Over the summer, I was delighted to have the opportunity to go on Birthright Israel with Hillel. I went with people from all over the United States; it was a remarkable experience meeting these amazing people with whom I had the trip of a lifetime. We arrived in Israel early on August 14th, ready to start our first full day in the Holy Land. We met our tour guide, Niro, and a group of Israeli soldiers who joined us for 10 days. All of the soldiers had finished their duty in the Israeli army and most were already in school.
We first stopped in Tel Aviv and went to a market called Nachalat Binyamin. This is where I had my first ever authentic Israeli meal. We had walked around the market and then departed for the South, stopping at The Salad Trail. We learned how farmers grow crops in Israel by using high-tech greenhouses so all the crops can grow fruitfully. At the end of the tour we made fried pita and drank tea. Then we got back on the bus to go to the Kibbutz we were staying at for the night. The food we had at the Kibbutz was really good and the rooms were very nice. I enjoyed getting a glimpse at what Kibbutz life is like.
Day two began with us hiking in the Negev Desert. I had never been to a desert before and it was an amazing sight. I loved looking into the distance and not being able to see an end. After a long and exhausting (but fun!) hike through the desert we were off to meet some Bedouin women at Rikmat Hamidbar, the Center for Bedouin Embroidery. These women had an interesting story about how they came to have this factory; it started out as a few women who were unhappy with their lifestyles because they felt controlled by the men. They were not allowed to do anything other than what the men told them they could do. They held secret meetings to figure out how they were going to accomplish making a difference. What started out as an impossible dream for four women ended up becoming a reality for all of the women in the city. This small group of women expanded and they created Rikmat Hamidbar, affording women employment opportunities so they can grow their status. All of this was accomplished because of the women who stood up for their rights. When we finished learning about the astonishing accomplishments of these women we learned about what the Bedouin men do. In the evening we went on a camel ride, had dinner Bedouin style, and slept in a Bedouin tent.
We woke up at 3:00am the next day in order to climb Masada and watch the sun rise. I enjoyed hiking up the mountain, seeing the beautiful view and learning about the story behind the fortress. At the end of the rewarding hike we ate at a hostel and got on the bus and headed to the Dead Sea. When it was time to leave the Dead Sea we went to one of the things I was looking forward to most on this trip: seeing Jerusalem for the first time. When we got off the bus we were greeted by men blowing the shofar. We recited the Shechechiyanu, the Kiddush, and Hamotzi. I felt so connected looking at Jerusalem especially when I spotted the Western Wall. It was an amazing sight on top of Mount Scopus seeing the city as a whole. The next day we went to the Kotel and I was so happy when I wrote my note to G-d to put in the Wall. I had always wanted to write a note to stick in the Wall, and I finally had my chance. After we left we walked around the old city for a while. When we went back to the hotel it was time to get ready for Shabbat.
Having Shabbat in the middle of the trip gave us time to recharge so that we could fully enjoy the rest of our trip. We walked to the Israel Museum where we got to see the Dead Sea scrolls and contemporary art pieces. Later that day we had a Bat Mitzvah celebration for the girls who chose to. After Shabbat was over we had a nice Havdallah ceremony.
Day two was devoted to remembering the Jews that helped make Israel what it is now and those that died before their time. We visited Mount Herzl, the burial ground for Israel’s leaders and the military cemetery, and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum. The hardest part at the museum was the last room that was filled from top to bottom with books that contained the names of all the Jews that died in the Holocaust. It was awful to see, in one room, so many names of people who died for the sole reason of being Jewish. After visiting those two sights we headed to the bus for the long drive back up North. We were able to go to another Kibbutz where we would sleep the next two nights.
At Tzfat we toured a candle factory and a synagogue. We then met Avraham Loewenthal, a contemporary Kabbbalistic artist, and learned about his journey. For lunch I had Lachuch, a Yemenite flatbread fried in olive oil and filled with authentic Tzfvat cheeses, herbs, spices, and tomatoes. I had never tasted anything like it before.
The next day we went to the Kineret Farm and learned how the Kibbutz was created and what it was like to live on a Kibbutz in the 20th century. We returned to Tel Aviv and took a street art tour with Niro. After the tour we went to a JCC to paint a mural for the children. We had a great time painting and it was fun to give back.
At the end of the trip our project was to get into small groups and decorate Chamsot (hands) to a theme picked by each group. We designed them at the Holon Institute of Technology. After, we were given a tour of the school by some of the Israelis in our group that went to school there. We went to Independence Hall and heard a tape of the speech David Ben Gurion made when he declared Israel a state. In the evening we had a banquet and presented our projects. We walked around Tel Aviv and had a great last night.
This trip meant so much to me. I was able to become close to many people, both the Israelis and the Americans. Israel is such an incredible country full of pride. I feel like Israel is my second home and that I belong there even though I was only there for ten days. In Israel there is so much wide open space; it is such a beautiful sight. I am hoping that I may study abroad there in the near future.
By Marissa Arager
Marissa Arager is the 2011 recipient of the Stein Family College Scholarship through the Tidewater Jewish Foundation. Marissa attends George Mason University.