip with Emory Hillel, and here I was, standing in front of arguably the holiest site of all.
I did not feel a sudden connection to my ancestors or the urge to recite prayers I’d repeated countless times in my synagogue at home. Instead, I just stood, taking in the quiet murmurs and davening of other visitors around me.
After leaving the wall, I continued to reflect. Maybe I wasn’t meant to have an immediate connection but instead to find the spark for curiosity about my ancestors and history. It is this spark that would stay with me for the remainder of the trip.
“Trust me on this. You’re going to love them. After five days, you’ll be hugging each other like you’ve been best friends your whole lives,” Eytan said, prepping us to meet the seven Israel Defense Forces soldiers who would join us for our journey.
The first bus ride with the soldiers consisted of the typical small-talk questions: “What’s your job in the army?” “Do you like it?” “Is it hard?”
By that afternoon, we were walking around the Israel Museum and sitting outside, pining for the next iced-coffee break, no longer divided between Israelis and Americans (and one Canadian) but rather operating as one giant group of friends.
“We’re all going to be in one tent. Like one big, happy family. I love you guys. I really do.” Although we were probably asleep, mouths slightly open and headphones in as Eytan said that, I’m sure he beamed at us with a big, cheesy grin plastered to his face. And the Bedouin tents were exactly how he described them: a site in which the entire group ate together, roasted marshmallows together and slumbered together.
But none of that happened before the infamous camel ride.
People ask me if I felt unsafe in Israel. The only time I felt unsafe was dismounting the camel. After coming to a sudden halt, the camel dropped to the ground, front knees first, at which point I thought I might slide off its neck, back legs second, and I was sure I’d fall backward into Becca, also yelping in surprise and fear. Needless to say, this was definitely an experience to remember.
“I just need 20 minutes of focus, guys, and then you can take all the selfies you want. Wait, does anyone want some chocolate? Harry, I brought the dark chocolate for you.” Our sleepy eyes were suddenly wide awake at the breathtaking sun that beamed over the top of Masada.
With the temperature rising quickly, Eytan found a shady spot for us to sit. He passed around chocolate bars while vibrantly recounting the history of the Jews with King Herod and the Romans, all within the early hours of the morning.
The day continued with a hike in Ein Gedi and a salty, sunny and superb float in the Dead Sea.
“I’m leaving for the beach at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow. If you want to come, be down in the lobby at that time, and we can walk through Tel Aviv together. I’m not going to tell you what to do, but you won’t want to miss this beach.” Eytan’s opinion on the beach persuaded everyone to join him.
With a late wake-up call, we felt rested and rejuvenated. So rested, in fact, that at the beach, many of us fell back asleep amid the hundreds of people on the shore, Aroma iced coffees planted next to us in the hot sand.
A trip to the busy Shuk HaCarmel allowed our group to dabble in Israeli bargaining, eat an exorbitant amount of gummi candies, and, of course, purchase another falafel and smoothie.
“Do not bring anything with you. You’re all going in the water. It’s going to be so much fun, guys.” Eytan practically leaped off the bus when we arrived to the Jordan River rafting site in the Golan Heights.
This “whitewater rafting” trip, more comparable to a lazy river, had the entire group darting between rafts, lending hands to those who jumped into the water, singing songs and debating which raft would float down the course fastest.
A muddy bus ride home from the Golan Heights ended the day in Akko with the presentation of the “Mystery Moses” gifts we had purchased in Tel Aviv for one another (most popular gift items: hamsa key chains, hamsa bracelets and food).
“I’m going to miss you guys so much. You’re all the best. You really are. I mean that.” As Eytan led us around Tzfat, his emotions nearing the end of the trip showed.
We dodged jewelry displays on the cobblestone streets, passed countless juice bars and learned about the teachings of the Kabbalah. Everywhere I looked, a sky blue covered doors, railings and building decor.
Up in the mountains, I sensed the mystical ambience inherent to this timeless city. An artist explained to us the methodology behind his geometric paintings, which led all of us to stare in awe at the art that covered the studio, noticing how each shape represented a number, carrying greater meaning.
This final day ended in hysterics as our group put on a talent show for one another. At this point, no longer did I feel like a participant on a Georgia Hillel Birthright trip. Rather, I felt like a member of a community. A community of Jews who each discovered a new part of Judaism in his/her life on these short 10 days. A community of friends who helped one another learn, try new things and discover what makes Israel such a unique country.
Thinking back to my experience at the Western Wall, I realized that I was not supposed to feel an instant relation to any one site. One moment did not define the trip for me, but each moment added its own lesson and memory that together created a defining trip.