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  • When I leave Israel, it will only be a question of when I will return, not if

    Jan 30, 2017

    If someone had told me six months ago that I would wake up at 6:00 am in a Bedouin tent full of Ducks in the middle of the Negev Desert, I would not have believed it.  Yet there I was, looking out as the sun rose over the desert, sipping bitter Arabic coffee, and waiting to ride a camel train outside the Bedouin encampment. It was the start to beautiful day that included a hike up Masada and a dip in the Dead Sea.

    The camels infused the day with energy from the start. Everyone was laughing; brainstorming camel names (I was lucky to be riding Camela Anderson with Justin), and the 20-minute ride flew-by. We then boarded the bus for Masada. The mountain is breathtaking. After hiking up the Roman ramp, we gazed across the Dead Sea into Jordan and looked down on the eight Roman encampments that circle the mountain. The fortress came to life with five of us acting out various historical characters with fun scripts provided by Lilach for different locations on the mountain top; Alex took on the role of King Herod, while I had a little more fun as a Roman soldier.  

    The most powerful experience of Masada was the telling of the story of the Jews who took their own lives rather than suffer slavery under the Romans. In discussing the tale, Roberta mentioned that some families in Aleppo took their own lives rather than face rape and abuse by the advancing forces of Assad. Her sharing of the news from Aleppo was a reminder that the story of Masada not only speaks to the survival of the Jewish people, but also to how the Jewish people must care for the world, Tickun Olam.

    We descended Masada on the snake path, the winding trail a challenge as the desert sun continued its climb. The trail ended at a large Ahava factory store, the largest tourist trap in the Negev. After buying the necessary Dead Sea mud facemasks for friends at home, we grabbed lunch and then headed to the Dead Sea.

    The Dead Sea was stunning, freezing, and left many of us with soft skin and beat up toes. The beach was covered with salt crystals and everyone took advantage of the mud.  Wading out into the waters was treacherous, the bottom covered with rocks. But once we got far enough out, floating in the surprisingly warm water was surreal. The sun decided to disappear for our brief time in the water and the trek back from the beach was freezing. I’ll take it as a sign we need to come back over the summer and experience the Dead Sea in all its glory.

    The evening ended with a quick dinner and an evening program preparing for our trip to Yad Veshem. In small groups we discussed our family stories and personal experiences of anti-Semitism. It was sobering and enriching. I discovered that part of Nathan’s family had come over from what is now Moldova (formerly Bessarabia), the same area from which my great grandparents had escaped pogroms in the early 1900s. I also learned that my experience of anti-Semitism at U of O was not unique to the law school, but to the campus at large.

    The day was full, long, and one of the most fun of the trip. A day of desert sun was invigorating; especially after the harsh winter chill in Jerusalem and the rain we had in the north to start the trip.  It is hard to believe our journey is coming to a close so quickly. The time has flown by, but I know when I leave Israel, it will only be a question of when I will return, not if.

    Aaron Haynes
    University of Oregon Law School Class of 2018
    Anchorage, AK
  • This Bar Mitzvah is important to me. It changes how the world sees us…

    Jan 12, 2017
    This was my first Shabbat in Israel. It was an important one as well. As someone who observes Shabbat, I was grateful that the day was not full of rigorous events or much of anything; I was able to relax and have my day of rest.

    I had two distinct goals in mind when I decided to go on Birthright. The first goal was something Nathan told me I could do: have my Bar Mitzvah. The second goal was something that I had wanted to do for a while at this point: meet a Sepharadi who could speak Ladino and converse with them. I later came up with two more goals while on the trip.

    When I was on the plane to Israel, the man sitting next to me wrapped his tefillin and said his prayers. I had never used tefillin before, so I was watching and observing how it was done. He offered to let me use his tefillin, to which I said I didn’t know how to use it. He graciously offered to teach me, and so we went through how to put on the tefillin, the names of each part, and the prayers. I then decided to, during this trip, buy a set for myself. This was the first goal I came up with during this trip.

    The second goal I came up with during this trip was to buy a specific style of kippah. The Sepharadim sometimes wear a specific kind of kippah called the Bukhari kippah. It is a kippah with a band and a flat top; imagine flipping a cat food bowl upside down and you’ll have a good idea of how this kippah looks. My family makes these styles of kippot and I had wanted one for a while. I came to the conclusion that I should get one on this trip because there is no better place to get authentic Jewish wear than Israel.

    The Friday before this Shabbat, we had the pleasure of visiting Old Jerusalem. One of the things we got to do was go to a market. Our guide, Lilach, said that there was a store that sold mezuzot and that some of the mezuzot cases were made out of Jerusalem stone. Jerusalem stone is the specific type of limestone that all buildings have to be made of in Old Jerusalem. At the mention of a religious shop, I asked Lilach if there was a shop that sold tefillin. It was, after all, my goal to buy a set. Lilach said ‘yes’ and showed us all the store with our desired objects.

    The store sold amazingly beautiful objects. In the jewelry section, there were gorgeous Hanukkiot and mezuzot. In the fabrics section, I was in awe at the quality of the talitot. I asked the woman who was walking around helping us if she had any tefillin. She showed me the tefillin. It was great to see it, but that was all I got to do. The cheapest set she had, she said, was 500 NIS. The other set was 900 NIS, which was the same kind as the one man who sat next to me on the plane had. I only had 470 NIS. I told this to her, and she said that she could lower the price a bit of me, but I made it clear that I couldn’t because I still needed money to pay for food later. And so, I couldn’t buy tefillin.

    In the same store there were kippot. At this point, I was really trying to find the kind of kippot I wanted. The store sold kippot, but none of them were in the style I wanted. I was debating whether or not I wanted to spend money of a kippah that I didn’t want or whether or not I should keep trying to find the style I wanted. I ended up not buying any of the kippot and was pretty bummed. I remember leaving the store sullen and voicing my frustration for my lack of funds to my friend, Benjamin. He said that it was lame, and I continued being a bit downcast.

    We left the market to get some lunch for which we had to use our own money, hence the dilemma for the tefillin. I needed to use the bathroom, so I went searching for the nearest one. I found a group member, Sachel, and we went searching together. We ended up going the wrong way, turning around, and then finding the bathroom. On this erroneous path, however, I saw a store that sold Bukhari kippot. I immediately told Sachel that I was going to go buy one, went to the bathroom, and then went to the store. The man working there helped me pick out a kippah that fit me and looked good. It was expensive, being 150 NIS. This was the price for a hand made kippah in a unique style, though. I asked the miller why others didn’t sell this kind often and he told me that it was because most people really don’t want them. They are niche and are really only sold by tailors or millers.

    I bought the kippah and was delighted. I had told many in my group about my goals and so I shared with them my success. It looked good, in my opinion. Several group members were happy for me. Some had complimented me. In a way, I feel as though it was good that I didn’t buy the tefillin and had waited. I am religious and I do believe that everything happens for a reason. And so, I am grateful to Hashem.

    The next day, this Shabbat, I had my Bar Mitzvah.

    We started with the B’nei Mitzvah prep for all the others who wanted to have a Bar Mitzvah. One person in our group hadn’t ever heard the Aliyah prayers before. I knew the prayers and so helped her practice the words and the tune. Later during the Bar Mitzvah, she did very well for someone who had just heard these prayers that very day. She did very well in general, actually. But that’s jumping ahead. During the prep workshop, the woman leading the prep said that we needed to prepare a speech for our B’nei Mitzvah and that we needed to find someone to read our Torah portion. I wanted to read my own, but they didn’t tell us what portion we would have been reading. I didn’t have enough time to practice when I did find out, so I just asked for an Israeli to read it for me. I then sat down and wrote my speech in my journal. I wanted to write it in Ladino, and so I did.

    I put on my kippah that I bought the day before, got dressed, and went to the ceremony. When it came time for me to go up, the woman who led the prep called my name: “Ya’amor, ya’amor, ya’amor, please rise, please rise, please rise Abahu ben Yana.” Since my father is not Jewish, I decided to not use his name in my Hebrew name. It had nothing to do with not respecting him or loving him – I love my father very much – instead I just used my Jewish mother’s name, Jana (pronounced Yana). I went up to the Torah scroll and sang the prayers, following the customs I knew. One of the Israelis read the Torah, and then I said the closing prayer. I was the second to last person to do my B’nei Mitzvah, the last person being one of my friends. She went up next, and we all went to the front to say our speeches.

    The way this worked is that we split up the B’nei Mitzvah into groups of three. Since we had seven, though, it was one group of three and one group of four. I was in the last one. Everyone was saying their speeches, and then I said mine. In Ladino first, and then I translated it on the spot so that everyone could understand.

    “La famiya mia no fue aparte de un temple por unos sinko jenerasiones. Ansi, no tuvimos la habilidad d’tener los kostumbres ortodoshikos. Ma de ser djidio nunka fue problema; la identidad s’faradi mia siempre mi fuerza.

    Ashta sinko anyos antes, no me preocupo nada. Ashta keria ir a una sinagoga konserbativa. No pude prover ke era djidio porke no tuvimos las kredensiales: la famiya mia no las nesesitava. Siempre oravamos topi mosotros.

    No fuimos djidios en los ojos d’los otros.

    Ansi este bar mitzva m’importa. Troka komo vean el mundo a mosotros. Marka ke si, seamos djidios – ke somos djidios. Ke so djidio.”

    “My family hasn’t been a part of a temple or synagogue for some five generations. So, we didn’t have the ability to have the traditional orthodox customs. But being Jewish never was a problem; my Sephardic identity my strength.

    Until five years ago, nothing worried me. Until I wanted to go to a Conservative synagogue. I couldn’t prove that I was Jewish because we didn’t have the credentials. We never needed them. We always prayed amongst ourselves. (Clarification: because we couldn’t prove that one of our mothers in our matrilineage was Jewish by going to a synagogue, there was no proof that we were indeed Jewish.)

    We weren’t Jews in the eyes of the others.

    So this Bar Mitzvah is important to me. It changes how the world sees us…”

    At this point, I started crying. I had kept this hidden for the most part. I didn’t like sharing this information because I didn’t like being rejected as a Jew. But now I was sharing this and I was happy. I was happy because this Bar Mitzvah changed things. I was crying, almost at the end of my speech, with my friend hugging me. She was also crying. I finally finished, saying:

    “It marks that we are Jewish. That I am Jewish.”

    I started crying again. Being able to finally declare that I am Jewish and being recognized by my fellows was too much for me. It was something that I had wanted for such a long time, and now I had it. I looked around and realized that many of the other people in our bus group were tearing up or somehow emotionally affected. My friend said her speech, which was also very good, and then everyone celebrated. Many people congratulated us, gave us hugs, and said very kind words. I was jubilant.

    The day continued. We went to a lecture later about the Jewish identity. The speaker, Avraham, talked about Judaism being a culture rather than a religion. This was an interesting concept, but one that he had evidence for. He was comedic many times, which only made the lecture more enjoyable. We all had different feelings about the lecture. I liked it, along with some of the others. Some people fell asleep because it was so long. Others didn’t pay attention because it was so long. Still others thought that the lecture was boring. We didn’t speak for too long about the lecture since we then went to celebrate New Years.

    This part of the story is important because it is a story about one of my goals.  We all went in different groups in different directions within the boundaries detailed by Lilach. We had three hours to celebrate in whichever responsible way we wanted. After walking around for awhile, my friend Xander came up to me and excitedly told me some great news: he found a Ladino speaker!

    Now this doesn’t sound like amazing news, does it? To understand why we were both excited, to have to understand that we’re both Jews who love languages. He is Ashkenazi and I am Sephardi. He learned Yiddish, which has a good amount of speakers in the hundred thousands, while I am learning Ladino, which has about fifty to eighty thousand speakers in Israel. That number was collected in the year 2000.  Many Ladino speakers didn’t teach their children and were thus very old. I can only imagine that the number of speakers is drastically less now.

    Xander took me to where he had heard some Ladino speakers and I talked to one. He responded to my Ladino with Ladino at first, but then started speaking English. I found this very strange: why wouldn’t a native speaker of a moribund language be delighted to find another person with whom he can speak? I asked him about whether his kids spoke el espanyol muestro, and he said ‘no’. I asked him why, and he said ‘because they didn’t want to’. As the generations went on, the people spoke less and less Ladino. I asked him if this worried him. He said this: “No, life goes on.” This hurt me. He knew that the language would die off. He knew that this language was important to him; he said “si, es muy importante” when I asked him if it was important to him. Yet he accepted this fate. I asked him about other questions, such as Sephardic jewelry and customs. He didn’t have any answers. He claimed that Sepharadim are Jews. They pray like others. The jewelry question just confused him.  The dearth of cultural knowledge made me sad. The imminent death of the language of the Sepharadim, a treasure among many, made me even sadder. I thought of the ending of one Ladino poem I read: “Mi spanyol kerido”. This relationship between a people and their language is a strong one, many times. Within this language exists the culture and history of a people. This link was dying off. With it, the history and treasure of many of our forefathers and foremothers.  I ended the conversation with “Munchas gracias, ma te pido a ti: ensenya a tus ijos el espanyol muestro. Kero ke tenia la oportunidad de aprenderlo kuando era joven.” With that, I left and continued my night.

    This Shabbat was beautiful and amazing. It was sad and emotional. Above all, I was grateful for the opportunities given to me by Birthright and Hillel.

    Andrew Dalcher
    University of Oregon Class of 2019
    Bishop, CA
  • I have to remember that I am blind

    Jan 11, 2017

    I have to remember that I am blind.

    Today concluded our 10 day experience through the land of Israel. We went to Independence Hall, explored Tel Aviv and the open market for lunch, and said goodbye to our incredible soldiers. I am so lucky to have met these 7 people. Each one of them is a beautiful and unique person with such kindness and strength in their hearts, such pride in their country, such love for life and such incredibly contagious smiles and laughs. Getting on the bus and watching these new friends laugh and cry with each other was hard because I knew they would be going their separate ways and in a few days they would go back to their respective units. At the same time, it was beautiful because I know they formed connections with each other, and with us, that none of us can ever forget. They taught us all to live in the moment, to form deep connections fast, to appreciate the lives we live, to love hard and to laugh often.

    At sunset, we went on a graffiti tour through South Tel Aviv. This was the first thing we did without our Israeli friends with us. I felt like something was missing. When our tour guide, a street artist from Tel Aviv with badass dyed hair and an energy that you could tell had powerful stories attached began, I knew that every one of my new friends would remind me to appreciate the moment and enjoy the last activity in Israel before heading to the airport. I looked up at the blue and pink sky and saw an airplane, and I realized I would be heading back to Los Angeles in a few hours. I smiled as I thought back on the intense and beautiful past 10 days.

    We explored what our artist tour guide referred to as a “graffiti playground”, the place where novice artists go to practice their skills without fear of being caught. As we walked through the streets of Tel Aviv, she pointed out her favorite pieces, from political commentary to personal stories to memorials and tributes. She told us stories of the graffiti artists, and reminded us that gentrification in Tel Aviv is making it difficult for people like her to continue her lifestyle in her own hometown.

    As the tour began to conclude, our guide told us she was taking us to her favorite piece. We saw some amazing works of art that hour. Some pieces were incredibly detailed, some were impressively high up on buildings, others had beautiful messages. The piece she declared as her favorite seemed like nothing special. There was a wall with some basic poorly done signatures and messy designs. I didn’t see the beauty. She told us to look deeper. I thought I looked deeper. I still didn’t see the beauty. She asked if anyone could tell why this was her favorite piece. Silence. She said this was why it was her favorite piece. She pointed out the braille underneath the poorly done graffiti.

    She told us the piece said “I have to remember I am blind”. I thought back on the trip and realized this was a perfect phrase to summarize my time in Israel. The first step to learning anything is to realize you know nothing. These past 10 days, I’ve realized there are some things that will never make sense to me. I’ve realized it is okay to not understand. I’ve realized everything is up to personal interpretation and you must form your own opinions on everything. I’ve realized there is beauty in everything, and you can miss the beauty even if you’re staring right at it. I’ve realized I am blind. I am blind to hatred, to love, to beauty. There is so much in this world to see, and it is impossible to see it all. Israel has helped me open my eyes and begin to be less blind.

    Emily Kalbrosky
    University of Oregon Class of 2019
    Los Angeles, CA
  • Being connected to Judaism and the Jewish world is not always easy

    Jan 10, 2017

    Earlier in our trip, we learned a bit about the Kabbalah—Jewish mysticism. Something that we learned was that there is this idea that everyone has his or her name for a specific reason. The Kabbalah believes that names hold a certain amount of power to them and everyone’s name is special in its own way. Today, we traveled to Yad VaShem, which translates to “The Memorial of Names”. Yad VaShem is Israel’s Holocaust museum and memorial to all those that perished.

    Before we entered the museum, we walked to a seemingly normal tree with our tour guide. We then learned that every tree on the grounds of the museum is dedicated to a righteous gentile; a non-Jew that helped protect Jews from persecution during World War II. This tree in particular was dedicated to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swede who has been credited with saving a whopping 100,000 Jews due to his ability to create documents that would essentially grant them diplomatic immunity. Wallenberg was only authorized to print 2,000 of these such documents but ended up printing 20,000 as well as being credited with saving the other 80,000 Jews that were liberated in his area after the war ended. Something that was especially poignant about Wallenberg’s story was that one of the people that was saved was the mother of our tour guide George. Thanks to Raoul’s righteousness George’s mother was protected and thankfully survived the war.

    Everyone had a different reaction to the museum. Some were more moved than others and some connected with the exhibits to a greater extent. I found myself connected in a different way. While we were walking through the museum, I felt a hand on my shoulder.  I turned around and saw a man extending his hand to me. He looked down at my chest and saw that my shirt said AEPi on it. I took his hand and did the traditional AEPi handshake with him, and he walked away. I did not say a word to this man and I have no idea who he is, but because he could recognize that I was a brother, I connected with him.

    Being connected to Judaism and the Jewish world is not always easy. Anti-Semitism is growing on college campuses at an alarming rate and to be completely honest, there are some times that I am afraid to wear my letters around campus. The Greek community faces a lot of hate, especially the Jewish fraternity. There are some nights where I hear “f**k AEPi, f**k the Jews” from the street below my window at the house. When I wear AEPi emblazoned across my chest, much like the gold star badge that the Jews had to wear in Germany, it identifies me as a Jew. However, there are times that I wear this badge proudly. Being Jewish is a major part of my personal identity and is very important to me. I hope that there is a day where I can wear my letters on my chest and a Star of David around my neck without being afraid and this trip to Israel has shown me that this day in question is not impossible to reach, but far away in the future.

    Dan Nelson
    University of Oregon Class of 2019
    Los Angeles, CA

  • Israel: A country I've grown to love, but it is not a perfect country

    Jan 09, 2017

    Israel is not a perfect country. Some people, Israelis for the most part, know this and still continue to live here. Others know it is a safe haven for the Jewish people and the land of milk and honey. While it is the past, present, and future homeland of the Jewish people, it’s far from perfect. This statement isn’t meant to be cynical or undermine the country in any way; I’ve grown to love Israel over the course of this trip. However, I do think it needs to be said because some international Jews tend to over-romanticize it – call it the Paris syndrome for the Jewish people.

    This thought process came from an entire morning spent at Mount Herzl, where we wandered through graves and graves of IDF soldiers overlooking the rolling hills of Jerusalem. We listened to stories not only from our Israeli soldiers but from our tour educator as well and she is what really made me think about Israel as an imperfect country.  She told us about her childhood friend that died while in service and wanted us to know that she thought that young people shouldn’t have to be fighting and sacrificing themselves right out of high school. She doesn’t want to have to send her now five-month-old son off to the IDF in 18 years. This, along with other stories, made me realize that Israelis have to fight for their lives and for their country every single day, whether that means physically fighting in combat or just justifying the Jewish state.

    After an extremely emotional morning at Mount Herzl we trekked our way south to the Negev Desert for our overnight stay in the Bedouin “village.” I put “village” in quotes because it really wasn’t a village at all but a tourist trap for the kinds of people that want to experience a different culture but not actually have to live in that culture. They even had a gift shop. The first stop in the “village” was actually fairly interesting; we had an actual Bedouin man serve us traditional Bedouin tea and coffee while he taught us about the culture and significance of their customs.

    One of the redeeming qualities of spending a freezing night in a Bedouin tent (with a heater by the way) is that each of us had the chance to spread out amongst the desert rocks and self-reflect on our time spent in Israel and what we might want to change about ourselves after the trip is over. It was a really special experience being able to spend some time alone with our thoughts in the middle of a freezing desert with just the lights from the “village” and from the stars lighting the landscape.

    All in all, it was a good day. Being able to listen to the soldiers’ stories was extremely eye opening and traveling through the Negev gave us all a different look at Israel. I can’t say that I would want to go back to the Bedouin “village,” except for maybe the tea, but I would definitely want to see more of Mount Herzl and really appreciate what the IDF does for not only the country they serve but Jewish people all around the world. Israel may not be perfect, but it’s home and it’s family. And no family is ever perfect.

    Alex Ruby 
    University of Oregon Class of 2018
    San Jose, CA

  • The call of the past, The draw of the future, and my Jewish roots forming

    Jan 03, 2017

    It is an impossible feat to miss the seamless blend between the modern and vibrant city and the subtle ancient city filled with stories of those from the past. Today was a journey in stories. Those from the past, those in the arduous progress of being written, and those of the foggy, undefined future that coexist here. First, we met those whose stories are works in progress: the children of Save a Child’s Heart. This foundation operates on children who have heart failure. The operations are free for the children and their families and performed by volunteers and doctors in training. And if those aren’t enough reasons to bring a tear to your eye (the videos of their missions certainly made me cry) these children come from all over the world and their visas, travel costs, and checkups for the rest of their lives are all provided for by the organization. Save a Child’s Heart is an incredible organization that truly embodies the Jewish value of tikkun olam or “fix the world”. This cornerstone of Jewish belief highlights the connection Jews feel to the surrounding world. In connection with this belief, our group leaders felt that since us students were given the gift of this incredible trip, it was our duty to pass on the good fortune we came upon. So, we played with the children who were living at the care center for this organization. The effect was indescribable. Children have the indescribable power of bringing out the best in people and revealing hidden sides of people. Their joy and laughter reverberated in the group and was felt by all. Their enthusiasm renewed our own, and because of this organization, their energies. These one to thirteen year olds will continue to forge their paths.

    The seamless transition into the past and ancient stories was begun by an afternoon in the historic biblical city of Jaffa, right next to the modern city of Tel Aviv. This is the magic of Israel. In other locations, the future comes at a cost to the past. Old buildings are torn down for the convenience of new ones, the people’s roots are forgotten in order to make room for new lifestyles more adapted to modern ways of life, and ancient methods of thinking are looked down upon and erased for the latest trend. The United States is probably the largest offender in this destructive form of modernization. Progress at the expense of history has become the norm. However, in this place, the oldest of the old cities coexists with a city known as a hub for innovation and forward thinking. The city of Jaffa was fascinating. Not only for the indescribably delicious foods (fresh hummus, hot pita, steaming falafel, and fresh pickles? Yes please!) and the “shopportunities”, but the history calls from every crevice and edifice. As we navigated the ancient alleyways and streets behind centuries-old buildings, one can only imagine all of the people who walked these stones before us and in their footprints, left pieces of themselves. They leave stories and bits for us to walk and pick up on. In turn, we leave the same pieces of our experiences and selves that others, ten or five hundred years from now, will pick up and wonder about.

    The main goal of Tel Aviv, however, is to draw from the narratives of the past in the old city to forge the ones of tomorrow. One of the places that synthesizes these concepts is the Taglit-Birthright Innovation Center. This center was build just this summer and gives examples of inventions that Israelis have created over the last sixty years. Their walls were sectioned off by innovations in agriculture, medicine, cyberspace, regular space, defense, and apps. It was impressive to see how many Israeli inventions are utilized every day that the whole world relies on heavily. The innovation in Israel is rivaled only by the tech boom in Silicon Valley.  Water saving drip irrigation, USBs, microchips, and many other breakthroughs were Israeli.  We explored interactive videos on examples of various products and even heard a talk from two app developers for the app Travessy (like the page on facebook!) which helps people plan trips.

    As I look over the view of Jerusalem from the hotel window (15th floor isn’t bad!) I hear the call of the past, the draw of the future, and my Jewish roots forming in this beautiful, vibrant homeland.

     Monica Flynn
    University of Oregon Class of 2018
    Morgan Hill, CA
  • Jerusalem: The Most Beautiful Place I Have Ever Seen

    Jan 03, 2017

    Today, we had the experience of a lifetime: visiting the holy city of Jerusalem and the Western Wall. We were taken by surprise to an overlook of Jerusalem. It was the most beautiful place I have ever seen. You could see the Old City, Mount of Olives, the New City, and the West Bank in the distance. An Israeli musician with a shofar and drum joined us at the overlook. He played music as we danced and sang in circles, celebrating life and the opportunity to be in such a holy place all together. Everyone had a smile on his or her face. No one was tired (that’s a first, believe me). No one seemed unhappy. It was if the music and the city had brought up our spirits from the 6:30 am wake up call.

    Next, we walked through the old city. As we looked up the walls made from stone, we were overwhelmed with history and emotions. We went into King David’s tomb, followed by the room of Jesus’s Last Supper on the floor above, and a mosque tower on the top floor. The entire Middle East is in conflict and somehow three religions agreed to put a little bit of their own beliefs in one building. Incredible!

    After another lunch filled with schwarma, falafel, and Gal’s favorite nickname for us (schnitzel), we made our way to one of the holiest cites in the world. The Western Wall is a strong symbol for the Jewish people because it was the closest remaining wall to the 2nd temple. For some, it was their first time visiting the wall. For some, they were the first of their entire family to be there. The Western Wall has this weird way of bringing out tears and emotions from people who would least expect it from themselves. While it was my second time there, I was still surprised to see others crying. I walked right up to the wall, said a prayer for one of my family members who recently passed, and said the Shema. I was filled with different emotions. From sadness, to happiness, to being blessed. I couldn’t be more blessed to have the opportunity to visit the wall a second time. Hopefully, I will have another opportunity to visit sometime again. It’s truly amazing how a simple stone wall has such power over its people. With all the mysticism of Tzfat and the miracles of Jerusalem, this was magic in itself that could physically be seen. Every Jewish person should try to get to the Western Wall at least once in his or her life.

    We finished the day by coming back to the hotel for a wonderful Shabbat with all the birthright groups staying at our hotel. Everyone was dressed up in nice clothes. Everyone lit candles with their own group. We sang and ate Sufganyot. We were reunited with old friends, met new friends, and connected with our history that was once left in the past.

    We have finally come to the halfway point of our trip. We’ve driven around some of the holiest cities in Israel, been rained out, lost all of our Wi-Fi and some of our luggage, and still haven’t seen a single camel. Despite not seeing a camel, we came to the conclusion that camels are in fact indigenous to Israel and not imported by Birthright. But, we’ve made friends and family to last a lifetime, and we still have plenty more memories to come, so stay tuned.

    Justin Asarch
    University of Oregon Class of 2019
    Westlake Village, CA

  • Birthright Israel: Mt. Arbel, Tzfat and New Perspectives

    Dec 28, 2016

    Today we were lucky enough to wake up to something other than rain. A good start to the day topped off with a small hike to the overlook of Mount Arbel. I was given the go pro for the day to document the journey of bus 1378 which I quickly learned that I have no idea how to operate such device. I tried to make a time lapse video of our trek up Mount Abrel only to realize that I wasn’t taking video but rather photos every four seconds. So while my photos of that hike might not capture the beauty of it all, I hope my words will do some justice. At the top of the lookout there was nothing but a single tree standing alone overlooking the Kinneret. I’m surprised that it seems so blue when all the rivers we pass that run into the sea are the color of melted milk chocolate.  As I learned yesterday is that this body of water is the largest fresh water body in the Middle East. For such a large watering pool there was not a single boat sailing or fishing that I could see, possibly because of the season.

    Our next stop for the day was at the city of Tzfat. Its architecture was something unlike seen in the United States. Everything was made from a white/yellowish stone from the streets to the walls of the buildings. There were many stray cats roaming the city which I learned weren’t stray at all but were born on their own, lived on their own, and fended for their own. It was described to me that these cats were like the squirrels to America. They were just everywhere, great for a guy who doesn’t like cats. In the city we met with an artist who showed us his work and how he used the spirituality of Judaism in his work. They were so vibrant in color and carried such deep meaning and was honestly the best part of my day.

    I am once again realizing that Americans need to pick up our language skills. By that I mean that everyone we meet here speaks two, if not three languages fluently and I realized the opportunities we miss out when we leave out language in our lives. The final and last stop for the day was to an Arab village, Makom Bagalil. There we meet with kids from the ages of 17-19 and would tell us about their lives and what it’s like being a Muslim living in a Jewish state.  These kids were great and so intelligent, opening my eyes to the fact that kids everywhere are all the same, and somewhere along the way we get lost, separated and suddenly turn into adults arguing and debating about things our past generations left behind. I learned that the Muslim religion only has two holidays one where they sacrifice an animal, preferably a sheep, said our girl because they are tasty to eat, and another holiday of cleansing where after a month of fasting they enjoy in a week of BBQs.

    At the end of the day now I am so happy to have the Israeli soldiers for a full ten days. I am learning so much from them and they are such great people that I will never forget how brave they must be at an age no older than myself.  I learned about religion, culture and just how to have fun with these soldiers. Last night we played Cards Against Humanity with them which was funny, not only when we had to explain a card’s meaning but explain the dark humor Americans find funny.

    Lasron Schluter
    University of Oregon Class of 2019
    Bend, OR
  • Israel - A Beautiful Mix of People

    Dec 27, 2016

    Olives and People. At first they might not seem like they have a lot in common. But I am quickly learning that in Israel there are many connections that may not seem so apparent. Today we had a surprise visit to an olive oil factory called Olea Essence. We learned about how the oil was made, and the different products that could be made from oil. After a very entertaining video, we went to try a miracle-cleaning product that helped to exfoliate, help clear acne, and overall improve the well-being of one’s skin. As the Americans seemed memorized by the slick brown liquid washing over our pale winter skin, I looked at the Israelis who seemed like this was just another day in the life.

    A part of me realized, “How could Israelis ever need these products? They are literally all so beautiful.” And no mom- there is no one who has shown interest in being your son-in-law. Israelis have a particular beauty about them that is unlike any people I have ever seen. When talking to our tour guide Lilach, she said that she felt that Israelis held a particularly physical attractiveness because most Israelis heritages come from many different countries, and the blend of phenotypes made it so that the most lovely shown through.

    Immediately after having this conversation we tasted olive oils. With noticing my favorite, which happened to be the most expensive (no dad, I did not use the credit card to buy two bottles of this at all…) I tried to see why this one was my favorite. Noticing how this one was made, it had the most blend of a mixed variety of olives that made its particular taste and texture become exquisite to my taste buds.

    I suddenly realized a connection to the oils and the people. Not just in the taste of the food or the looks of the Israelis. But rather, the best qualities in all of us come out when we come together and celebrate a variety of our best selves. In the land of Israel, where Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druzes, ashkenazis, sephardis, mizrahis, and many others all come together.

    As we carried on the day with going to a bird sanctuary and wine tasting tour, I looked around and saw the beauty of all of us coming together. Even though we come from different schools, have different majors, different Jewish backgrounds, when we come together in this land and we are all our individual selves we are our most beautiful. Under this fourth night of Hanukkah, I found a new blessing in celebrating a light which unites our unique features as one people. I cannot wait to see what new lessons Israel has for all of us finally at home.

    Margaret Butler
    University of Oregon Class of 2017
    Portland, OR
  • Winter Birthright 2016! Bus #1378

    Dec 24, 2016
    ›Tomorrow is the day! Can't believe it's here!! This time tomorrow we will be a few hours into our flight to Israel. 

    I can't begin to describe how excited I am to be leading this Birthright trip. This will be the first trip I lead and my first time back to Israel since I went on my Birthright trip in February of 2004. I looked hard for a picture of me in Israel in 2004 but can't find any. I didn't have a digital camera and smartphones weren't around yet either. Crazy huh!? 

    A lot has changed not only in Israel but in my life since that trip. My Birthright trip changed my life in so many ways. It changed my outlook on life, my Jewish identity and what I would study not only for undergrad but now in grad school. It also led me to this job, at Oregon Hillel. You never know how an experience can change your life.

    This trip will hopefully be the first of many trips as a Birthright staff for me, but I also hope that it will be the first of many trips/interactions with Israel for our students. There are multiple ways for the students to stay connected to Israel when they get back and I am always here and happy to help them in any way possible. I have had a long, tough, fun, yet amazing journey with Israel and Judaism, I hope that I will be able to help our students with their own Jewish and Israel journeys and that this trip to Israel will be the catalyst for that. 

    I have been with the students every step of the way in preparation for this trip and I am so excited about our 15 students. We have a group that will contribute in so many ways! The conversations, interactions, experiences and adventures are going to be insane! There will definitely be stories told for years to come and friendships made that will last a lifetime. 

    Look out for future posts over the next 10 days and watch out Israel! Bus #1378 is coming for you!!

    - Nathan Blocker 
      Israel Engagement Fellow, Oregon Hillel Foundation


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