All of us in the Golan Heights, February 2019
I’d been home from Birthright for a week when I started writing this. I hadn’t really had a chance to process it yet. I’ve been jet lagged, back at work, and catching up with a few friends so really reflecting on this whole experience took a bit of a back seat.
I know it sounds cliche but I really don’t know if I’ll ever have words that fully described my 8 day adventure in Israel.
I feel really, really (like REALLY) lucky with the group that I ended up with. It was only the second pilot group for the 27-32 year olds so the group was a small one – 17 people total (one dropped out at the last minute) and we all really got along well. People found their persons pretty quickly but I never felt like there were any cliques or cattyness going on. I imagine that in the typical group of 40 that there’s a lot of that.
Scaling down Mount Arbel, as you do.
We also lucked out with our medic and our Israeli tour guide, who were 26 and 28, respectively, were (and are!) super fucking dope human beings. (To use one of our favorite phrases from the trip.) They were basically our age, if not younger than a lot of us.
Before I went I will admit that I was made to feel guilty for going by a few people who’d heard about the extreme right-wing turn the program had taken since gross Trump supporter Sheldon Adelson had given the organizations $70 million, and so boarding the plane, I had mixed feelings. It’s really hard to be liberal and still support Israel nowadays with their corrupt government. It’s a fine line but I think I can walk it because like how most Americans don’t support Trump’s wack policies, most people in Israel don’t really support Bibi and his bullshit either.
Everything you’ve heard is true. The security checks are CRAZY for El Al Airlines. Three-quarters of my group got tagged for extra security checks on El Al when we checked in. Our tireless leader Nicole said that had NEVER happened before. HAHA. So: other than feeling extreme relief that the extra security check was over, and I was happy I was sitting next to a really chill person on the plane in our seats with EXTRA LEG ROOM, I was also like, “What kind of propaganda will be I be fed on this trip?”
Sunrise over the see of Galilee
Luckily, I think most of my travel companions also stepped off the plane with the same healthy dose of skepticism. And knowledge. I mean, we’re fucking adults who read and have the internet. We live in a world where most of what comes up on our Facebook feeds is fake and so we’re pretty good at discerning bullshit when we smell it.
I think you should know before you go on a Birthright trip that you will be going nonstop from about 8am until 6 or 7pm every single day. Though Israel is only the size of the state of New Jersey, there’s a lot to see and they made sure that we saw it all. Your days are packed and you won’t have downtime, usually, until after dinner and by then you’re so tired that all you want to do is sleep.
At a hookah bar on the second night, Sundance giving me shade.
Anyways, I’m happy to report that there really wasn’t much propaganda on the trip. Not like I was expecting, or fearing. Again, maybe that’s because we’re an older group who reads (presumably) and has the internet. We’re not an impressionable. But these are the three times I felt an extreme eye-roll coming on:
- The first time that I smelled propaganda, or you know, historical candy coating, came when we were in the Golan Heights overlooking the Syrian and Lebanese borders. Our tour guide, an Israeli (who, again, I fucking loved), told us that we were on the only land that Israel had ever won back in a war (the same Six Day War) from another country. He said Palestine didn’t count because it was never officially recognized as a state. Which is true, technically, but still a pretty questionable thing to say to a bunch of adults who can discern what he’s actually trying to say.
- The second instance came on our last day of the trip. We were finally (finally!) in Tel Aviv, the most modern of all the cities in Israel, and the best representation of it’s population overall (i.e. secular), and we were taken to Taglit’s ‘Innovation Center’ down at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. We learned why Israel is known as the Start Up Nation and learned about all the opportunities there as well as all the cool shit that’s already been invented there. Yeah, it was a little like, “We do all this cool stuff! Move here! Now!“
- The third happening was later that day when we went to the Yitzhak Rabin Center in northern Tel Aviv. Rabin seemed like a dope, progressive leader so it’s no wonder he was sadly assassinated. The museum was both a story of his life and a story of the history of Israel. A very one-sided story that neglected to account of any of the wrong-doings of Israel over the years. But again, we’re not idiots. We listened to what they had to say, absorbed our experience, and that was that.
(I feel bad even saying “we” because I don’t want to, and can’t, speak for the entire group. I know a lot of us were just happy to be there and taking everything in. But a good chunk of us also knew there was more to the story than what we were being told.)
That was negative, but I can say enthusiastically that the the trip was awesome. 10/10 would recommend. I knew the name of every single one of the 16 people I was traveling with after a few days. I don’t know the name of everyone I work with and I’ve worked at my company for almost 2 years so that’s extraordinary. That is the kind of connection that you development with people when you’re traveling in close quarters with them for 8 days straight.
A cat in the shook in Tel Aviv. He was not too happy that we were haggling.
Thing Thing I Was Expecting To Hate (But Loved): On day 3 or 4, as we arrived in Jerusalem, we were told that we’d be meeting our five Israelis who’d be joining us during our time in Jerusalem. We’d all found our bffs in the group and we liked the vibes we had going on so we were resistant to an influx of new strangers. But it ended up being awesome. It was really cool to talk to people who lived in Israeli on a day-to-day basis and could tell us what life was like there. If you go on this trip, embrace the awesomeness that is hanging out with non-tourists! (Who speak the language!)
On our final night in the basement of our hostel, we sat in a small circle and went around and gave our final reactions to the entire experience. We all agreed that we knew so much more about each other than friends back home that we’d known for years.
We all agreed that we’d all stay in touch.
And while I may not being committing aliyah now, or ever, it’s sort of comforting to know that there’s a country that I can move to, no questions asked (as long as you have a Jewish grandparent going back three generations) if shit ever gets really real and terrible here in America.
The Extenders: And if you go, make sure you extend by a day or two. I got to know a few of my new friends even better when I rented a car with two of my friends from the group and we drove the two and a half hours down to the Dead Sea the day after our trip ended. We also met up with our medic Esther and two of our other friends from Birthright who’d driven down with her. We missed each other already, I guess you could say.
When you’re stuck in Tel Aviv’s crazy rush hour traffic, or trying to use Google maps to navigate a way from Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea that doesn’t take you through the West Bank, you build connections with people. And when your friends – ie. the people who are driving because you yourself are a shit driver (especially around those insanely windy roads in the desert) – take your medic’s advice and decide they want to drive to a part of the Dead Sea in the West Bank and you’re all nervous as hell as in “am I going to be quarantined at the border???” you’re insanely glad that you’re with people who are less nervous than you and push you outside your comfort zone. Because in reality, it’s your limited view of the world as an American that has you nervous, not actual legitimate facts. Sigh. If you go to the Dead Sea in the West Bank, you will be FINE.
The Extenders being totally fine in the West Bank and at the Dead Sea.
We had a group WhatsApp chat for our trip and the messages, even three weeks later, are still flowing constantly. We’re a little family now and that was probably the best part of the trip. I mean, obviously seeing a new country was amazing, but the connections were as great, if not greater.
Yup, I said it. Solo travels biggest fan’s favorite part of her Birthright experience was the people she met. Feel free to stop reading my blog now and never come back. (JK! Please do!)
Will I stop traveling solo? Not a chance. I’m still that same impatient, semi-selfish person who loves to travel with her own agenda, not someone else’s. The only difference is that now I have some perspective as to how traveling with a group of people can be pretty great.
Sometimes. If you get the right group.
Thank you, Birthright and Sachlav. And thank you to my 16 newest chosen family members. I love you guys.
Our group in Jerusalem.