Experience Reflection by Jeremy Eckerling
Growing up Jewish, Birthright was something that was an expectation; something that would be a fundamental experience in my life and crucial to my identity. Birthright is the chance for Jewish youth to go to Israel for 10 days and aims "to ensure the vibrant future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and connection with Israel." While my family and I are not very religious, they still wanted me to visit Israel, and I did too, wanting to further explore a Jewish identity that I did not always feel extremely connected to. After all, it was basically free, and it would be my first time leaving North America. Also an intern for the AU Center for Israel Studies, I wanted to visit Israel to experience the country I studied and an admired second-hand for years. After months of preparation for the trip with AU Hillel, I left on May 17th to embark on the journey that would become one of the most memorable trips of my life.
After an 11 hour flight, we landed at 8 a.m. in Tel Aviv, extremely jet-lagged with a full day of activities planned. Exploring some of Tel Aviv and Jaffa, we ate incredible shakshuka, and were quickly revived. We then embarked on a long bus ride to Kibbutz Ortal in the Golan Heights where we stayed 3 nights at the kibbutz, which is a communal Israeli settlement, to fully explore the region. During our stay in the Golan Heights, we rafted on the Jordan River, played ultimate frisbee on Shabbat, met some local Israeli millennials, and friendships blossomed.
The next portion of our trip was spent in Haifa, in northern Israel where eight soldiers joined us for the next five days of the trip. Don't be nervous, this wasn't for security purposes. IDF soldiers accompany every birthright trip so that Israelis and Americans can get to know one another, to fully experience Israeli culture from the perspective of someone your own age. During this time, we explored the beautiful city of Haifa, visited the ancient city of Acre, explored the mystical village of Tzfat, went to a ghetto fighters museum, and had a great night on the roof of our hotel in Haifa.
Leaving Haifa, we then had a very long but unforgettable day driving hours to the Dead Sea to blissfully float, climb Masada and spend the evening in a Bedouin tent in the desert where we rode camels. It was an extremely long day, but one that I will remember for the rest of my life. One of the most memorable parts of the trip was when our whole group took some time under the desert stars to reflect about the trip, Israel, Judaism, and ourselves. While it would take weeks to process the entirety of the trip, that night I truly felt connected to myself.
Returning to Tel Aviv for the celebration of Tel Aviv Day, we embarked on a city graffiti tour which consisted of meandering through side streets and discovering the political, cultural, and abstract street art of Tel Aviv. Later in the day, we attended an amazing talk by the winner of Israeli Masterchef, Dr. Nof Atamna-Ismaeel. While making homemade hummus right in front of us, Nof discussed how Israel is a beautiful blend of different cultures. She told us that the hummus was in the region thousands of years before Israel was founded and would remain in the region for thousands of years more. She used hummus as a representation of Israel itself: a blend of Arab and Jewish cultures. Combining techniques and ingredients from different variations of hummus, everyone agreed this was the best form of Israeli hummus. To end the day, we danced the night away to Hatikva 6 on a hilltop in Jaffa.
After Tel Aviv day, we went to Jerusalem where we would spend the final days of our trip before returning home. By this point, I loved Israel so much that I decided to take advantage of the organization's extension program to prolong my return for four extra days! I was not planning on doing this originally, but I wanted to stay as long as I could in Israel once I was there. In Jerusalem, we explored the city, went to the Western Wall, had our second Shabbat, and a few of us, including myself, became a Bar Mitzvah. Offered by the Birthright Rabbi to all students, I wanted to become a Bar Mitzvah on this trip because I learned that Judaism and Israel were a part of me and I wanted that relationship to become closer. So that night, we celebrated our growth in the ancient city, where so many of our ancestors had celebrated before.
After Jerusalem, it was time for the trip to end. We were all sad to say goodbye to our new friends, but we knew that we had made friendships and memories that would last a lifetime. Luckily, since I was able to extend my trip, I stayed in Tel Aviv with a few friends that I had made. We explored more of Tel Aviv, relaxed on the beach, and even met up with a few of the soldiers we had become friends with on the trip. The perfect end to our journey.
When it was finally time for me to leave Israel, I was sad to go, but I knew that I had just had a truly incredible two weeks. The fun memories I made on the trip will last a lifetime, as well as the friendships. There are some things that are impossible to do without becoming friends, and exploring Israel for ten days together is one of them. Furthermore, Birthright made me realize that the country is so much more than the conflict. It is an incredible mix of different cultures, with vibrant nature, delicious food, and amazing people. I cannot wait to go back.