I remember the phone call. A mess of nerves knotting in my stomach. It’s about a week after submitting an application that felt like forever to write. I am waiting for the phone interview that would determine my fate of going on a free trip to Israel. The phone rings. I anxiously pick it up. Fifteen minutes go by, along with completely humiliating myself on the phone with the person who would eventually become my trip leader. He tells me that I would be a good applicant and I would find out my status within the next few weeks.
I remember the email. Erev Sukkot. I peruse my emails in the midst of cooking for the holiday. My phone beeps with a new email from Israel Free Spirit. I open it. I skim it and see that I have been accepted to the trip of a lifetime. I squeal and proceed to do a happy dance in the middle of my kitchen, both scaring and exciting my mother. I realize that I am about to embark on the biggest adventure of my life.
I remember the orientation. Mid-December. I spend a while getting lost on the subway with two girls that I barely know. They laugh at me for not knowing how to buy a MetroCard, giving a reply that I am from Long Island and never needed to know that important detail before that moment. We step into the room. I am the only girl wearing pants. I feel awkward because my roommate and friend isn’t there, although she had been accepted onto the same trip as well. There’s an awful ice-breaker, ending with everyone being weirded out by each other. One guy obsesses over bringing his laptop, further angering the rest of the group. I walk out of the orientation, wondering what I just got myself into.
I remember the flight to Israel. Mid-January, two days after finals are complete. I am fifteen minutes late to check-in with my group. It’s the first time flying without my parents. I rush into JFK with a look of sheer panic on my face. My friends laugh at me, claiming that it’s a normal occurrence for me to freak out about being late to anything since I’m usually quite the opposite. I get through check-in and security without a hassle. I find myself lying across two chairs in the terminal, eating the sandwich my mom made me for the wait before my flight. We get onto the plane, and after almost 18 hours and a layover in Belgium, we finally land in Tel Aviv. I’m mentally exhausted, yet physically hyper from all the Coca-Cola I inhaled during the flights. I step into Ben-Gurion Airport, realizing that after nineteen years, I finally made it to the Holy Land.
I remember the quotes list. Early on in the trip, I decide to start writing down funny quips that people say on the trip. The words get weirder by the hour. The jokes get raunchier by the minute. The camaraderie builds by the second. The list grows by the end of each day. I walk away with a notebook filled with memories.
I remember the people. Different faces pass by me with each step. This new group of strangers, struggling to figure out whether we will become friends after ten days of being with each other. People break off into different groups, learning more about one another with each passing second. The hallways of the different hotels are lined with young adults playing rounds of “Never Have I Ever” whilst drinking whatever hot beverage they could find on short notice. We laugh together. We cry together. We slowly become a family.
I remember the Negev. Sde Boker. The memorial for Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. I’m standing near my group. I walk away from the group to the ledge and look out at the scene before me. It looks like a painting. The sand doesn’t look real to me. It reminds me of the brush strokes I’ve seen in famous paintings at various art museums. The sun is hitting the ground just right. The sky looks as blue as I’ve ever seen it. It’s the first time that the words “mah rabu ma’asecha Hashem” make sense to me. It hits me how amazing the world can be if you know exactly what to look for.
I remember the Bedouin tents. It’s freezing cold in the middle of the desert. I am terrified of having to ride on a camel. I swallow my fear and get on one with one of my new friends. It’s both the weirdest and the best half hour of my life. A short while later, I am sitting on the floor, preparing to eat, and I can’t recall having a better schwarma and laffa sandwich until that first bite.
Afterwards, the group surrounds a campfire, crowding around it just to maintain some form of warmth. I accidentally get clocked in the nose by another new friend who is a good foot taller than my 5’1” frame. I fall asleep in my clothes and shoes with the hope that the abundance of layers will get me through the cold night until tomorrow.
I remember Masada. It’s close to 9AM. I have been up for quite some time. I feel ready to take this long hike up the side of the mountain. I start the trek. It’s steep. The stones are slippery. I can’t breathe halfway up and have to stop. I am not alone — three other girls stop with me to try and catch their breaths. I hand my backpack to my trip leader and make him carry it the rest of the way up. He gives me encouragement, telling me that I can do it. I finally reach the top and fall to the ground, thinking that I really need to get into better shape. I look at the fortress and somehow feel despair deep within my veins. This is a historical landmark of mass suicide.
I get on the cable car a short time later, my fear of heights plaguing me the entire ride. Everyone pokes fun at me, while I’m holding onto a pole for dear life. My roommate starts yelling at the boy I have a crush on for teasing me with a round of applause from everyone in the group. I never want to be so high above the ground ever again.
I remember the Mega Event. Wednesday evening. Thousands of people crowd into the Jerusalem International Convention Center. Prime Minister Netanyahu is there to encourage us to move to this spectacular country. An Israeli rock concert breaks out. It’s electric. People of different nationalities are quickly becoming one entity. It’s an amazing sight to see. I never want this night to end.
I remember Jerusalem. Thursday morning. Yad Vashem. I feel emotional looking at remnants of the turmoil my grandparents faced. It breaks me inside. I can’t fathom someone having the power to destroy so many lives and it terrifies me. Later that afternoon — Har Herzl. It’s a never-ending sight of tombs upon tombs of fallen soldiers. Some buried there are not much older than I am. We learn about various fallen soldiers, some personal friends of our tour guide. The rain depicts my saddened mood. I am heartbroken.
We head to Ben Yehuda Street after to let loose. The alcohol is flowing. The jokes are becoming more and more frequent. My best friend from high school is next to me, getting along with my newly formed family. It’s everything I need at this exact moment.
Friday afternoon. I get to the Western Wall after a series of security checks. I’m supposed to feel something spiritual — it’s what I’ve been told my entire life. But to be honest, all I feel is a sense of community — nothing spiritual. I see different types of people coming to pray at one of the ancient wonders of the world. I feel a sense of acceptance there. I sense peace.
I remember my family. I see my parents once on this trip. My brother meets them at the Rova while on break from studying in Yeshiva for the year. They start to search for me. As soon as I see them, I bolt from my group and run up the stairs leading into the square. I give them the biggest hug I have ever given in my life. I have lunch with my family, something I never thought would happen in this amazing land. It strengthens my familial bond in a way that I didn’t have before.
I remember the flight home. It’s been an eventful ten days. There’s a feeling of sadness in my heart. I have to leave this beautiful country full of wonder. I have to leave this amazing pseudo-family that I built. I leave with an understanding of why there is so much love for the land of Israel. I will forever miss this trip. It has changed my life forever.
It’s been four years since I took the trip of a lifetime. I carry these moments with me every day. Without Birthright, I would’ve never fallen in love with the land that my ancestors walked on thousands of years ago. I would’ve never reconnected with my Jewish religion. I would’ve never learned what it was like to experience life for myself. Thank you Israel Free Spirit and Mishpucha 167 for everything you have given me — I will never forget you.