A free trip, for 10 days, in the holy land of Israel? Sounds too good to be true, but it is.
If you don't come from a very religious background, you might for once really appreciate the fact that you happened to be Jewish.
But what participants don't know is that this trip, both a privilege and a 'right', is so much more than just a free sponsored trip to Israel.
I signed up for my Birthright trip weeks past the deadline of when the applications were due. One day later, completely unexpectedly and luckily, I was able to get a spot on a trip in the winter through University of Southern California's campus Hillel.
I had no idea what to expect, not only because I didn't know anyone going on the trip but also because I didn't attend the university. But I was very fortunate to find out that the staff members from Hillel as well as the students on the trip were very welcoming of everyone. The countdown had begun and every passing day made the excitement more real. Because my father's side of the family all lives in Israel, this was not my first time visiting, but it had been a few years since I last went so I was very eager.
In what seemed like no time, the day for the start of our journey to Israel had arrived. After spending nearly 24 hours traveling, we arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, where we were greeted by our Israeli expert and accompanying soldiers. Our large bus became our home for the next 10 days as we traveled to countless destinations throughout Israel.
The first day, despite being jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, was a very memorable one. We made our way to the Old City of Jaffa and I distinctly remember telling another student that it felt unreal, as if finally being in Israel was a dream. The old walls of Jaffa were timeless, as well as the walkways made of large white stones. The small alleyways were filled with tiny, cramped shops selling every little trinket imaginable. My first meal was shakshuka with warm bread, hummus, and pickled cabbage on the side. The trip had only begun but I was so overwhelmed with anticipation of what we would experience in the following days.
The next few days after Jaffa were spent in northern Israel near the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), where we visited many nature reserves and some of Israel's highest mountains (Mt. Bental and Mt. Arbel). But we didn't just hike for the views; we learned a lot about the political history of Israel and the different issues the country still faces today with its neighboring countries, which we saw from where were standing. Another stop was the magical city of Tzfat, where we also volunteered at an Ethiopian absorption center.
We next made our way to Jerusalem, where we were met with lively music and dancing atop Mt. Scopus. We toured through the Old City and stopped at the Kotel (Western Wall) to put our paper notes in the wall. For many of us, visiting the wall was a very emotional experience. Although this was not my first time there, this was the first time I felt a deep spiritual connection with the wall and the city, and Israel as a whole. As I stood and heard other women praying and weeping around me, I couldn't help but shed tears too. I was so glad to have gone through such an enriching experience with my fellow trip-mates. In our several days in Jerusalem, we went to Mt. Herzl, Yad Vashem (Holocaust Museum), and the busy streets of night-time Jerusalem like Ben Yehuda St. Several of my trip members celebrated their B'nai Mitzvah by reading from the Torah and giving speeches. It was a very emotional and meaning experience for all of us to be a part of. Also, we got to spend our first night of Hanukkah in the holiest city itself.
After Jerusalem we headed further south to the Negev. We had the amazing opportunity to tour an army base (instructor's school) of one of our accompanying soldiers. We also spent the night in a Bedouin tent in the middle of the desert, waking up early in the morning to ride camels.
We trekked up the Masada, looking down at a stunning view of the desert. After all the hiking, we floated in the refreshing and salty waters of the Dead Sea.
Our last destination for the trip was the city that never sleeps: Tel Aviv. Despite the rainy weather, we visited the Shuk Ha'Carmel, the largest outdoor market in Tel Aviv. Filled with many vendors selling a huge array of colorful spices, teas, and other items like jewelry and clothing, the market did not fail to amaze me with its bustling atmosphere. The market also offered a selection of the best snacks like fresh juice, dried fruit, nuts, and best of all, baklava. We got a tour of the graffiti art in the city, and visited a local start-up. One of our last nights of the trip was spent going out to the different restaurants, bars, and clubs of Tel Aviv.
The final night of the trip was used for all of us to come together and reflect on the experiences we had gone through. We said our thank you's and bonded over our common Jewish identities. Something that made us all different from others was what brought us together on Birthright. The 10 days flashed by right before our eyes, but the things I learned about Israel and Judaism, the fun memories, and all of the friendships I created will never be forgotten. Israel will forever be my home away from home.
I extended my trip for six more weeks to stay with my family and visited many more amazing places throughout Israel-- but all of that started with my Birthright trip. I am eternally grateful for Birthright/Taglit Israel and USC Hillel's staff members who made this trip possible for me and the other trip members. If you are Jewish or your family comes from a Jewish background, I highly (HIGHLY) recommend that you sign up as soon as possible to be able to go on your own Birthright trip. It's life-changing, seriously.
I have never felt closer to Israel in my life and this trip is what allowed me to connect with the land and the culture. My name, Aili (spelled אילי), is an acronym that stands for "My Land of Israel" in Hebrew (Eretz Israel Sheli- ארץ ישראל שלי). This trip helped me to properly appreciate and cherish the unique meaning behind my name. I learned that Israel faces many complex issues, but it is a fascinating place with a beautifully rich culture nonetheless. I hope to go back soon to advance my Hebrew and go on more adventures to unknown destinations in the one-of-a-kind, special country that is Israel.
Watch a short video-version of my Birthright trip here.