In order to slowly ease into my solo voyage, I took baby steps in parting from my large and loving Birthright family.
After we said tearful goodbyes to the bulk of the group heading back to the States, the 10 of us remaining rented a killer penthouse apartment blocks from the beach in Tel Aviv on vibrant Ben Yehuda Street.
After a wild night out on the town with the group, three of us girls moved into a cozy Airbnb rental half a block from the crazy and crowded HaCarmel street market.
It was a much-needed chance to rest, get some girl time and play with Alice, the cat. Feline lovin’ is so therapeutic!
When it came time to say goodbye to the girls (Becca was heading home, Teel to work on a Kibbutz), I braved public transportation with my pack and headed to the Florentine Hostel.
First of all, slichah (excuse me) for the lack of posts. This program runs us ragged! Most mornings we’re up at 6 a.m. and have jam-packed days that run until late into the night. Here’s a long overdue post about one of our days in Jerusalem!
On Sunday, we were up early as usual and headed for the City of David, an incredibly old part of Jerusalem that is a national park and still undergoing archeological excavation.
Irad, our rough and tumble trip guide, took us to a beautiful vantage point where we had incredible views of the city. He explained the history of the area, including the many churches and mosques in the area. To sum it up, this is the most holy land in the world and Jesus’s old stomping grounds.
We also had a good view of the Western Wall, which we had visited Friday evening for Shabbat, and would be returning to later in this day.
The Birthright program, also known as Taglit (Hebrew for “discovery”), has a variety of trip providers. Each organization has a different way to expose young Jewish people to the world of Israel: some are very religious, some party hard, some focus on the food.
I chose to travel with Israel Outdoors, which takes us hiking, biking, swimming, camel riding and rafting through Israel.
On our first full day in the home land, we jumped into things with a hike in the Golan Heights, which is in the northern part of Israel.
Gorgeous waterfalls and lush foliage lined the way, and the group bonding continued as we trekked through the humid day.
After our hike, we drove up to Mount Bental and perched on a hillside with some UN soldiers and a view straight into Syria.
Less than two miles away, mortars exploded below us and we could hear the pop-pop-pop of machine gun fire. It was unreal to watch plumes of white smoke curl into the sky, knowing a civil war was raging so close (don’t worry Mom, we were totally safe).
Our 24 hours of travel were as painless as a cleaning at the dentist. I snagged a window seat for the first long flight, the kosher airplane meals were surprisingly tasty, and they didn’t ask me a single question at customs. No one had their luggage lost, which I consider a major win for a group of 30!
Once we arrived in Tel Aviv, we got our Israeli cell phones, exchanged some dollars for shekels, and loaded up on our bus with our new staff.
Our Israeli tour guide for this trip, Irad, is a tough old bird who looks like Crocodile Dundee. He speaks at least four languages (that I’ve heard so far), served in the IDF for 20 years and has been teaching us Hebrew words and Israeli customs (hint: don’t use manners here).
The bus driver, Razor, looks like an aged drummer for a punk band. He sports greased, grey springy curls down to his shoulders and a pair of mirrored sunglasses. He is constantly smoking cigarettes and doesn’t speak much English, but he’s rad and hasn’t crashed yet.
Rafi is our security guard (and medic). A young buck of 25, he also served in the IDF and comes equipped with a 9 mm and Band-Aids. He is not very proficient in English, but we’ve becomes friends and communicate via hand gestures and the Google translate app.
The first night at our hotel (a decent three-star place in Tiberias overlooking the Sea of Galilee) included a buffet dinner of grilled veggies, tilapia, lamb sausages and rolls. We did another round of icebreakers on the roof, then all crashed hard.
After packing my bag last night, I had to take out a good bit of stuff to make everything fit. I can still barely carry all my stuff at once, and look like a giant turtle when I’m all strapped up.
After a sad taxi ride out of New York (something about crossing the Williamsburg Bridge made it SO real), I made it to the airport and have met the rest of the Birthright crew: 30 kids from across the country (a lot of California friends!) who are just as stoked and scared about their travel plans as I am.
Found two other vagabonds who will be trekking without a plan after the 10 days in Israel is over, and hope to befriend them especially well.
I have a middle seat for our cross-Atlantic flight, and am praying for no babies or obese seat mates.
Wish me luck, and stay tuned for a post from Tel Aviv!