Thursday, May 31, 2012

Israel: A Guest Post by Matt Reddish

Hey guys ... whats up? Due to popular demand I a here to tell about my adventure to the Middle East.

For those that don't know, my mother is a Jew and my father is Catholic. The birthright trip is a trip designed fly young adults of Jewish descent to Israel for a free 10 day tour of the country. The whole experience of going to a Jewish state was amazing and has really changed some of my views on being a Jew.

Alexis and I first traveled to our grandparents in New Jersey. It was great to get to see them for a bit. They were so excited for us to go, it was cute. My grandparents are selling their home they have been in for around 40 years so it was nice to see the old home one more time. It was also nice to get some real bagels!

We left JFK airport at around 5 pm on a flight to Vienna. Jumping forward seven time zones was a crazy experience. We first flew north across Canada and then cut across by Greenland so once we started East we jumped all the time zones very quickly. We ate dinner as the sun was setting, two hours later they brought breakfast. I opened the shades and it was like 7 am! It is tough to sit on airplane for eight hours when you are 6'4 but luckily I had an aisle seat so I could straighten out my legs. The flight from Vienna to Tel Aviv was hard on the legs but we flew over the Greek Isles so it was worth having a window seat.

After we landed we immediately started driving to the north part of Israel. We stayed in a Kibbutz for the first three nights. A Kibbutz is a community where you give all of your earnings to the community and they provide your housing and food. The communities are very tight knit and it seems like an OK way to live if you are not going to make much money. Here is a picture of our Kibbutz and their community center.

The second day of the trip we visited the Golan Heights and the Jordan River. The Golan Heights was an interesting experience. The Golan Heights are an area of high land that was taken from Syria in the 1967 6-day war. We visited an old Syrian bunker that looked out into Syria. The country looked so peaceful, it is hard to imagine all of the political issues going on in Syria and all of the people being murdered or to imagine 1,000 Syrian tanks rolling toward Israel. While at the bunker we had a discussion about the conflict between Israel and the surrounding countries (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt). We learned about the 1948 war, 1967 war, Yom Kippur war and both Lebanese wars. To learn about how tiny Israel has been able to defend itself against all of these larger nations, and take huge pieces of land from these countries, was one of the first times I felt a lot of pride about being Jewish. Here is photo of Alexis from the Golan Heights with Syria in the background. .
After the Golan Heights we went on a bike ride near the border with Lebanon. It was a fun bike ride through some orchards. We were able to stop and pick fresh grapefruit and mulberries. After the bike ride we went rafting on the Jordan River. We hear the Jordan River mentioned so often that we expect to see a giant river. We were quite disappointed to see that it was closer to the creek in our backyard after a good rain then it was to the Mississippi River or the Tennessee River. The rafting was fun though. There were a lot of Israeli middle schools on field trips and they were a lot of fun to play with. All of the Israeli's kids really love Americans. They would all yell "Americans! We love you! Do you know Lebron James?" Also, there is a show similar to SNL that plays on Israeli T.V. and they do parodies of the birthright trips. The kids would all yell lines at us from the skit. Apparently Americans teens love to yell "FUCKING AWESOME!"  I had my first falafel which was yummy but too heavy considering how active we were during the day. A falafel is pita with balls of fried chick peas and some sauces.Here is a picture from the grapefruit orchard.

The third day we started with a hike up Har Meiron which is a mountain where the founders of Kabbalah hid out to avoid being killed. As you can see in the picture below, Israel is very green and there were a lot of trees. The Israeli's always want us to tell people that Israel isn't a desert full of camels, so consider yourself informed. There was one girl in our group who did not wear good hiking shoes so she kept falling down. After a while she slowed us up so much that eight of us were separated from the group. We spent about 20 minutes lost in the Israeli wilderness before our tour guide found us. I thought for sure Alexis would be the one to get lost first!
After the hike we drove to Tzfat which is where Kabbalah was "born." It was a very old city and smelled kind of bad. After touring Tzfat we had a discussion about the theories of Kabbalah and then split up for lunch. For lunch I had shawarma which was delicious. It was like the falafel except a teriyaki like chicken instead of chick peas. It was again too heavy on my stomach so this was the last real lunch I bought in Israel even though it tasted so good. After lunch we hiked to the top of Tzfat to see where the old fortress was. At the top we all had to pull weeds and clear brush as part of a volunteer activity we have to do. Here is a photo from inside an old synagogue in Tzfat.

Day four we packed up and drove to Haifa. Haifa is a Mediterranean port city. It is the second or third largest city in Israel. We didn't get to spend a lot of time in Haifa but we stopped by the Bahai Temple. We had great views of the Bahai Gardens and the rest of the city. Picture of the Temple and Gardens below.

After seeing the temple we drove to the Carmel Mountains for a hike. I bought watermelon ice cream popsicle which was actually really good! The Carmel Mountains were really pretty, I could do a few more hikes there. After the hike we went to a grocery store to buy picnic food. It was so hard to pick anything out because all of the writing was in Hebrew. I did recognize some things like Doritos and Cheetos but people in Israel like peanut butter Cheetos and I didn't care for them. We ended up buying hummus and pita. After the grocery store we drove to a private beach in Haifa where our tour guide lived. The Mediterranean was everything I could hope for. I can't wait to take Amanda! Below is a picture of the Carmel Mountains and the Mediterranean Ocean.

After the ocean we drove to our hotel in Jerusalem. We got to experience some real Israeli traffic jams! Jerusalem surprised me with how large it is. I always thought it was ruins and its only function was for tourism and religious sites, but it is a city of close to 1,000,000 people. After we checked into the hotel we went to downtown Jersualem to party for a bit. We went to some hookah bars and clubs. The birthright trip participants pour tons of money into the bars so all the promoters would fight to get us into their bars and promise us all sorts of free stuff. All the Israeli guys really liked Alexis. If any girls want to go to Israel and be treated really well by the guys, dye your hair blond. Here is a photo of Alexis and I with the Breite brothers who we became really good friends with.

Day five was our only day to do much in Jerusalem. Our eight Israeli soldiers joined our group in the morning. In Israel everyone must enlist in the army at 18. Guys have 3 mandatory years and girls have 2. It was a little tense at first but by the end of the trip we had bonded with the soldiers so much that it was very hard to leave. After meeting the troops we drove to an overlook where we could see most of the old city. After the overlook we drove to the Jewish Quarter for a tour. We were able to see King David's tomb and the story of his life. We also saw where Jesus had his last supper. While in Jerusalem we could see all of the bullet holes in the walls from when Jerusalem was lost to Jordan in 1948 and taken back in 1967. After the tour we went to the Western Wall which Jews believe is the holiest place in the world. I was able to say a prayer at the wall and place all the notes people sent me into the wall. Below are a few pics of me in Jerusalem.

After the tour of Jerusalem we went to a market to buy dessert and whine for Shabbat. Shabbat is from Friday night to Saturday evening and is the equivalent to Sunday for Christians. On Shabbat Jews do not perform any strenuous activity. Depending on your personal beliefs, some people will not even press a button on an elevator so the hotels had elevators that would just stop on every floor. We start Shabbat by all lighting a candle and singing. Afterward we celebrate by drinking a lot of whine, eating a huge meal and lots of dessert. It is a great excuse to eat terribly. After dinner we went on a walk through Jerusalem. It was amazing to see nobody at all on the road because you don't drive on Shabbat. The only car we saw was a Dominoes delivery man. We went to the hotel lounge for the whine and desert where our group decided to sing. The songs got progressively less Jewish until we were all yelling Bohemian Rhapsody. We got quite a few strange looks but it was so much fun that nobody cared. The picture below is what people call tefflin which is how orthodox jews pray. Some orthodox jews grabbed me, wrapped me up and had me repeat some prayers in Hebrew. It was a new experience for sure!
 Day six was spent in rest for Shabbat. I actually got to take a well needed nap. The only real activity was a political seminar with a lecturer. He basically told us that Israel is going to knock out the Iranian nuclear facilities after the U.S. election in November because then Obama won't have to care as much about political opinion if the U.S. has to assist. We will see what happens. To end Shabbat we went on top of a parking garage and again sang and danced. There are several apartment buildings around where we danced and everyone came out to take pictures of us. Below are all the apartments, you can see the top of the garage where we did our close of Shabbat ceremony.

Day seven we started with Har Herzel which is the Israeli version of Arlington National Cemetery. We heard a lot of powerful stories and it was even more meaningful because we had eight active duty Israeli soldiers with us who knew some of the people at the graves we walked by. We also saw the tomb of a 10 year-old soldier who was shot by a Jordanian sniper in Jerusalem in the 1948 war while running ammo along the roof. It really hit home how hard Israel has had to fight to exist and that every citizen must be prepared to fight. Next we went to Yad Vashem which is the holocaust museum. We spent three hours at the museum, but I felt I needed a whole day to really experience it. It was a very somber experience. We weren't allowed to take any photos in Yad Vashem.

After Yad Vashem we packed up and drove to the Negev Desert which was just like you would imagine a Middle Eastern Desert. Within five minutes of leaving Jerusalem we were surrounded by giant sand dunes and even saw a few camels. We slept that night at an Israeli school house which had packs of goats roaming around. We could see the Dead Sea from our rooms. It was really a pretty view. 

Day eight was one of the physically hardest days of my life. We went to bed at 1:00 am and woke up at 3:00 am so that we could hike up Masada in time to see the sun rise. The hike up Masada is no joke. It only took about 40 minutes but it was so steep as you can see in the pictures below. The hike was definitely worth it once we were on top. The views were great! We toured all the ruins which I really enjoyed. For those who don't know the story of Masada I will give you a quick version. The Romans were conquering the area back in the day. Some Jewish zealots decided to build the city up on top of the mountain in the middle of the dessert thinking the Romans wouldn't want it bad enough to attack them. The Jews were wrong,  but the Romans couldn't attack due to the location of the city so the Romans spent 2 years building a ramp in order to get their siege equipment to the wall. The Romans used Jewish slaves to build the ramp because they knew the Jewish zealots wouldn't kill other Jews. Once the ramp reached the wall all of the citizens elected suicide rather than to be taken as Roman slaves. The Israeli army's motto is something to the effect of "Masada will never fall again" meaning they will never let themselves be in a position where they face a choice between death and having to leave. After talking with the soldiers you can see the meaning holds weight with them and the sentiment plays out with Israel electing to perform so many preemptive strikes against neighboring countries. Below are photos of the sun rise, the path we hiked up and a Roman bathhouse. That is the Dead Sea in the background of all the photos.

After we descended Masada we went for a bike ride through the desert. It was hot and hard especially considering we had no sleep and had just hiked Masada. The views were nice though. After the bike ride we went to the Dead Sea. For those that don't know the Dead Sea is the lowest land point on earth. It is so far from the sun that they say you don't have to wear sunscreen. It is called the Dead Sea because it is so salty that nothing can survive in it. It is actually so salty that you float in it. You can't swim to the bottom if you want to, you really are weightless. It was one of the most unusual sensations I have ever experienced. The only problem is the water is so salty is burns any cut you have no matter how small and so often we don't realize how many little abrasions we have. Also you can't let it get near your eyes or it will burn until you shower off. The Dead Sea is known for this mud with all the minerals that is supposed to be great for your skin. I lathered it on and I assume my skin looked great afterward! There is so much salt that instead of sand the beaches are actually salt. The water looks so refreshing but it is really warm and kind of oily feeling. I managed to smuggle some water and salt pebbles back for Amanda. Below are some photos of the bike ride and dead sea. The fighting photo was a picture of one of me with one of the soldiers named Roy. It is funny to think he is so small but would probably kick my ass with some Israeli combat moves. He is a paratrooper in the K9 unit.

After the Dead Sea we drove way south in the desert for our camp out. It got really cold and most of the group got pretty sick but the bonfire was fun. We were also close to an Israeli air force base so we had several fighter jets fly over.

Day nine started with a hike from the camp site up and down a mountain and the through a canyon. We had to walk in silence and it was so relaxing. After the hike we stopped and meditated for a while. It was probably one of the most relaxing moments of my life. After the hike we went camel riding. It is not as fun as it sounds! Camels smell awful and their hair is so course. Their hair wore through my skin in about 10 minutes making the rest of the ride quite uncomfortable. Still, I guess you can't go to Israel and not ride a camel! I tried to get a photo with the camel but my riding partner took a video so I posted it below.

After the camel ride we visited Ben Gurion's tomb. Ben Gurion was the first prime minister of Israel, sort of their George Washington. After visiting the tomb we drove to Tel Aviv. That night we went out to a dance club in Tel Aviv but it was all American music with American tourists but at least we went!

Day ten was spent in Tel Aviv. We visited Rabin Square where Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated after trying to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians. Then we went to a huge market where I was finally able to buy Amanda all sorts of souvenirs! The market was a lot of fun, but the Israeli's don't like to bargain like the Mexican's in Cancun. They are tough. Next we went to Independence Hall which is where Israel first declared its independence. It was strange how unimportant the building seems compared to its equivalent in Philadelphia for America. I did find a nice statute of Ben Gurion to climb on outside, I wasn't sure if we were allowed to climb on it or not but I think it was allowed. We wrapped up the day with a hike through Jaffa which is a beautiful neighborhood in an old part of Tel Aviv. We had one last reflection session which ran until 1:00 am, then at 3:00 am we left for the airport. Below is a picture of the memorial to Rabin, me probably performing an offense punishable by execution, and the view from Jaffa.

 It was great to get back to the United States but our internal clocks were so far off and I was so sleep deprived that it was very hard to operate for about three days. All is back to normal now, although the whole trip seems so surreal. I was so glad to have Alexis there and to be able to experience all of this with my sister. We have gotten so close in our old age! 

I have never identified myself as a Jew because it is not a cool thing to be a Jew in the hospitable south. This trip really made me proud of my Jewish heritage. The real point of the trip is to drum up support for Israel in America and they certainly do an excellent job at making you feel like Israel is yours as well as America. I don't think I will ever move to Israel, but it is nice to know citizenship is there for me if I ever choose. I hope I can return one day, and this time take Amanda with me!

A few side notes, my law school grades came out and I did much better then last semester. I finally feel all my hours of studying have been validated. This is the first time I have ever made the deans list on any level!

Also, regardless of what Amanda says, our no dessert competition is back on and this time I will not be so easily defeated.

Hope you all enjoyed my blog post, even if it was long. We did so much and each activity was unique and special to me. If you have any questions feel free to message me on facebook or call!

1 comment:

  1. Mazel tov on your journey to Israel Matt! It looks like you and your sister had a great time. We seemed to have done almost the same activities (even I think the same kibbutz), but I wish I could have biked in the desert-that was probably really fun!

    Congrats on your grades & good luck on the dessert challenge!

    All the best,