The second part of my trip in Israel was, if possible, even better than the first. We had all gotten to know each other well after traveling together, and we began to head down South to warmer weather and less rain!
Sunday morning was the part of the trip that everyone had been looking forward to the entire trip: we finally got to meet our Jewish soldiers! The great things about going on a trip with Birthright is that for the second half of your trip, local Israelis join and get to experience the country with you. They are not there for protection but rather so that you get an opportunity to bond with Israelis, and they get an experience to meet Americans. We had eight soldiers join us on our trip, and getting the opportunity to bond with them and learn about their lives was definitely a highlight of the trip.
That day we visited the home of an Arab woman who lived in a small Arab village about 20 miles outside of Tel Aviv. She told us about the Arab/Israeli relations and how they have affected her growing up in Israel. She also taught us a lot about what it was like growing up as an Arab woman and the challenges that she faced based on her gender and religion. Although she said some things that we all considered a bit controversial, overall it was a really fascinating presentation and I was thankful for the opportunity to get to see Israel through a different perspective.
Sunday evening we finally arrived in the South. We stayed at the Sde Boker kibbutz in the Negev Desert. A kibbutz is a type of Israeli communal living community, where all the people contribute to the well-being of the community and live as one large, collective unit. Sde Boker is well known as being the place that Ben Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, retired and is now buried.
On Monday morning we were able to explore Sde Boker a bit but spent most of the day admiring the breathtaking beauty of the Negev Desert. We hiked Ein Ovdat and finally got the opportunity to enjoy the sun on our faces. The difference between the landscape and climate of the south was incredibly different from that in the north, a fact I found interesting due to the small size of the country.
Monday evening we drove to the Bedoin Tents for our night out sleeping under the stars. The Bedoin people used to live in Israel and were nomads, traveling around often. The site that we stayed is more of a re-creation of a traditional Bedoin area, but it was absolutely stunning. Coming upon it from the mountains we could see it in the distance, looking like an oasis of palm trees in the middle of the desert. The tent that we slept in that night was huge, heated and circular, and was very comfortable (although we did all get very cold in the night!). Our first activity of the evening was a talk on sustainability, where we learned how the people at our site used alternative forms of energy to live sustainably. Then we were given traditional Bedoin coffee and tea and told the history of the people. Dinner was fantastic and served in a beautiful tent, where we sat on pillows on the ground and ate communally. Before bed we made a campfire and roasted marshmallows, which was a perfect end to the day.
Tuesday morning we started the day with camel rides through the desert! The camels were actually quite comfortable to ride once you got over the initial fear of being so high up. We rode in pairs of 2 and the camels were tied together and led by guides, so it was really quite safe. My only complaint was that we couldn't ride farther!
After the camel rides we packed up and drove to Masada, a grand mountain with ruins on top, overlooking the Dead Sea. There is an interesting story about why Masada is important, but I was more impressed with how they were able to build such incredible, strong structures thousands of years ago! They built fantastic water collection systems to save water during the dry seasons, and the work that must have gone into carving the giant storage tanks from the rock is mind-boggling.
After Masada we finally went to the Dead Sea! Going there was definitely something that I had been looking forward to, and I was not disappointed! The water was beautiful and calm, and luckily the day was warm(ish) because it was also freezing! The sensation of being able to float with no effort or support is kind of indescribable, but overall it was a great experience. The salt and mud in the Dead Sea is also great for your skin, so it was almost like a spa experience!
We spent Wednesday inJerusalem, and it was the hardest day emotionally. We started the day in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. The museum was beautifully designed and evoked a lot of emotions, and our tour guide was fantastic. Hearing about what happened under Hiltlers reign was heartbreaking, and I can't imagine what it would have been like to live during that time. However, I think that we all came away feeling a mixture of hope and sadness, because even though they were so heavily persecuted, the Jews did not give up. They found reasons to be happy and things to live for, and now have their own country so that Jews no longer need to be afraid, with no where to turn.
After Yad Vashem we went to Har Hertzel, the military memorial grounds. The grounds were beautiful, and we were able to celebrate the lives of those that died protecting the land of Israel. At the end of the day, before we left the grounds, the Israeli soldiers with us gave a presentation about what it means to them to be able to protect their country and what they are hoping to build with their service. I got incredibly emotional during their presentation thinking about what an amazing country Israel is. Despite everything that they have gone through, the people are warm, welcoming, and all united towards the same goals and values. I didn't feel like I was ready to leave yet!
Our last day was spent in Jerusalem, exploring the Jewish Quarter of the old city. Seeing the Western Wall was an amazing way to remember everything that we had done the past 10 days and bring everything together for me. Although Israel has gone through a lot over thousands of years, the country is still strong and still standing and still a place that means something. I am so thankful to have been on this trip, and am so looking forward to getting the opportunity to go again.