“How one graduate student travelled to the Holy Land and found himself along the way.”
It was so quiet I could hear the wind. I was alone with my thoughts in a vast lunarscape. The air was cold and dry and I could see my breath. I stood atop a rocky hill, far from civilization. From the peak, I saw millions of stars splattered across the midnight sky like a Jackson Pollock painting. The faint glow of city lights illuminated the horizon while the full moon blazed above me. I had travelled half-way around the world to be here.
I now sat cross-legged on the stony ground. I focused on myself in the silent solitude. “Who am I?” I closed my eyes. I’m a Jewish boy, born and raised in Florida, and I was sitting on a rock in the middle of nowhere. “Who am I? What am I doing here?”
Everybody asks these questions at some point in their lives. I was not alone. I was surrounded by 39 of my fellow students. All of them were Jewish, too. We were brought to this place by the Birthright Foundation as part of an identity-building trip.
Each year, more than 20,000 Jews between the age of 18 and 26 participate in this cultural (and often religious) experience. They are part of a growing religious tourism movement.
According to the World Tourism Organization, over 300 million people take religious vacations annually. The most visited sites are the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel; the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia; and the Brahma Temple at Pushkar in Varanasi, India. These are the holiest locations in Judaism and Christianity; in Islam; and in Hinduism, respectively.
However, unlike most religious tourists, I was not very religious. I went to Sunday school and hated it. I had a Bar Mitzvah. I could read Hebrew words but did not understand their meaning. What was my meaning? I, like so many tourists, was looking for myself. In December 2012, the University of Miami Hillel gave me the opportunity to connect with my Jewish roots—my birthright. Forty Jewish college students, eight Israeli soldiers, a tour guide, and a rabbi would join me.
The Birthright Foundation (which organized the trip) was founded in 1994 by Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt. It is a partnership between leading Jewish philanthropists and the people of Israel through their government. The program provides Jewish young adults from around the world the gift of a pre-paid, first-time experience in Israel (valued at $3,600 per person). Since 2000, more than 300,000 people have traveled through Birthright. I was fortunate to be one of them.
Day One: My First Night in Israel
Our itinerary was ambitious. Over the next ten days, my group would travel by bus in a loop through four corners of the Land of Milk and Honey—from Tel Aviv in the West, to the Golan Heights in the North, to Jerusalem in the East, and to the Negev Desert in the South.
When I landed in Tel Aviv, I discovered a city that blended the ancient with the modern. Ben-Gurion International Airport, named after Israel’s first Prime Minister, lived up to that image; its imposing limestone columns paid homage to the country’s heritage while digital technology, a common sight throughout the structure, beckoned its future.
One by one, we boarded a white Mercedes shuttle for Mini-Israel—a scaled-down outdoor re-creation of Israel that was accurate down to the buildings and topography. There we received our cell phones and exchanged our first Shekels. A US dollar, I discovered, was worth 3.75 Shekels.
At Mini-Israel we had an emergency meeting; there the Birthright representatives explained the ground rules for the trip—the do's and don'ts of traveling with our group. I was amazed by the efficiency of this operation. After an hour of brief introductions, we boarded the bus once more.
Upon leaving Mini-Israel, I shifted my attention outside. How I marveled at the land’s impressive beauty from my window. The more I focused on the scenery, the more the panorama transformed before my eyes. Immediately I noticed how Tel Aviv’s industrial complex gave way to rural countryside. Farms were everywhere, a testament to Israel’s great productivity. Rolling green hills stretched as far as I could see. Their rising slopes descended into lush valleys of cedars and maples. From the bus I saw medieval brick castles and stone-arch bridges that resembled Roman aqueducts.
The weather, once saturated with mist, had changed, too. In the east, charcoal clouds unleashed their cargo on verdant peaks. In the West, the sun pierced those clouds; the skies blazed a bright blue. We travelled north towards our living quarters—Kibbutz Afik in the Golan Heights.
The Golan Heights form Israel's border with Syria, and are a crucial source of freshwater for Israeli citizens. The Jordan River, which flows through the Golan into the Sea of Galilee, is Israel’s principal water source. From our vantage point, I saw historically important locations—Mt. Arbel, Mt. Tivur, Mt. Tzoreg, the Sea of Galilee, and Tiberias—as well as cities mentioned in the Midrash like Tsfat and the K'nerret. I learned that, for more than 2,000 years, Jews have lived in the Golan Heights, even when they were forbidden from Jerusalem. Today, more than 40,000 call the area their home. However, when Israel was established in 1948, it did not have the Golan Heights, the West Bank, or the Gaza Strip.
A kibbutz (from the Hebrew for “to gather”) is a communal living space (similar to a hostel) where food, shelter, and resources are provided to individuals. In exchange, the individuals contribute their salaries to the community. More than 270 kibbutzim exist in Israel. The kibbutz is the cradle of Israeli immigration and innovation—the reason why Jews from around the world settled the country as quickly as they did over the past two centuries. As displaced Jews established kibbutzim in Israel’s then-unfamiliar territory, they established themselves, too. Today, their factories and farms account for 9% of Israel’s industrial output, worth US$8 billion, and 40% of its agricultural output, worth over $1.7 billion. Life in the desert had allowed these new Israelis to hone their minds and then use them to reinvent their country.
That night, we celebrated the fifth night of Hanukkah. It was Friday, the day of the Sabbath. Our rabbi directed the evening service in the communal dining hall.
At the stroke of sundown, we formed a circle around the room. Mightily, the Rabbi spoke. “Tonight we say everything by saying nothing at all. Throw your heart into the prayer. If you invest yourself in everything you do, you’ll be surprised by what you find.” He then proceeded to light the menorah in honor of Hanukkah. We said the following prayer as the Rabbi told us the true nature of the holiday:
“Baruch atah Adonai, eloheynu melech ha’olam. Asher kidushanu b’mitzvotav. Vitzivanu, l’hadlich neir shel Chanukah”.
“On Hanukkah, we don’t only celebrate the heroic actions of the Maccabees and the oil that lasted eight days. Hanukkah was traditionally noted by rabbinic sources as a minor holiday,” the Rabbi said. “However, I believe, like Rambam before me, that it represents something truly significant.”
He continued, “The narrative tells us about the Maccabees, Jewish warriors that fought the Syrians and Greeks—the most powerful armies in the world—and came out victorious. More than 2,000 years ago, the Maccabees were outnumbered and outmatched by their enemies; they had very few resources and could barely maintain an army. They had olive oil, yes, but only enough to illuminate their temple for a single night.”
“However,” the Rabbi explained, “the night before the decisive battle the Maccabees evaluated their resources and prayed to G-d. They knew what they had to do, and they took matters into their own hands. As they did so, they found more resources—in their environment and within themselves—than they had initially anticipated. Just as the Maccabees found within their urns enough oil to last eight days instead of one, the Maccabees found the necessary loyalty, strength, and tactics in their ranks to overwhelm their Greco-Syrian enemies.”
“This is the miracle of Hanukkah!” the Rabbi roared. “The holiday is not like Christmas. It is more than a simple exchange of presents. We remember the Maccabees not only because of their deeds; we also acknowledge how the events two millennia ago reflect the way G-d supports us. The Maccabees’ story shows us that, if we put forth the effort to initiate positive change, we might find out that we are like them—with more resources than we originally anticipated. Furthermore, if our intentions are genuine and our efforts are righteous, G-d will bolster our actions and make the impossible possible!”
“And what happened to the Maccabees, you might ask?” The Rabbi answered his question, “After they defeated their enemies, they established a kingdom that exists to this very day—Israel.”
Hanukkah is the story of Judaism, I realized. It embodies the defiance that held the Jewish people taut throughout the ages.
Because we were united in prayer, something divine happened. For the first time in a long time, I saw a tangible solidarity. The Rabbi’s candles blazed an unusually holy blaze as I began to understand what it meant to be Jewish. As a Jew, I was a part of something greater than myself—something divine yet undeniably human. It was my first revelation. We would spend the rest of that night and all of Saturday in Kibbutz Afik.
Day Four: My Second Revelation at Masada
Mount Masada (which means “fortress” in Hebrew) rises 4400 feet (1350 meters) from the surface of the Dead Sea. Masada, built on the mountain’s peak, is a place where history comes alive.
The story behind the fortress is one of heroism and tragedy. As I navigated the weathered ruins of the Masada plateau, I looked at the ground below; at the mountain’s base, I saw the shattered remnants of Roman buildings. What did it all mean?
After climbing the mountain for 45 minutes, we reached the top. On the plateau, we gathered around our tour guide, Manna, who shared with us the history of where we stood. “Kol hakavod!” she congratulated us for successfully conquering the mountain. “Masada represents defiance and freedom,” she said. “From 66-73 CE, Masada was the last stronghold for Jews who resisted Roman rule. More than 1,000 rebels (and their families, which consisted of women, children, and the elderly) lived here, cut off from the outside world. In the end, after seven years of resistance, when the Romans were on the verge of conquest, the brave 1,000 chose suicide over slavery and rape at Roman hands.”
“In order to understand the events that took place here, we must first understand the history and people behind those events,” Manna said. “More than 2,000 years ago, there was another state of Israel, also ruled by Jews. It was ruled by the Maccabees, the same ones from Hanukkah, who fended off the Syrians and the Greeks all those years ago.
Around 37 BCE, this incarnation of Israel experienced great instability due to political infighting among the Maccabees. To correct this instability, the Maccabees appealed to the Romans for a leader. This is when King Herod is appointed to the throne.”
She pointed to one of my fellow students, who read aloud one of Herod’s writings. I honestly don’t remember much of it, just one line—“Not even the Maccabees will challenge my power!”
King Herod was a Bedouin who might have been half-Jewish. His incredible cruelty and thirst for power were known throughout Israel. He killed his wife, Miriam, and his children because he thought they might someday usurp his throne. The Jews of Israel did not respect Herod, who often made decisions that went against Judaism. They also knew of his non-kosher habits and, for the most part, assumed that he sold himself for Roman riches.
During his reign, Herod ordered the construction of a palace atop a mountain. Naturally isolated from the surrounding area by its elevation, Masada (as it was later known) overlooked the Dead Sea. This palace, further protected by a stone double-wall, allowed Herod to access the Sea’s mud, which was believed to have therapeutic properties even at this time.
All of the structures of Masada were built from the mountain itself. Although erosion had taken its toll on the fortress, I could still see original stone. Some parts were rebuilt, to reconstruct what life on the mountain was like.
Manna then led us to the ruins of Herod’s gargantuan, three-story palace at the top of the plateau. Even up here, birds soared above us and trees sprouted from the rocks. I even saw tiny mice climb the cliffs. The concrete pillars housed a bedroom, a bathhouse, and a complicated storeroom complex. The view was spectacular, and we posed for pictures on Herod’s balcony.
We worked our way to and through the bathhouse, which was a feat of engineering in itself. I was amazed how, more than 2,000 years ago, the Romans built a spa on a mountain in the middle of the desert. The bathhouse is divided into eight sections:
From the bathhouse we walked across the plateau. On the opposite side of the mountain, we entered a 2,000-year-old home. “The rebels once lived here,” Manna said. “Although they were zealots, they were also ordinary people like you and me.” We sat on the stone benches that lined the walls.
Once we got comfortable, Manna pointed to another student, who read a note from a rebel soldier. John followed; he read excerpts from a diary. “2,000 years ago, a Jewish child wrote these words,” Manna said. “He was ordinary, like you and me, and was one of the only people who chose life over suicide.”
“The elders argued for hours with their leader about the implications of suicide,” a third student read aloud. “They believed such actions went against the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”
A fourth student stood up and, with great confidence and poise, read the final speech of Elazar ben Yair, the leader of the rebels. “We would stand up to Roman tyranny and get the last word on our conquest,” he bellowed. “When we die, we will leave the Romans humiliated and with nothing, and show them that we died for G-d.”
Soon after, I found out, the rebel soldiers drew lots. “A few years ago, archaeologists found stones with the names of soldiers,” Manna said. “Those that were picked had to kill the other rebels as well as themselves. And they did.”
“However…” Manna mentioned, “This is only one account of the story. Other sources say the Jews fought to the end.”
“Have you ever heard of the prophet Ezekiel?” she asked. “There’s a story in the Torah about his vision of dry bones. In this story, a skeleton is shattered into bones and then rematerialized,” she continued. “It represents how Jews recover when they are knocked down, how even when we are almost destroyed we can resurrect ourselves and press forward.”
“It is eerie, almost appropriate, that archaeologists found scrolls of Ezekiel’s vision in the Masada synagogue,” she pointed out. “Israel is incredibly important because it represents Jewish independence from persecution and prejudice.”
Day 5: My Final Revelation in the Negev Desert (with Excerpts from My Poem, “The Demon in the Desert”)
“The Negev is a mystical place,
A vast, empty space
Of lore that renews the sore
And breathes life
To those in strife…”
And back in the Negev Desert (which covers the southern half of Israel) I sat on the stony ground.
“…I collapsed cross-legged to the earth,
Clouded by foggy visions that foretold my rebirth.
Nothing is as simple as it seems,
For I must fight to be free
From the chains that bind
And the actions that blind
“Who am I?” I tearfully meditated. I was back where I started, sitting on a rock in the middle of nowhere.
“…I grabbed a pebble and clenched,
As memories of my people entrenched
Flashed before me…”
Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace) once wrote, “The Jew is the symbol of eternity. He is the one who for so long had guarded the prophetic message and transmitted it to all mankind. A people such as this can never disappear.”
I opened my watery eyes and realized why Birthright invited me to the Land of Milk and Honey. The epiphany came to me in a poetic dream:
“I am Jewish for a reason,
By choice and by obligation,
My existence is not treason.
For I am the people, the hope, and the nation.”
Moses and the Israelites must have felt the same way when they were expelled from Egypt, when they trekked forty years in this forbidding wilderness.
Jews are encouraged to explore the faith and learn about the history of their ancestors. There is no definitive interpretation of the Torah, for that power lies strictly within the hands of the individual. There is also no greater place to realize that power than in Israel. Judaism can be a religion, a lifestyle, an identity, a community, and even a philosophy. It can even be a synchronous combination of those things. Although I was not religious, Judaism was still my choice, my gift, my responsibility. It was G-d’s decision…