I’m going to speak to you, yes you, the one who is curious how just twenty-four hours on Birthright Israel can change your life.
Are you ready?
Before waking up, let me paint a picture of the first few days of the trip. Forty people from different backgrounds and all over the world go from strangers to friends to family, and I am not exaggerating. This connection is a result of sharing once in a lifetime experiences where some people leave their home state or home country for the first time. They then embark on a journey overseas where each one of the 40 ends up relying on one another at some point. This could be for motivation to wake up in the morning or keep pushing along on a hike. It could be someone sharing a pillow or snacks on the plane to Israel or the bus between cities and activities. A connection can spark while sharing family, work, or religious stories.
Finding Your Birthright Israel Family
Regardless, after only a few days, definitely no more than 72 hours, they are family. All along the way, there have been spectacular events scheduled like hiking a beautiful mountainside that oversees a luscious green Israel that is often hidden behind stories and pictures of the vast desert.
While in the same few hours we are bussed to the peak of Israeli soil that overlooks the Syrian border and educated on the geography and the history between the two countries. The views are phenomenal and give us all the feeling that we are so small, and there is so much going on beyond our borders that we would otherwise never know.
So, let’s start with one particular day that genuinely struck a chord in me.
The alarm rings at 4 am. I am in a Bedouin tent in the absolute middle of nowhere in the desert. Most likely, I didn’t sleep more than a wink, but all 40 of us have been running off pure adrenaline and excitement for days now. I never would’ve thought I’d have the feeling of being so happy to finish something so fun and exciting, pure ecstasy, and have it be followed by an equal sense of joyful anticipation for the next event.
This particular morning I was groggy though. It was early, and one of the few times I didn’t wake up right at my alarm. The desert cold in the early morning was everywhere. I had to rush to get dressed and pack my bag to head to the bus. We were going to hike Masada.
The Hike Up Masada
As we approached the base of the climb, I felt a slight pep in my step. This was one of the most anticipated moments of the trip. I look up, and the hike is steep, and the cold wind is slapping me in the face, but we push on. We all motivate each other to keep pushing forward and going so strong as a group that we almost miss the opportunity to turn around and see the wonder that is behind us.
As we approach the top, I start to get some pain in my right ankle. I had tied my brace on tightly that morning, but the incline was almost getting the best of me. I had a flashback at that point. One month before my Birthright Israel trip was the 10th anniversary of a night where I was a passenger in a terrible car accident that resulted in me having to relearn to walk.
A long time had passed, and I’d worked hard to get to where I was today. I knew this hike was part of almost every Birthright Israel trip. Since the day I signed up I had an urge to make it to the top. I stopped for two breaths and felt a hand on my back as I heard some cheers from behind me. No one knew what I had been through, but they were my family, and they wouldn’t let me stop. Soon we reached the top, and I worked to catch my breath as we overlooked the desert sky before the sun had even come up. Our incredibly knowledgeable and personable guide and educator painted a beautiful picture of the history that we stood on. We took pictures and took in the moment as the sun came up, we felt so accomplished, and the day hadn’t even begun.
We walked across Masada to a historic temple area where there had been religious services in the past. Knowing the history from where we stood was so meaningful and that feeling was about to snowball.
Meaningful B’Nai Mitzvot Ceremonies
We stepped into a secluded area where a handful of my Birthright Israel peers would have their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. It was so meaningful watching them go through this beautiful religious and spiritual ceremony. It made me think back to when I was a young boy and saying many of the same things in front of my friends and family during mine. I couldn’t help but envy their experience and have so much appreciation for witnessing them go through this. In Israel. With their new family members. After hiking a mountain to see the sunrise. Yes, I did tear up.
Once the ceremony finished, we hiked back down the mountain to the bus and had lunch at the Bedouin tents. It was then time for our last activity in the desert. If you remember I said feelings of excited anticipation followed my feelings of accomplishment, you can only imagine how we felt after the busy and emotional morning, getting some nice energy at breakfast, and then being told its time to ride camels. What a fresh and unique experience this day was turning out to be. The day was just getting started, and of course, there was more it as we piled into the bus to go to the Dead Sea.
Jerusalem, the City of Gold
The bus ride was a good time for some to rest, but between the delicious lunch at the Bedouin tents and the anticipation of the Dead Sea (which many people said before the trip was what they were most looking forward to) everyone was in good spirits and had energy. That would be crucial because we were working on a tight schedule. We had one hour to leave the bus, change, hit the beach, and rinse off and be back on the bus. We made the most of it and then some. The swimming and floating were perfectly playful and rejuvenating. The water was cold, but we all did what we went there to do, and we left in high spirits and on time.
Timing was everything because, after everything we had gone through so far on this day, we would have just enough time to briefly explore the wonders of Ben Yehuda Street, where we shopped for authentic gifts to bring back for our families and enjoyed the flavors of juicy shawarma and all of the falafel spices.
After a short time there, we hit the hotel for the world’s most amazing (and much needed) shower and then set out for the walk of a lifetime. We ventured from the hotel to the Western Wall by foot. It was a beautiful experience watching local families rush by us to get to The Wall for Shabbat as we walked past buildings and streets with so much history.
While in Jerusalem we stopped periodically, to hear stories from our tour educator about how great the area around us was and what had happened on the very ground we stood on. We arrived at The Wall, and it was a magical sight. The number of people gathered matched with the poetic chaos of people rushing around and crowding in front of The Wall, praying and taking it all in.
It was something I’d only expect to see in a movie. We then had the pleasure of gathering in a segregated section for reform and conservative Jews, where we had our service. The feeling of saying the Hebrew prayers that I learned growing up and spoke in front of my friends and family at my Bar Mitzvah, but now in front of the Western Wall. One of the most significant places in Judaism. It was so peaceful and euphoric.
After the service, we walked to dinner at a different hotel. The dinner was hosted and sponsored by Birthright Israel Foundation who were excited to hear our experience and listen to our stories so that they could share with their donors and supporters. It was so wonderful meeting the people behind the amazing organization and the people who make such a trip more than just a dream. I could hardly believe that a day like this, just one day, was a reality.
Dave Hoffman resides in his hometown of Houston, TX. He is graduate of the University of Texas at Austin where he had the pleasure of being in the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity. Currently, Hoffman is a Product Analyst for a mutual fund company in the heart of Houston and considers himself an avid tennis player.