Rhode Island to JFK Airport to Domodedovo Moscow Airport to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, I am finally here after 24 hours of travelling with 42 Jewish strangers from all around the USA (and one from Canada).
It doesn't feel real yet. I am both tired and wired at the same time and it is going to be a late night as we have the first real taste of Israeli food, beer, and wine and bring in 2013 at a hotel overlooking the Sea of Galilee. We are staying at the Hukuk Guesthouse, a Kibbutz, for the first two nights. A huge Mediteranean Cyprus tree marks the area where our rooms and meeting spot will be.
|Rooms and communal grass area.|
|View from the Hukuk Guesthouse.|
The first real day in the north of Israel begins with a short drive to the Hula Reserve for some bird watching in the Hula Valley region before walking around Tzfat. This was the first place to really change my impressions about the land of Israel. Instead of desert there were vast rolling hills, open green fields, tons of flamingos, fish, and a snow capped Mt. Hermon (home of the Mount Hermon ski resort on its north face). Pomegranates were in season thanks to special trees from California and a mild winter climate.
|Bus dropping us off along at the reserve.|
|Birds in flight.|
|Water buffalo in open fields.|
Open fields of wildlife transitioned to flat fields with volcanic and limestone racks spread throughout. Flat roads became windy cutbacks working up a mountainside to reach Tzfat, the birthplace of Jewish mysticism. After a walking tour of a neighborhood through narrow streets and steep stairways (supposed to be good luck to walk down without touching the walls or railing) the males and females separated to tour an Orthodox temple and hear a personal story from a Boston-born man who decided to head to Israel after a couple years of studying at UMass Amherst and ended up becoming very religious, exactly what his mother warned him not to do. After coming back together as a group we were given free time to roam around the market to get lunch and check out the candle, kippah, and souvenir shops.
|Tzfat overlooking the healthy Israeli landscape.|
|Hasidim "tour guide" from Massachusetts.|
|Children heading to school.|
|The first look at Israeli street art.|
Dropping back down in elevation from the hills of Tzfat, the next stop was for a well-deserved rest at the Hamei Tveria hot springs in Tiberias. The locals didn't look too thrilled to see 40+ Americans ruin their quiet time in the hot springs, but we were respectful and enjoyed the hot water.
The name of this Birthright trip is Israel by Foot, so it was only appropriate to explore a little bit on a hike. The Banias waterfall train in the Hermon Stream Reserve was very unexpected and nothing like the typical Adirondack trails. The suspended trail over the waterfall area was very well maintained and such a large amount of flowing water seemed out of the ordinary for the Middle East. The limestone surrounding the entire area looked very climbable, but it would need to be bolted. Climbing isn't permitted on the reserve anyways, but there are plenty of other areas to climb in Israel if I had the time to stay and check it out.
|Sign at the trailhead.|
|First large waterfall.|
|Trail leaving the stream area and going alongside an orange orchard.|
|Group leaving a lookout area where we were passed by two mountain bikers.|
We are lucky to have such friendly neighbors in the United States. Here on Mount Bental in the Golan Heights both Syria and Lebanon are within firing range, which is why we were visiting a bunker site. Fences with yellow signs line the road up the mountain, marking live mine fields. This is not the place to run around aimlessly.
|Looking out toward Syria.|
From religion to war to olive oil, we seem to be covering every topic imaginable. Our visit to the Carernaum Vista Olive Farm begins with an olive pit based face scrub and a talk about olive oil and Israeli politics from the owner of the farm, who keeps on repeating that his olive oil is the best in the world and he isn't selling it many places because people do not appreciate quality. I picked up a 900mL tin, so time will tell. We tour the production facility and end up tasting different types of oil and sampling cosmetic products.
|Becca enjoying the face scrub.|
|Oil tasting at the end of the tour.|
|Driving back to the Hukuk Guesthouse.|
The days already seem to blend together. What day of the week is it? Who really cares? We pack up our duffel bags and suitcases once again and load them on the bus for a drive towards the Mediterranean Sea for a hike down a creek bed that has recently seen some rain. The slippery rocks prove to be a challenge for some people and others cruise through without any problems. Some people seem to be happy that there isn't as much hiking involved in this trip as some others hoped for. Either way, it is nice to be outside taking in all of the scenery.
|Black Diamond Huey 100L, leaving room for souvenirs.|
|Israeli flag colored trail markers.|
|Limestone cliffs all around. Sharma's new project?|
|Negotiating the rock steps and slippery footings.|
Driving further west brings us towards the Carmel Mountains and the city of Haifa. We never made it down to explore the city, but that is definitely on my ticklist for when I eventually return. The view from the Haas Promenade lookout reminds me of Dubai. Within walking distance of the lookout are the Bahai gardens, located on the hillside above the headquarters of the secretive religion known as the Bahá'í Faith. A quick bus ride then drops us at the Stella Maris lookout and observation point.
|Lookout above Haifa.|
|More street art appears.|
|Views of Haifa, The Meditteranean Sea, and the cooling towers of an oil refinery.|
|Looking down on the gardens. Visitors are not permitted below.|
|Hiking down to the Stella Maris lookout.|
|Stella Maris: quick sailing to many Meditteranean islands.|
En route to Tel Aviv, we follow the coast south through the Judean hills. We make a stop at the Hafetz Hayim Hotel to drop off luggage, eat dinner, shower and change before heading out to the Tel Aviv pier for a chance to sample the nightlife. We arrive well before the pier really gets busy and leave at midnight, still before it gets busy, but still relaxed on the couches at the Speedo bar and enjoyed a few beers.
|Hotel room in the Judean hills.|
|Big beers with Fran and Ayla.|
Back on the bus it seems like everyone needs a good night of sleep; however, this is Birthright so that is not going to happen. Looks like a nap on the bus will have to suffice. We will be joined by 8 soldiers from the IDF on their Mifgash starting tomorrow. This makes you think twice about what we worry about in the USA, whether is be doing well in college, finding a job, etc.. The soldiers are all around 20 years old and spend their days defending Israel by doing work that they can't talk to anyone else about due to classification.
It is still dry and relatively warm, but not for long. We drive toward the West Bank and pull over at a random bus stop in Jerusalem to pick up and welcome out soldiers. It is an honor for the soldiers to get time off of actively serving in the IDF and meet foreign Jews on Birthright. The first stop with our new guests is at the Walter and Elise Haas Promenade, where we are introduced to our new Israeli friends and say a prayer over a small glass of wine. In preparation for Shabbat, we are divided into 8 groups (one for each soldier) and are given the task of getting some food and drinks to be served during Oneg Shabbat later in the evening. The market is huge and impressive. Fresh challah, meat, candy, soap, souvenirs, and everything in between are scattered over a huge area packed with people gathering food for Shabbat.
|Cracked ground leaving the hotel in the morning.|
|First views of the Old City of Jerusalem.|
|Views of the Israeli West Bank barrier.|
|Picking up some candy with Amit in the market.|
|Falafel lunch downtown.|
|Narrow alleyways and 50 tourists = tight squeeze.|
The landscape changes from green hills and thriving agriculture to desert right before your eyes. We are heading southeast toward the Dead Sea and the Ein Gedi Field School, home for the next two nights. There are more camels than people when we first arrive at a gas station and convenience store outside of the West Bank to use the water closet and pick up some snacks. Leaving Jerusalem at 2500' above sea level and driving to the Dead Sea at 1200' below sea level was tough on the bus brakes and left my ears popped, but the views made it all worthwhile.
|IDF patrol at the gas station.|
|Checkpoint entering the West Bank.|
Views of Jordan to the left over the Dead Sea and desert mountains with a waterfall to the right, this is real. One room has enough sleeping space for seven people but there were only three assigned to each room. Plenty of extra space to hang out in, but why be inside when there are such amazing views seconds away?
|Amazing views from the Ein Gedi Field School.|
|Dropping off bags in the room and preparing for Shabbat.|
It had been many years since I have actually said the Shabbat prayers, sang songs, and lit Shabbat candles. Before the trip I was a bit worried that there would be religious aspects that I wouldn't be able to relate to, but that wasn't the case. Nothing was super-religious. In fact, it was just enough. There aren't many opportunities in life to celebrate Shabbat in Israel with a group of 48 other young Jews.
|Shabbat candles lit by the women in the group.|
After some much needed sleep, we get to wake up a little late for a relaxed day around the hotel and the Dead Sea. A hike in the Ein Gedi was planned, but flash flood warnings shut down the entire reserve. We walked down the road from the hotel and alongside the coast of the Dead Sea until reaching an old resort. This used to be a popular beach resort, but the dropping water level left behind a 30 foot cliff instead of water for floating. The water level in the Dead Sea drops 2' every year, which is a huge problem for Israel.
|Suunto Core altimeter reading -1273 feet.|
|Hanging out along the coast to kill some time.|
|Random people floating in the water.|
|Ibex can be seen all over the hills surrounding the hotel and come walk through the hotel grounds also. This one was on the roof of the building I was staying in.|
After a shower, Shabbat dinner, and an evening session with the entire group, everyone takes it easy and goes to bed early to prepare for a 3:30 wakeup so we can get to Masada for sunrise. We arrived before any of the other Birthright groups and started up by moonlight vie the Snake Path. The trail was surprisingly steep and relentless with killer views the entire way up.
|Sunrise from the top of Masada.|
The entire 10 days of the trip could have been spent exploring the desert. Everywhere you look there are gulleys, craters, and hills waiting to be explored. Luckily we did stop along the way to the Bedouin tents to check out more of the desert. After an hour drive south we pull over near a sign for Colored Sands (Mitzpe Ramon) and begin hiking a path while being blasted by strong winds and sand. On the way, we pass an IDF blimp docked on the desert floor due to the high winds. The blimp is probably used to patrol the area over Dimona, which is where it is suspected that Israel keeps an arsenal of weapons (nuclear?). Time was also spent at the Dead Sea, both floating in the water and grabbing lunch. The feeling was a total loss of control, pretty unbelievable and tough to describe. Surprisingly, there is no mud left on the beaches after years of tourism and cosmetic products being sold. We had to buy bags of mud large enough to cover two people for 20 sheckles, not too bad considering the trip was free.
|Letting the mud dry before floating in the Dead Sea.|
|IDF blimp staying out of the wind.|
|Listening to Ori tell a story.|
|Vast Negev desert views.|
A nasty storm is starting to brew, forcing us to change some plans around and go to a different Bedouin tent than originally planned. First, we brave the wind and visit the Ben Gurion National Park and his grave. It may seem weird that he chose to be buried in the middle of the desert, but the message is that the Jewish people are so strong that we can live and thrive anywhere.
|Entrance to the National Park.|
|Ben Gurion and his wife.|
|Views from alongside Gurion's grave.|
Pulling up to the Bedouin tent parking area I realize that we are not alone. It seems like there are a dozen other Birthright groups staying here also. Some groups kept to themselves and others were obnoxious, but it made me realize how fortunate I was to be placed in such a good group of people. Our "tent neighbors" were puking and chanting while sticking their faces in a bag full of flour for some weird hazing ritual. Not really sure the point of it, but they were having a good (?) time. The rain started coming down and the temperature dropped overnight. I thought that I overpacked, but ended up wearing all of my layers: long sleeve shirt, Land's End down jacket, Patagonia synthetic vest, and a Mountain Hardwear technical shell. Quite surprising for Israel. The wind was still strong and we had to scratch camel riding off the itinerary for the day. Frequent trips outside to the Bedouin man giving out hot tea and coffee was a must.
|Looking out of the Bedouin tent in the morning.|
I knew that there were plans to visit a winery at some point during the trip; however, I did not expect the stop to occur in the middle of the Negev desert. The Carmey Avdat Farm started from scratch, no buildings, water, power, or grape vines. Now they use solar power to provide 65% of its annual energy needs and have the infrastructure to make 15,000 bottles of wine every year and is Israel's first solar-powered winery.
|Vineyard in the desert.|
Here comes the rain. It never really leaves from now on, it just changes to sleet and snow. We drive for about two hours to the Ma'ale Hachamisha Hotel in the Judean Hills, which will serve as base camp for the last three nights of the trip. The MEGA Event is tonight, every Birthright group in Israel will be at the ICC Jerusalem International Convention Center tonight for live musical performances broken up by speeches from wealthy and famous Jews who helped to fund the trip. Most importantly the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave a "welcome home" speech and some words of encouragement. This was probably a good political move for the upcoming election.
|And the rain begins.|
|The Prime Minister speaks.|
Today was not meant to be a physical challenge. Instead, it was an emotional one. We started off the morning visiting the Yad Vashem holocaust museum. The guided tour was about four hours long, but it would have been easy to spend an entire day in the museum. It was an interesting experience to have the soldiers along for this part of the trip because they are fighting for a land that 6 million Jews never had the chance to experience. No cameras are allowed in Yad Vashem, you need to see it for yourself.
Adding to the day where death is the main topic, we visit Mount Herzl to see Theodor Herzl's Grave, the national military cemetery, and the Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial. Compared to Arlington National Cemetery, this one has a much more personal feel. Each tombstone looks like an above-ground bed with the stone as a pillow. Personal items of the deceased are placed on the bed along with plants and gifts from visitors. We hear stories of two soldiers, one who dove on a grenade to save his fellow brothers in the 2006 Lebanon War and another lone soldier who volunteered to leave his secure life in the USA to serve in the IDF. Before hearing these stories, we heard about one specific attack where 15 citizens were killed and 130 wounded, the Sbarro restaurant suicide bombing. This was just one of many attacks given a plaque laser etched with the victims' names.
|Taking shelter underneath an overhang with Herzl's grave in the distance.|
|Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial|
|Roi Klein's grave.|
We wrapped up the intense day with a political seminar by Neil Lazarus about the current situation in Israel. He is a knowledgeable and engaging speaker, but by 10pm it was hard not to start nodding off to sleep. It is still raining with an occasional mix of sleet. The snow starts to get in the mix by morning. Not only is Israel starting to get flooded and overwhelmed by the crazy amounts of rain, but now we are having bus problems. The 8:15 planned departure turns to 9:25 as a different bus comes to the rescue. We begin a walking tour in the Old City of Jerusalem before ending up at the Western Wall and getting back on the correct bus to spend time on Ben Yehuda Street.
|Entering the Old City.|
|Reflection of Old Jerusalem.|
|Overlooking the Western Wall.|
|Group photo with tefillin.|
|Some snow accumulation leaving the Old City.|
One last night in Israel. It is amazing how close you can become with a group of people that were complete strangers just over a week earlier.
We have been sitting in the hotel lobby for two hours. The highways are still shut down and there is about 6 inches of snow on the ground. Finally our bus driver makes a bold move to leave and try to navigate the snowy roads out of Jerusalem and to Tel Aviv. There would normally be loads of traffic on this highway, we are now one of the only vehicles. In twenty minutes there is no more snow and rolling grass hills begin to appear.
|Waiting to load up luggage on the bus.|
|Snow, lots of it!|
|Snow in Jerusalem, but none in Tel Aviv.|
This is going to be a long day. We visit Rabin Square to see the site where Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995. There are markers in the ground that lay out where he was standing and where all of his guards were standing along with a plaque describing what happened that day. Walking through the city streets we arrive at Shenkin Street and get free time to get lunch and browse the market. Another short walk brings us to Rami Mieri's studio where he walks us through some of his work around the country and gives us the opportunity to contribute to the mural surrounding the building. Afterwards, we visit Independence Hall where the declaration of the modern State of Israel was signed.
|Mural at Rabin Square.|
|Rami Mieri's studio.|
|Tel Aviv coastline.|
Just as quickly as the trip began, it now comes to a close. We grab dinner for one last time as a full group before heading back to Ben Gurion Airport. I didn't write much about the people that were on the trip with me, but it would not have been the same without them all. Not only were the 39 other participants great to travel with, the 8 IDF soldiers, two staff members, tour guide, bus driver, and medic/escort all made the trip beyond amazing.
|Picking up boarding passes after going through preliminary baggage screening at TLV.|
|Flight map out of Moscow.|
|Drinks courtesy of my two Russian friends.|