Courtesy Gabby Schnitzer
David Weingrad, second from left, atop a camel in the Judean Desert.
It didn’t hit me until I laid my head down to the pillow at the hotel on my first night in Jerusalem — following a meet-and-greet session with 40 Jews in JFK airport, a 12-hour flight plus a two-hour layover in Switzerland, and overall, a 30-hour period in which I got two hours of sleep — when I finally said to myself … “Woah, I’m in Israel.”
Flash forward 10 days later: At another airport, this time in Tel Aviv, with those same 40 Jews, tearfully saying goodbye at the end of a long journey. Except each one of them now had a name, a place, an identity, and a personal story that brought us all together.
From Feb. 10 to 21, I traveled to the Holy Land as part of a Taglit-Birthright Israel Trip, a nonprofit organization that aims to strengthen Jewish identity among young people by sending them to Israel for free.
My trip organizer, URJ Kesher, combined 40 young adults aged 22 to 26 from across the United States — and Canada! — to swim (or rather, float) in the Dead Sea, wake up at 4:45 a.m. to hike Masada and watch the sun rise, ride camels, pray at the Western Wall, and tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, among many other activities.
Israel is an absolutely beautiful place. Everywhere you step, a breathtaking view surrounds you. Midway through the trip, eight local Israelis joined our crew, and were happy to answer any questions we had about the region.
Having grown up in a mostly secular household — Jewish father, Catholic mother — I went on this trip as an open book. I knew very little about Judaism, Israel or about the Middle East in general besides what I’ve heard on American news. While I’m still wrapping my head around everything I’ve learned, I can safely say I’ve gained perspective on what is happening there.
For that, I can thank my Israeli tour guide, named Ayal Beer, who is among the funniest and most knowledgeable people I’ve ever met. His ability to educate in an unbiased way was remarkable, and if you embark on this trip with URJ Kesher and are lucky enough to have him as your guide, then you’ve hit the jackpot.