Hi All, Erica here!
Ever since I was young, I have wanted to go to Israel. When I was 13, I had a bat mitzvah and after my celebration, I continued going to Hebrew school and was later confirmed at age 16. As a reward to the confirmation class, all the students were given a free trip to Israel. At the time, Israel was not the safest place to be, so my parents did not feel completely comfortable sending me off. Though I was disappointed, I knew there would be another chance for me to go.
Upon coming to college, I had learned about an organization called Taglit. Taglit provides a free, 10 day trip to Israel for any Jewish young adult between the ages of 18-26. The purpose of this trip is to provide a Jewish student his or her birthright, a chance to go to Israel and strengthen the connection with the Jewish identity.
As soon as I found out about Birthright, I applied for it. Because it is an extremely popular program, it has become much more competitive throughout the years. Sadly, I did not get on the trip the first two times I applied, but I would not give up! I decided to apply through UConn’s Hillel program. Initially, I wanted to go with a group of people whom I had never met before, but I figured it could be just as great of an experience to travel with people who I already did know. Thankfully, I was accepted onto the Winter 2012 Trip to go with UConn Hillel. After years of waiting, I was finally ready to make my way to Israel.
Arriving in Israel is somewhat a blur. The flight was ten hours and there is a seven hour time difference. Needless to say, I was a bit disoriented when I got off the plane, but still so excited to start my journey. The entire trip was incredible, but there are a few highlights that I would like to share.
Something interesting that I had always heard, but never really knew was that Israeli soldiers would accompany the Americans on the trip. When I found out this was indeed true, I was very excited. Being a Communications major, I am fascinated with different cultures, and more importantly, the way people interact amongst different cultures. I was extremely eager to meet people who were the same age as me, but from a completely different world. It turned out that our bus was given eight Israeli soldiers- four young men and four young women. All of the soldiers were between the ages of 19-21, which made it really easy for all of us to relate to them. In Israel, citizens are required to serve time in the Israeli Defense Forces. Women must serve for two years while men serve for three. There are many different jobs that prospective soldiers can apply for, ranging from Intelligent forces, to Radio DJs, to Combat. During their time in the army, they are able to apply for Taglit. Just as I did, the Israeli soldiers were required to go through an intense application process. Being accepted into the program is a huge honor and something that most young Israeli’s look forward to. Though the soldiers were only with us for five days, they became an integral part of our trip, and great friends with whom I still keep in touch.
On the sixth day of the trip, we arrived at the Negev Desert. It was as if I had been placed on a movie set; we drove down an extremely narrow and windy road with gigantic mountains surrounding us. When we arrived at our destination, we were told we would be riding camels! It was a little scary at first- camels are not the friendliest creatures, but it turned out to be one my most favorite experiences. After our exhilarating camel ride, we were able to relax in a Bedouin tent where we were served the most delicious tea I have ever tasted. We hung out by the fire and spoke about what a great trip we were having and how excited we were for the next day. At around 3:45 AM, the entire group was up and ready to hike Mount Masada. When we got to the mountain, it was still completely dark but as we made our way to the top, the sun was just rising. We spent some time at the top of the mountain, reflecting on the experiences we had so far, and those yet to come.
We made our way down a very steep path so that we could finally get to the Dead Sea. Before we arrived at the Dead Sea, we were warned not to stay in too long, not to drink the water, and not to get any water in our eyes. While the Atlantic Ocean contains 3.8% salt, the Dead Sea has 31.5% salt. Needless to say, it is extremely salty. The water is salty enough that a person is able to actually sit, float, and read a book. As much fun as it was, it also really healthy for your skin. After the Dead Sea, we headed to Jerusalem to visit the Kotel, or “Wailing Wall.” The Kotel is one of the most sacred sites in Judaism, as Jews from all over the world come to visit and pray. The night we got there, it was Shabbat, a festive day in the Jewish religion when Jews are freed from labor and able to reflect their week with their family and friends. Because of the holiday, the Kotel was very crowded with people celebrating. Being by the wall was a truly memorable experience. Though I do not consider myself very religious, it was extremely spiritual to be at a place where so many Jewish people have been, were at, and will be. Though all of these events were jam-packed into one day, it was by far the most unforgettable day of the trip.
I can genuinely say that the Taglit Birthright experience was honestly one of the best times of my life. I got to meet new people, see new places, and experience a completely different culture. I wholeheartedly recommend this trip to anyone who is eligible, for it will provide you with an unforgettable experience. Writing this blog, I am getting all sorts of nostalgic and want to go back! Perhaps someday I will, but for now I am just truly thankful that I had the opportunity to go.