As I mentioned earlier, my Birthright trip with Mayanot was a medium through which I stopped feeling like a tourist here and started to be able to envision myself being a living part of Israel. As things become more and more familiar, and as I finally finish putting up pieces of home around my room, I backtrack to my beginning with Birthright.
This shift hit me the free night we had when I met a fellow Whitman College student and his brother in downtown Jerusalem. Away from the fast pace of Birthright, my Whitman world collided with my entry into Israel in a few hours that felt like it could have been an average weekend (in Jerusalem). Whitman references mixed with those of orthodox Judaism to surrounding politics and the added dimension of Israel to our conversation was invigorating. This overlap allowed me to situate myself in Jerusalem in a different way, and that night might have been the first night I fully realized I would be an inhabitant in this city, not simply a visitor.
The other night, at a free dinner and concert put on by a group on campus, the group’s Rabbi began the night by expressing his desire to create a community here on campus. “For example, there comes a point,” he said, “when you don’t feel like a tourist at the Western Wall, and suddenly everyone else looks like one. What makes that happen?” Immediately I flashed to my time at the Wall with Birthright, when I had indeed stopped being a tourist for a moment.
I had been there before in the spring when I visited my mother over break, but being close to the place I had heard so much about was far more of an interesting observational experience than any sort of meaningful emotional or religious moment. What I had gotten out of it was seeing first-hand how important the Wall was to individuals from all over the world, and how they seemed to be in a different dimension from me as they closed their eyes and leaned into the stones, demonstrating how the place got the name “the Wailing Wall”.
This is the way I experience a lot of things which are “supposed to be” somehow moving and life-changing. I think a part of this just has to do with my personality as an general “observer” (which was explained nicely in a spot-on article I recently read about introverts). Largely, though, I just hadn’t made the effort to make the Wall relatable to me apart from the obvious matter of being Jewish. I had always felt I wasn’t a part of what these other people had; that any thought I placed there would have been extracted from a check on my bucket list and shunned in light of the prayers I saw that came from a spiritualism I thought I didn’t know.
The advice we got on our trip, however, changed this for me: “this is a wall of dreams,” one of my tour-guides said. A place where people hope. My perception of the Wall shifted at that moment from a foreign, historical object to a place of connection with thousands of others who had poured their thoughts and secrets into the same stones we do now. It became for me a powerful symbol of the unity of people from across thousands of years and varying denominations, as I realized my expectation of some powerful religious experience was deviant from the wall’s meaning. I suddenly didn’t feel like an impostor as I squeezed through praying women until I could actually reach the Wall for the first time and place my note into its crevasses. I thought that maybe I was wedging my piece of paper into the same crack my own mother had years ago when she asked for a child, and wondered if she had done so with the same sense of earnestness I had as though if it fell so too would the hope I had written on it.
The entirety of the trip with Mayanot, however, all contributed to this new sense of inhabitance. At the very least, it was a great way to broadly see the entire country. We began in the north, and spent a few days hiking, exploring Tzefat and Tiberias, and seeing views of Syria and Lebanon.
We could hear gun shots from where we stood near the Syrian border, as we stared at what looked to me like just a nice landscape.
Being so close to the ground where millions are experiencing unimaginable turbulence sunk my conception of the revolutions happening here in my mind. The number of children from Boston and LA combined is about the number of children refugees from Syria.
We then went south to the middle of the country and settled in Jerusalem for a couple of days. Shabbat in Jerusalem reminded me of why I had decided to study abroad in Israel in the first place. Our group stayed in the hotel for the day, and we discussed everything from Jewish perspectives on gay marriage and what love is to the existence of Israel and what a Jewish identity entails to us. The excited debates and points of agreement we shared made the day one of the most enjoyable I had the whole trip and in my past month here. Thinking about all of those questions reinvigorated my desire to explore all of them and more in depth while I’m here, and it really began my learning experience in Jerusalem.
Aside from that day, touring Jerusalem with Mayanot and being reminded of its intense diversity and history made me so grateful to be living and learning here. Our trips to Yad Vashem, (Jerusalem’s Holocaust Museum), and Mt. Herzl Cemetery were also significant experiences for me. Although I had been there before, our tour-guide at Yad Vashem did a really wonderful job of emphasizing the big questions and things to remember about the Holocaust. He retold its history in an inspiring way that had me thinking about race and politics and the existence of Israel for a long time afterwards. The Mt. Herzl Cemetery made the deaths of the dynamics of the Middle East much more real to me. Faces etched into grave stones reminded me of the infiniteness of every single life lost and once again my interest in these politics became less from a place of removed observance.
Under the winter sun overlooking Jerusalem, I scanned over dozens of plaques hung on the walls of an open plaza listing names of victims of terrorist attacks as our tour-guide told us memories and stories about the names that he had known.
Our time in Tel-Aviv and the south of Israel was less intense. By this time our group was pretty comfortable with each other, and more and more we expressed to each other personal ways this trip interacted with our lives. At this point I was far passed my apathetic stance towards the trip, and I found myself surprised at the closeness we seemed to feel with each other after only a few days. It was telling how quickly our seats on the bus became home as we passed hours with riddles and brain-teasers and listened to Matisyahu’s song “Jerusalem” a few too many times. In the last stretch of our trip, we meandered Tel-Aviv’s streets and skimmed the Mediterranean water on its beaches. We went on a beautiful hike in the Negev, and visited the home of one of the soldiers who had been on our trip (every Birthright trip has a number of Israeli soldiers join them for 5-10 days as a way for us to interact with Israelis and better learn the culture). We went to the “Salad Trail,” a farm in the desert where we got to pick tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, lemons, herbs and other delicious products of the earth to see Israeli agricultural innovation in action. We stayed in a tent run by Bedouins, ate a delicious traditional Bedouin dinner and drank a fair amount of tea. That night, we laid out under the stars in the desert and said things out-loud to the night we didn’t think we’d ever be sharing with a group of almost-strangers. The next morning, we rode camels through the desert and finished our time there with another delicious Bedouin meal (with a lot of tea). On our last day, we explored Masada and floated in the Dead Sea (which was all kinds of fun) before a final wrap-up of our time together and heading to the airport.
While my Birthright trip with Mayanot served as a sort of acclimation to being a resident of Jerusalem, it is of course a continual process to finally exist in a place as though you live there. I’ve realized the importance of “settling”, as the simple addition of favorite photos and memories on my walls served to make me feel much more at home here. Going to a yoga class tonight and resituating our livingroom furniture with my suite-mates has made me feel far more grounded here and has made my existence in Jerusalem more concrete, not even considering the fact that the class was taught in Hebrew. Its easy, especially for me, to be an observer, so hopefully I’ll continue to make the time to experience things personally as well as observe them.