At breakfast the following morning, David had told me that there was an airstrike 9 miles from our kibbutz – I suppose I sleep like a rock while traveling, as I somehow slept through it. We boarded the bus and headed toward Masada, an ancient fortress in the middle of the desert. It was gruelingly hot as we ascended Masada via the Roman Ramp; we joked about how great our glutes would look after this straight-up climb. Once at the top, the views of the Dead Sea were remarkable.

Masada is considered the place where the last Jewish stronghold against the Roman invasion took place. Herod the Great fortified Masada from 37 to 31 BCE. About 75 years after Herod’s death, with the destruction of the 2nd Temple, a group of Sacarii Jews overtook Masada at the beginning of the Revolt of the Jews against the Romans (around 66 CE). Needless to say, the Romans surrounded Masada and, thus, began a three-year siege of the fortress. As the Roman forces were in the midst of building a ramp up the face of Masada, thereby making capture possible, the Sacarii held their own despite being vastly outnumered. In the year 73 CE, when the ramp was almost complete, the Jews realized that they would no longer be able to defend themselves from the Romans. Elazar ben Yair, one of the leaders of the Sacarii, then decided that they would not let themselves be defeated and enslaved by the Romans. The solution? They decided to commit suicide. Ultimately, the men slit the throats of their wives and children, then the men killed each other so that only one man would have to take his own life. In committing suicide, the Sacarii were unable to give the Romans the gratification of killing and/or enslaving them. According to some, it is said that the Jews even left all of the food and water that they had so that the Romans knew that they didn’t starve and willingly took their own lives rather than being captured.

After learning the history of Masada and exploring the ancient ruins, we descended via the Snake Path. The never-ending Snake Path. It was great on the thighs, tough on the knees, and imprinted on the mind. The Snake Path offered breathtaking views, which made the descent far more bearable.

Next Stop? The Dead Sea at Ein Bokek Beach. It is said that the Sea stings due to such a high salinity content, so I walked in slowly. It didn’t sting. Or so I thought. About one minute in, it started burning like no other. For the ladies that have been, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I looked around to realize that it hit each and every one of us girls at the same time based on the looks on each other’s faces. We thought we would be fine– we’d followed the suggested “no shaving for 24 hours” rule – but no one cared to tell us just how much it would burn. Ouch. We toughed it out and enjoyed the unique experience. I instantly floated, and I found it far more difficult to attempt to stand (which was impossible due to the buoyancy) than to give into floating. Somehow, I was far less graceful than usual and began rolling around in circles uncontrollably until one of the boys stopped me. It was too funny.

After a little over an hour of floating (or, in my case, rolling), we covered ourselves in Dead Sea mud and it felt amazing. Our skin was officially soft as a baby’s butt.

That night, we were to sleep in a Bedouin tent in the Negev Desert! As soon as we pulled up to the site, I knew that it would be quite an exceptional experience, albeit sad because it was our last night with the Israelis.

We tried some Bedouin tea and coffee as a man explained to us what it’s like to grow up a Bedouin – they teach morals (like leadership) through various different acts at various different ages (ie. herding camels for four years, learning how to provide for yourself, etc). After learning about the Bedouin way of life, it was time to eat like one. We entered the tent and sat on the floor in groups of four. A man brought out a huge tray of assorted hummus, salad, rice, chicken, and potatoes. There were, however, no plates or utensils. Instead, we ate with our hands cross-legged on the floor; it was so authentic, hilarious, and fantastic and I’m thrilled that I got to share it with good friends by my side.

After dinner, we had an activity about important Jewish ideals – we were to determine which were most important to our group and shared them to see how they differed from other groups (ie. participating in the Jewish community, believing in God, having a mezuzah, learning Jewish history, etc.). Post-activity our Israeli soldiers put on a skit – “What it’s like to be an Israeli” – and it was just adorable and hysterical, and so fitting. We did a round of trust falls, then moved outside to the bonfire.

We sat, we talked, we sang, we enjoyed each other’s company. We bonded at the bonfire and grew even closer than we already were. By the time I crawled into my sleeping bag at 3am, I was exhausted and passed out despite being in a tent with 40 other people.

At breakfast the following morning, David had told me that there was an airstrike 9 miles from our… At breakfast the following morning, David had told me that there was an airstrike 9 miles from our kibbutz – I suppose I sleep like a rock while traveling, as I somehow slept through it.

I had known from the moment I read our itinerary that Sunday was going to be a heavy day, as it was our visit to Yad Vashem – the Holocaust Memorial & Museum. While I’ve been fortunate enough to visit numerous historical Jewish sites in Berlin, Prague, and Budapest (amongst others), and have visited various Holocaust museums and memorials throughout Europe and the US, it was David’s first exposure to the horrendous persecution of the Jews.

From Yad Vashem we headed to Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery for its leaders and fallen soldiers. The last few years I’ve been to several well-known cemeteries and I had assumed that Mt. Herzl would be a similar experience, just with less famous tombstones; I was mistaken. I will not be able to forget Mt. Herzl. While it is beautiful like many of the other cemeteries I’ve casually strolled through, this plot of land bore an inexplicable heaviness. After learning a bit about the life of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, we went to see his grave.

Herzl was initially interred in Vienna, however, his remains were moved to Israel after it had become a state; it was only right that he was re-interred in Jerusalem, as he was the strongest proponent for the creation of a Jewish state. As it is a Jewish custom to leave a stone on a grave (frequently in place of flowers), many of us picked up a stone and set it upon Herzl’s tomb. The origins of this tradition are unclear, however, the placing of a rock signifies that you were there, that you will not forget, and that that particular individual will continue to live within you.

We walked through the cemetery and stopped at the Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial. This is where it became more personal; this was a cemetery in which our soldiers, the Israelis that accompanied us on our trip, shared how the violence has affected each of them personally. This cemetery had a story. Here, one of the soldiers in our group decided to speak up and share a story of his friend who was eating with his family in a restaurant that attracts Jews and Palestinians alike. He told us that halfway through dinner a lady walked in, sat in the most populated area of the restaurant, ordered a meal, and then subsequently blew up herself and many people around her. This attack killed his friend’s father, brother, and uncle, while leaving the friend blind. This was real.

Next we wandered to the main Israel Defense Forces cemetery for those who have fallen in the line of duty. In this section, all soldiers, no matter what their rank, are buried side by side; none are more elaborately designed than the other, but all are plain and simple. This lack of burial ranking can be seen as Israel’s equal appreciation for each and every one of their soldiers.

After a little bit, we came upon a plot that was far more colorful and decorative than the others. There was a stillness in our group, a change; it appeared that some people became far more contemplative. In the beginning I couldn’t place it, but I didn’t understand why it looked so different from the others either. It wasn’t long before we realized that this plot was set aside for our generation, for the young men and women who sacrificed their lives for the state of Israel. For me, it was unimaginable, especially considering the fact that we had seven active duty soldiers, our own age, standing by our sides. Eyes began to well with tears as we moved from one grave to the next. Many were personalized with objects, instruments, artwork, flags, letters, stones. Photographs. It was a strange juxtaposition – the bright, vibrant colors typically associated with uplifting thoughts set beside a photograph that reminds you just how young that individual was. It was a reality quite difficult to grasp and wandering through the plot I yearned for comprehension. We sat on an empty plot of grass behind the gravestones and our soldiers, guides, and leaders began sharing the stories of those they once knew and continue to hold in their hearts. Although I’m generally not an emotional person, even I was crying hearing these stories of heartache and loss. To see people so open and so vulnerable break down in front of us was heartbreaking. Many of us sat with tears streaming down our faces, recognizing the reality that people our own age face. It hurt. It hurt seeing people we’d so quickly grown to care about hurt. After remembering and sharing the stories of those that have fallen, Itay, our guide, played us the song “Milion Kochavim,” Millions of Stars, sung by Amit Farkash. Even though we couldn’t understand the lyrics, we felt them. It was silent, minus the sniffles, as we let the solemn music touch our souls.

You wanted to fly

Wanted already to go on

With half a smile you climbed up

Million stars in the sky are catching the color of your eyes

Just give (me) another second to tell you shalom

You wanted to fly

You went too far

In the madness there is no one to look after me

Million stars in the sky are catching the color of your eyes

I wanted one second to tell you shalom

I wanted to sing, you picked up a guitar

Now an angel is playing for me so with you I sing

Million stars in the sky are catching the color of your eyes

I wanted to sing to you, to tell you shalom

I wanted one second to tell you shalom

Just give (me) one more second to tell you shalom

We eventually managed to compose ourselves, embraced one another, and departed for the Negev, as we were spending the night in the Urim Kibbutz. Luckily, we didn’t let our emotional morning carry over, and we made the most of our bus ride to the Kibbutz – it warmed my heart hearing so much laughter. By the time we arrived at the Kibbutz we only had a few minutes to drop off our things before having a delicious family-style dinner. A Kibbutz is a self-sustaining community, essentially you give what you can and you get what you need. After dinner, we met to discuss our experiences at both Yad Vashem and Mt. Herzl. Cue the waterworks once again. It was a time where we were able to express how truly touched we were by the service of our soldiers and how much we deeply respected them; they enter their mandatory military requirement with such pride for their country and such an admirable sense of unity and commitment. Little did I know at the time that two weeks later one of our soldiers would be sent to fight in Gaza.

I had known from the moment I read our itinerary that Sunday was going to be a heavy day, as it was… I had known from the moment I read our itinerary that Sunday was going to be a heavy day, as it was our visit to Yad Vashem – the Holocaust Memorial & Museum.

After a much-needed sleep, we were up early to meet our Israeli soldiers! I’d heard from many people that the soldiers would play an integral, meaningful part in our experience, and I can’t put into words a truer statement. Upon shaking hands and introducing ourselves, we sat outside the walls of the Old City and played yet another round of icebreakers. Everyone seemed to click pretty quickly. We entered the Old City – it was so pristine, so lovely, so preserved (albeit, so slippery). We walked through the Jewish Quarter while learning about the various religious sects of Jerusalem. We were led past the Statue of King David, down the Cardo Maximus, and past Huvra Synagogue, amongst many other sites. Our ultimate destination was the Kotel, the Western Wall.

In preparation of arriving at the Wall, our group was told to separate into people who have visited the Kotel before, and people who hadn’t. Obviously, David and I hadn’t. We were told to close our eyes, and were guided to a lookout above the Kotel by those who had been. When we opened our eyes, we were looking at the Western Wall, unobstructed, from a birds-eye view; I was filled with chills at the history that stood before me.

 

It was stunningly pictured against a crystal blue sky, with Temple Mount visible behind it. I couldn’t believe that we were actually there. Approaching the Wall was surreal; I’d written my prayer the night before so that I could take everything in while I was there. The female side of the wall (there is a barrier dividing the men and the women) was crowded, and many were visibly moved to tears while praying at the wall. I went up to the Wall, put my prayer in a tiny crack, and stood back to reflect.

A bit of history: Despite the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the four walls surrounding Temple Mount remained undamaged. What makes the Western Wall so important, as opposed to the other three remaining walls, is the fact that it is the closest to the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Due to this, the Wall has become a place of prayer and yearning for people around the world, specifically for the Jews. Many know of the tensions throughout Israel, and most of the tensions are exhibited at the Western Wall. Eruption of violence at the Wall is and has been common, from before the declaration of Israel as a country to today. This we witnessed firsthand.

After going through the archeological museum next to the Western Wall, we stood around our guide, Itay, and listened as he blasted “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof. It was meant as a segue into a group discussion about Jewish traditions within our families. We separated into groups, chatted some, then we heard something that sounded like an explosion. I thought nothing of it. Then we thought we heard gunshots. Still tried to ignore it. Another explosion. More gunshots. But, what was happening? It sounded so close. We all gathered around as a group. Sirens. But really, what was happening? We were safe, but confused. We left the area beside the Wall and moved onto our next destination. We found out later that night that smoke bombs were dropped and rubber bullets fired in response to Muslims dropping rocks on people praying at the Western Wall.

For lunch, we headed to Mahane Yehuda, one of the markets in Jerusalem. It was jam-packed and quite chaotic, but we were on a search for our first schwarma! At last we found a place, and it was amazingly full of flavor.

We had an early night, as it was the beginning of Shabbat. We went down to the candle lighting ceremony, said a prayer, and lit a candle. At some point in the evening, we were informed that three teenagers were kidnapped just south of Jerusalem that day; supposedly Hamas was behind the kidnapping, but there was no concrete evidence. Either which way, it was devastating news and we were praying for their safe return.

It ended up being a late night, as we bonded with the Israelis for the first time in the lobby of our hotel. From that moment, we knew that it’d be a great few days together.

The following day was more relaxed due to Shabbat. We slept in, ate breakfast, then had a fascinating activity. We sat in groups – each group had an Israeli – and discussed various dilemmas (inter-religious marriages, circumcision, trading 1 soldier for 1000 prisoners, the army requirement, etc.). It was so interesting to hear the views of an American on these subject matters versus the views of an Israeli. The rest of the afternoon we laid in the sun by the pool and walked around to see the government buildings. Upon arriving back at the hotel, we gathered into a room for a political seminar on the situation in Israel and the Middle East. Despite being exhausted, Sheldon Shulman, our guest speaker, was captivating. He discussed at large Israel’s relationship with Palestine and Iran. It was truly an intriguing and terrifying discussion. Sheldon spoke so seamlessly and grabbed our attention within seconds. If you ever have the opportunity, I highly recommend seeing him speak.

After dinner, we concluded Shabbat with the Havdallah Ceremony outside. I was chosen to hold the glass of wine in the center, even though I was entirely wearing white I managed not to spill it all over myself! We sang, danced, and hugged. Somehow we ended up on a group hug, which turned into a sing-a-long to Seven Nation Army. Don’t ask me… But, after hugging every person, it actually felt like we were one big Jewish family. We returned back to the hotel for a discussion with Rabbi Eli, discussing the implications of the Holocaust and how it effects each of us.

After a much-needed sleep, we were up early to meet our Israeli soldiers! I’d heard from many… After a much-needed sleep, we were up early to meet our Israeli soldiers! I’d heard from many people that the soldiers would play an integral, meaningful part in our experience, and I can’t put into words a truer statement.

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After 9.5 sleepless hours on the plane, the sun began rising in an astonishing display of blues, oranges, and yellows, getting brighter and brighter under the wing of our plane. Witnessing such a beautiful moment, while approaching the Promised Land, was moving – leaving my eyes welling with tears during the sun’s ascent and our descent. David and I made it, made it to the City of David. As the sun began to rise higher and higher in the sky, it met us eye-level above the clouds. The beams of sunshine began to pierce through the clouds; they reached far away from the distant sun and shone directly into our window. God’s way of wishing us a beautiful good morning.

Upon arriving in Israel, we grabbed our bags, boarded our bus, and took off for Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. We stepped off the bus at Neot Kedumim and realized just how hot it was in Israel. The landscape was beautiful, and we learned about the history of Israel and it’s connection to the Bible. After wandering around the trails for a while, and muddling our own Isop, we were taken to plant our own trees. David and I each decided to plant two trees, so that our four soon-to-be trees could represent our immediate family. In planting a tree, we were solidifying our roots in Israel.

“Just as I found the world full of trees that my grandparents planted for me, I am planting for future generations” (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 23a)

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After Neot Kedumim, we headed to the Haas Promenade for a Panoramic View of Jerusalem. It finally felt real as we stared into our destination and saw Temple Mount/the Walls of the Old City in the distance. We stared in awe for a bit, snapped some photos, and played a quick ice breaker with our group.

We left for the airport at 5:45am Wednesday morning and were on-the-go nonstop until getting to the hotel Thursday night, making for quite an exhausting first day. Hitting my pillow at 21:30 had never felt better.

I’m so thankful for all of the people that I’ve met throughout my incredible travels. From the lovely Aussie couple I met in Mendoza, to my awesome car-mates in Bolivia, to the friend I got stranded with in the desert, to my Russian-loving Canadian naturalist, to the crazy Irish lads, to my Ecuadorian “fairy godmother,” to the attractive hang-gliding Hungarians, to the bravest Swiss girl traveling the globe solo, to my Spanish-speaking-saviors in Buenos Aires, to the Couch Surfers in Uruguay, to my three beloved travel buddies, to my favorite circus monkey, to the insanely fun Brasilians (and my number one menina branca)…you guys rocked my world. I couldn’t possibly list everyone I’ve met along the way, but I love you all. 

5 months. 2 continents. 8 countries. 28 flights. 24 busses. 5 ferries. 2 ships. Amazing memories.

I’m so thankful for all of the people that I’ve met throughout my incredible travels. From the lovely Aussie couple I met in Mendoza, to my awesome car-mates in Bolivia, to the friend I got stranded with in the desert, to my Russian-loving Canadian naturalist, to the crazy Irish lads, to my Ecuadorian “fairy godmother,” to the attractive hang-gliding Hungarians, to the bravest Swiss girl traveling the globe solo, to my Spanish-speaking-saviors in Buenos Aires, to the Couch Surfers in Uruguay, to my three beloved travel buddies, to my favorite circus monkey, to the insanely fun Brasilians (and my number one menina branca)…you guys rocked my world. I couldn’t possibly list everyone I’ve met along the way, but I love you all. 

5 months. 2 continents. 8 countries. 28 flights. 24 busses. 5 ferries. 2 ships. Amazing memories.

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About

1 girl. 5 months. 2 continents. 8 countries. Study Abroad, Round 2.

NYU Senior in Buenos Aires for Fall 2013.

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