The first thing that struck me was the cold. Israel is a country of contradictions, and freezing temperatures in a Middle-Eastern country located in a desert may have been the biggest contradiction of all. But Israel is also a country of miracles, and the very fact that I was there, huddling for warmth in a hotel in Chitzpin, was miracle enough for me.
I had never been to Israel before. Seminary in Milan? Yeah. Holocaust commemoration in Poland? Sure. Visiting family and friends in London? No problem. But Israel? Ehhh. I never felt the need to travel thousands of miles just to get a more authentic shwarma, no matter how good the chummus promised to be. But then my brother made aliyah this past September, and I began to view the country in a whole new light.
I had always thought of Israel in the abstract. To me, Israel was the Promised Land. The Holy Land. The land that I would hopefully visit one day, but probably not until I flew there on eagle’s wings. But when my brother made aliyah, all that changed. Israel became a concrete part of my reality, a country that my little brother fell in love with, a people he was willing to protect with his life. And no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t understand why.
Then I saw the Facebook post. It was on Stern in the Know, sandwiched between a post advertising the tights sale and another frantically begging for notes. The post said “Sign up for the trip OF YOUR LIFE!!!” I rolled my eyes at the hyperbole, skeptical at the promise of that amazing a trip, but I filled out the OU Israel Free Spirit application anyway.
Turns out I was wrong. Every one of those exclamation points was justified. So were the caps. I didn’t expect much from a Birthright trip, and I’m ashamed to say that I expected even less from an Birthright trip composed largely of YU/Stern students. I’ll freely admit that I went to Israel to see my brother, but I left having seen so much more.
I saw the Golan and the Negev and everything in between. I saw the view from the top of Masada, from the back of a camel, from the roof of an abandoned lookout point at the border of Syria. But more importantly, I saw Israel.
I saw Israel in the hippy Kabbalah artist in Tzfat who thought that spirituality was “just, like awesome, dude.” I saw Israel in the Yemenite man who sang to himself as he prepared what our tour guide called “the best lachuch in the world.” I saw Israel in the stars we saw that night at the Bedouin tents, the very same stars that G-d promised Avraham his children would outnumber.
I saw Israel in our medic, Aviv, who gave me a piggyback ride on Masada, and then showed us all the best bars in Tel Aviv. I saw it in the indulgent smile of the candy man at the shuk, in his quiet amusement at the crazy Americans buying their body weight in Doritos. I saw it in Meir, our tour guide, in the way his eyes would light up as he gave over a new piece of information about the land he called home.
I saw Israel in the soldiers who joined our trip, in Niv and Yehudah and Avia and Almog, in Maayan, Yovel, Yael, and Yoav. I saw it in the quiet dignity they exuded at Har Hertzel, when Meir took us to visit the graves political figures, of war heroes, of friends. When Meir told us the story of his friend Yosef, who cut his own parachute strings to save his commander’s life, I heard Israel in his words, and my heart broke, just a little.
I saw Israel in the way that everyone on our bus practically vibrated with nervous anticipation on the walk to the Kotel. And when I rested my forehead against the stones saturated with history, with the hopes and the prayers and the tears of our people, I felt Israel in a way I never had before. I felt Israel, and I cried.
I went on this OU Israel Free Spirit trip a skeptic, and returned as one as well. But now I’m a skeptic with an appreciation for Israel that I didn’t have before. A skeptic who can now understand exactly why her brother fell in love with the land. A skeptic who may have fallen a little bit in love as well.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.