This past winter break, Danielle (M&T 2016) and I traveled to Israel with 34 other classmates on the UPenn Birthright Trip. After “only” 22 hours of travel time (which included spending New Year’s Eve flying over Europe and making a shopping stop in Heathrow during our layover), we finally landed in Tel Aviv.
We spent five nights in Israel’s capital, Jerusalem, and with the theme of “A Look at the Past,” learned about Israel’s history. This was the first of many eating sprees—starting with devouring a giant challah and, as the trip progressed, tasting falafel, halavah (sweet sesame paste and honey) and rugelach.
But, our trip was more than just about food. For 10 days, we traversed Israel, experiencing all of the incredible, natural beauty this tiny country has to offer. We covered ourselves in mud and floated in the Dead Sea; hiked down the Arbel Cliffs; rode camels; and climbed the mountain palace of Masada. We slept in a Bedouin Tent in the middle of the desert. And, to truly understand Jewish history, we visited Yad Vashem, the National Memorial built to pay tribute to the Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
For me, one of the most meaningful parts of the trip was spending five days with Israeli soldiers, who accompanied our group for part of the trip. These men and women—all of whom were my age—shared what it was like to serve in the army. In Israel, at age 18, most men and women have to serve two to three years in the military. We went with the soldiers on a bumpy jeep ride climbing the Golan Heights, while driving through land mines. But, the most incredible experience for me was going underground into a former Israeli bunker. Weaving in and out of tiny, claustrophobic passageways, we truly got a sense of what it felt to be on the front lines. The best part was that over the course of our time spent together, we all found that despite the differences of what we were doing with our lives right now (college vs. army), we had so much in common with each other and ended up sharing lots of laughs. Birthright was an incredible experience and one that I will cherish forever.