When asked at the end of my Birthright trip what I would take away from Israel, I initially could not respond. I replayed the trip in my head, trying to congeal the whole experience into
one profound response. I thought about what I had gained: new Hebrew phrases, an appreciation for falafel, a desire to learn more about Israel’s politics and history and stories to bring back home to my family. However, when it was my turn to answer, I responded, “The community.” Months later, this community — or rather, the feeling of belonging to a community — has persisted. I always think of one day in particular.
That morning, we rose at dawn to watch the sunrise over Masada, an ancient and secluded
fortress built by Herod the Great whose last occupants were Jews who had survived Roman rule. We boarded the bus in good spirits despite the early wake-up call and embarked on a race against the sun to ensure that we would get the full effect of the view of the break of dawn. When we arrived, I was struck by how many other Birthright groups were there as well. I felt a sense of companionship as I smiled at other bleary-eyed hikers as they murmured complaints about the early hour or laughed excitedly with their friends.
We reached the top of Masada and stood by an ancient beit kneset, or synagogue, where the inhabitants of Masada had once congregated. We contemplated what it would have been like to confront the immediate threat of Roman invasion, bound by both religion and a sense of duty to one another. We discussed what decisions we would make in order to preserve our beliefs and how our actions would impact the legacy of the Jewish people. These were ideas that I considered as I walked over the faded remnants of mosaic floors and through the parts of the bathhouses that had been preserved. I wondered whether their ideas of community differed from ours.
Later that day, we journeyed to the Dead Sea, where the water is so salty that it is impossible to sink and the only option is to float atop the water. Adorned in our bathing suits and water shoes, we waded into the water and flopped onto our backs, only to be buoyed up again by the water beneath us. As I got my bearings, I turned and saw that several members of the Birthright group had linked arms like sea otters to prevent each other from floating away. I pushed my way through the water and joined them.
Seeing all of my fellow Birthright participants with their arms around each other, supported by the water and by our neighbors, was a perfect complement to our experience at Masada. There in the Dead Sea, we held onto one other, and, while admittedly it made for a fantastic photo opportunity, it also seemed to symbolize the friendships and links that we had established thus far on the trip.
At the end of that day, we found ourselves in the desert. We had driven straight from the Dead Sea to the Bedouin tents, located in the middle of the Negev, where we rode camels and told stories around a bonfire. Later that night, we left the tents to climb to a more secluded area of the desert. Once we got there, each of us were instructed to be alone with our thoughts, meditating on the events of the day or on the experience as a whole. Some lay down atop the sandy desert ground, others sat with their legs criss-crossed, yet I stood. It was a sight to see: 44 silhouettes illuminated by the same moon that had lit the way for countless desert travelers who had come before us.
While we had each voiced our different opinions throughout the trip, at that moment I felt that we were one. I could not distinguish those who were inches or feet away. I closed my eyes and blocked out sounds of traffic and airplanes, ignored the city lights surrounding me and imagined that we were all traveling in the desert together centuries ago. I opened my eyes, looked at the dark figures of my companions, and wondered whether our community would ever change in the centuries to follow.