Following the end of my freshman year at Elon, I went on a Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel from May 25 to June 6. I traveled with members of Elon Hillel, and met groups from other schools upon arriving at the airport.
On our first day in Israel we went on nature walks, overlooked neighboring countries and rafted. It was hard to believe I was actually in Israel.
Our third day, we walked around a local town, and then met Israeli soldiers. They were our ages, liked the same things we did, but one crucial difference separated us—after high school they went directly into the Israeli Defense Force. They joined our bus for the next several days. We all bonded, and together, we became a bus family.
That evening, we rode camels in the desert, ate and slept in Bedouin tents, and took a night walk in the desert. That nature walk was the turning point of the 10-day trip for me. I was able to lie down on the ground in the desert and look up at the sky, which was filled with stars. It was breathtaking. It was so peaceful and relaxing. Then suddenly, it hit me—the activities we were doing had meaning to me,and meant so much more to me when I was in Israel.
Following a three-hour “sleep” — a nap, really in the Bedouin tents, we hiked Masada in time for sunrise. Other than a great opportunity to snap creative Instagram pictures at sunrise, it was interesting to see the ancient ruins and revolutionary landmarks during B.C. Then, we hiked to Ein Gedi’s waterfalls and floated in the Dead Sea covered in mud — touristy, I know. Following that busy day, we drove to Jerusalem and had and our Shehecheyanu, a “blessing for new things” ceremony with all the other Birthright groups in the Holy City for the first time together. There was something special about being outside in Jerusalem with all the other Birthright students as we said the same blessings. I felt connected to my faith, friends and even Israel.
Spending Shabbat in Jerusalem was definitely more different than the custom I was used to, but it was so sweet to see members of my Birthright bus have their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs overlooking the city of Jerusalem. It was a memorable moment for all of us.
Being in Jerusalem and bonding with our Israeli friends really brought us closer together. One of my favorite moments of the trip was our Havdallah, the end of Shabbat service. The service took place with all the Birthright groups on a hotel rooftop, in a circle, arms around each other like a Taglit family. It was an experience I’ll never forget. It made us really focus on the moment. I felt a strong connection to all the participants that night. Besides my family, I had never felt that so connected to others by my religion before.. It was one of my favorite spiritual moments.
The next day, we explored Tel Aviv and Jaffa, a cute little town that I loved. In Tel Aviv, we saw Independence Hall, where Israel's Declaration of Independence was signed. I was struck by something I saw outside: young soldiers strolling around holding their guns. It baffled me how casual they were, but when I met them, I saw how proud they were of themselves, their community, their religion and their country. I was inspired by their pride and bravery.
Visiting the Old City of Jerusalem, especially the Western Wall, was very meaningful. Again, I felt connected to the millions who had been there before me. It was overwhelming looking at this huge wall, but also moving. Afterward, we packed up from our Jerusalem hotel and headed to spend the Shavuot holiday in the Negev desert.
At the end of my 10-day journey, I finally could explain what it meant to me. I initially thought this trip to Israel would be a fun experience for each collective group. But within a few days, we were just Bus 1173: one family sharing this once-in-a-lifetime – cliche, but true — experience.