Monday, February 20, 2012

Israel Arrival - Welcome Home!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012- 5:06 am Israel time

We have an hour and 54 minutes until we land in Tel Aviv.

I only managed to sleep about 3.5 hours or so, so I know I'll be a total zombie later. Our trusty rabbi/guide/Seth Rogen look-a-like Josh lovingly told us that we'll have the chance to sleep again in about, oh, 24 hours. Awesome. Seems like I'm not alone in my exhausted stupor, though. Everyone else around me slept for basically the same amount of time.

Because the sound on my screen never started working (turns out it wasn't just me, but the entire last row of the plane), watching a movie/TV was never an option. Instead, I played a little Tetris and Solitaire, listened to my iPod, and tried my best to stay comfortable.

Now that I've gotten all of that out, can I just say that I'M ABOUT TO BE IN ISRAEL. What?!

Right now, according to the flight path tracker, we're 930 miles from Jerusalem and are currently flying over Greece. Earlier (when I couldn't sleep), I watched us fly over Germany, Italy, Croatia, and Hungary, and I may or may not have been mentally planning my next dream vacation. But I'm literally living a dream right now, aren't I?

I've been thinking a lot about the amazing gift that Birthright truly is. More on that later, though. It's breakfast time.

Just 1 hour and 41 minutes until we're on the ground in Israel.
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Tuesday, January 10, 2012- 6:56 am Israel time

We're flying into Tel Aviv over the coastline at sunrise. Is this real life?
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Tuesday, January 10, 2012- 10:18 pm Israel time

Today was literally the longest day of my life. From arriving at Newark airport yesterday at 9 am to writing this in my bed at a Kibbutz hotel in Jerusalem, I've only slept for about 4 hours, all of which was on the plane. My entire group is just as exhausted.

But, we're here! We're in Israel!!!

After breakfast on the plane this morning, I decided to freshen up (put my contacts in, oil-blot, brush my teeth, etc.), and I'm so glad I did because at 7 am, we deboarded the plane, got our luggage, exchanged our money, received our Israeli cell phones, and loaded up the bus for a day full of touring. We definitely hit the ground running!

At that point, it hadn't set in that I was in Israel, and it still hasn't. I can't believe I'm Israel! Israel!

My first thoughts walking out of the airport were how beautiful the weather was and "look at the palm trees." We were quickly introduced to our tour guide Karmit, a quirky 29-year-old Israeli native, our medic/armed guard Giddi, a 21-year-old who just completed his Israeli military service, and our bus driver Rafi.

We were then told we were on our way to Jaffa, the ancient port city that is the original part of modern-day Tel Aviv. Prior to the founding of Tel Aviv in 1909, the inhabitants of Jaffa had dreams of a massive, urban, fast-paced city, and they configured the sand dunes nearby to create Tel Aviv, which is now considered to be the "New York of Israel."

You know that shot of the beautiful coastline leading towards the city that pops up when you search "Israel" on Google? That's where I was today.

To begin the tour, we wound our way through the ancient streets of Jaffa, which remind me so much of an older, cleaner, and safer version of Tangier, Morocco. We heard facts about Napoleon's occupation of the area, how the area once functioned as one of the busiest sea ports in that part of the world, how Jaffa is where the biblical story of Jonah and the whale took place, and more about what we'd see throughout the day. Oh, have you ever heard of a Jaffa Cake? Me neither, but apparently they're big in the U.K. and come from Jaffa.

At one point, we walked down to the Jaffa port and sat on the dock looking back at the city with the waves of the Mediterranean Sea crashing all around us. The scene literally took my breath away. As we sat, Karmit asked us to share our expectations and hopes for the next 10 days and any personal thoughts about our connections to Judaism, Israel, this trip, the Jewish community and culture, and more.

I was surprised to learn that several people on the trip had been to Israel before, some of them more than once. I'm also surprised that I'm not overwhelmed to be in Israel, at least not because I'm Jewish and I'm visiting the homeland of my people, at least not yet. I'm so excited to be here, and I'm so lucky to be on this trip/opportunity of a lifetime, but I haven't had "that moment" yet. I'm hoping it will come soon. I think it will, probably in a way and at a time that I least expect it. I do have to say, though, sitting on the dock, surrounded by the ocean, basking in the sun, feasting my eyes upon old Jaffa in front of me was pretty incredible and so, so beautiful.

After that, we drove into Tel Aviv and had some free time for lunch and to walk around. Some of the other people and I warily approached a small, open-air restaurant and blankly stared at the menu, which was all written in Hebrew, of course. The owner must have sensed our timidity because he extended a fork across the counter with something I recognized and love- falafel!

He kindly let us each try one and, through a game of charades with friendly smiles, pointing, and lots of head nods and shakes, I ordered a falafel laffa. Once we all had our food, we wandered down to the beach (decked out in sweatpants, sweatshirts, and tennis shoes) and enjoyed our lunch on stunning Jerusalem Beach. Talk about amazing, and talk about being thankful for the kindness of a complete stranger despite the largest language barrier I've ever had to endure.

We spent a little time walking around down by the water before getting back on the bus to head to another part of Tel Aviv. Here, we wound through a maze of old and new, ruins and renovations, and years of history within a breathing, living, and growing city. Here is also where total exhaustion (and crabbiness) set in. At this point, it was around 3 pm, and were exhausted, cranky, sweaty, and jet-lagged. I wanted nothing more than a shower and a bed.

Sensing our lack of steam, Karmit lead us in a few insane games (much to our resent) and tried to build our spirits before we went into the Israeli Independence House. This building is one of the most important in Israel and is where the state gained its independence in 1948. Once inside, we watched a short documentary about the mission of the Jewish people following WWII to have a state of their own. I wish I could say that I loved every second of the film, but I don't remember more than the first minute or two. I passed out in my chair, and so did everyone else.

After the film, we went into the main room of the building, which is actually a bomb shelter, to learn more about the history of the monumental event. We even got to listen to a powerful recording of David ben Gurion reciting the Hatikva (the Israeli national anthem) from that day in 1948.

Funny story: Another Birthright group was listening to the lecture with us and, as I glanced over them, I realized they were all AEPis, and then I started spotting a few Mizzou shirts and hats. I rushed over to them after the presentation and actually ran into a few guys that are good friends with some of my sorority sisters. It's crazy how you can see a familiar face halfway across the world, and it really demonstrates the fact that Israel is and always has been and will be the homeland for the Jewish people.

Finally, it was time to head to the hotel. I passed out on the bus, so I don't know how long the drive was. Tonight and tomorrow night, we're staying at the Ma'ale Hachamisha hotel in Jerusalem. The hotel is huge and beautiful, the rooms are decent, and dinner was delicious.

After dinner, we had a short reflection session, a pep talk from one of the URJ Kesher leaders, and received a few notes about the days to come. We ended the evening together in a circle by blessing this trip together and most of our first times to Israel with the Shehecheyanu and the Sh'ma. It was such a beautiful way to celebrate and end our first day in Israel.

To follow along from the beginning of my trip, start here. And congratulations (and thank you!) for making it to the end of this ridiculously long post. :)

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