Thursday, September 13, 2012

5 Days of Adventure!

Hello everyone!  Let me start by saying that I am sorry I have not posted in a few days; I was on a series of excursions and overnights away from Haifa with the study tour program.  We started on Sunday and I just got back now, on Thursday night.  There is so much to cover, but I will try my best to summarize each day with a few highlights:

Wall of Names
Sunday: We loaded on the bus at 6:45am and headed to an armor museum in Latrun.  Israelis lost several battles at this site, but now it hosts dozens of large, out-of-date army weapons, as well as information about the battles that occurred there and all over Israel during its founding.  While the machinery was interesting to see and fun to climb on, in a weird kind of way, what struck me most was the Wall of Names.  There, the names of every soldier who fell in Israel's wars from 1948 until 2010 were engraved.  At the same time we were touring, a group of Israeli soldiers was learning about their history and the units they are currently part of.  Blending together past military history with those currently committed to defend this country formed a moving and somewhat frightening sight.  After Latrun, we made our way to Kastel, followed by Ammunition Hill, and we spoke more about the price people have paid over the years to establish and defend this nation.  Finally, on Mount Herzl (the military cemetery), we spoke about the famous leaders buried on the grounds, as well as some of the everyday people who fell in order to protect these ideals.  Many people were moved when we saw the grave of an American who came to serve in the IDF and did not make it out; that really brought the situation closer to home for a lot of the group.  For me, it made me consider the difference between mandatory service for Israelis and optional entry for other people around the world.  I understood the extra impact that the death of a volunteer from our home country had on the group, but I couldn't help but consider all of the graves we were passing by of Israeli soldiers and the attention they deserved as well.

Monday: This day was dedicated to Jewish ancient history in Jerusalem.  We walked around the Old City and went to enter King David's grave.  Unfortunately, there was construction at the tomb, but I saw this area last time I was in Israel, so I did not feel like I was missing out.  What I thought was so interesting is that archeologists have more or less proven that King David is not really buried in that place, yet religious people are not deterred by their findings, and they continue to pray there anyway.  While it might seem illogical to some, I really appreciate that kind of faith.  Later on, we went to the Davidson center and saw the Southern Wall of the 2nd Temple.  This wall is attached to the Western Wall, and in fact, about a third of the Western Wall is within this museum.  Seeing this area without people praying actually gave me more appreciation for the section where they do.  I realized that while it may seem idolatrous if someone is praying to the wall, rather than to G-d at the wall, what makes the place holy is not the structure itself, but the energy and hopes that millions of people have sunk into that space over the years.  With this understanding, I prayed at the Western Wall again, and had a much more enjoyable experience than last time.

Tuesday: Today was dedicated to Christian history in Jerusalem, but when we study the life of Jesus, we do so through a Jewish lens.  This is fairly easy to do, because Christianity really became a major religion when the Roman empire adopted it in the 4th century, well after Jesus's death.  Still, there are several religious Catholics in the study tour group, so my teacher was mindful to recognize the religious significant of many places we visited.  We walked through the 14 stations of the cross, starting with Pontius Pilate and ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where Jesus was stripped, crucified, and resurrected.  Christians believe that Adam, the first man, is buried in this area, and that when Jesus bled, his blood dripped down underground and touched Adam's skull, thus absolving mankind of sin.  I liked how interwoven the Old and New Testament became in this story, even if Jews believe Adam is buried in Hebron.  After the tour, we loaded on the bus and headed to the Negev to sleep out in a Bedouin tent.  I had already done this before on Birthright, but it was really fun and the food was just as amazing as I remembered, with really sweet tea to wash it down.  After some time around a campfire, we headed to bed.

Ein Gedi swimming pool
Wednesday: We woke up bright and early, at 4:15am to hike Masada to watch the sun rise.  I was not expecting to love this part of the trip, only because last time I did this, I was given my Hebrew name on top of the mountain, and I did not believe another trek up would be as meaningful.  While it did not feel as significant or moving, the hike was fun and I learned more history this time around.  This is the place where Jewish zealots fled from the Romans, but were ultimately surrounded and decided to choose suicide over enslavement.  The men held a meeting and decided to kill their wives and children, so they never should know the pain of defilement or slavery, and then draw lots to kill each other, with one falling upon his sword at the end.  I always think of the women and children, who had no say in the decision and still had to abide by the choice made.  It was heavy stuff, but fascinating at the same time.  Later, we went to Ein Gedi and hiked up to beautiful natural swimming pools with waterfalls.  This may have been the most beautiful thing I have seen in Israel.  We cooled off in the waters and had some amazing views.  After, we went to the Dead Sea; I floated but it was so salty and painful that many people did not spend a ton of time there.  Finally, we arrived at my favorite place in the world (that I have seen so far): Sde Boker.  This is a field school attached to the kibbutz where Ben Gurion lived.  Every time I look over the mountains and dunes and up at the stars there, I fall in love with Israel all over again.

Thursday: The final day of the trip!  We went to Ben Gurion's house and his gravesite and talked a bit about him as a leader and as a kibbutznik.  Later, we went on a hike at Ein Avdat, which involved some ladders embedded in the rocks where you climb straight up and down the mountain face.  The views were spectacular, but it was also very hot, so I was glad it was a relatively short hike.  After, we went spelunking!  Well, I think a spelunker finds new caves, but we went in already-established I guess we went caving!  I was nervous at first, because you are stuck in a small rock tunnel most of the time with someone in front of you and behind you who are not moving if there is a hold up (and there is much of the time in a group of 25).  Still, the madricha was really encouraging and I climbed through, sometimes shimmying on my back just to fit through a certain tunnel.  This was one of several hiding places the Jews used when Romans were hunting them centuries ago.  It was terrifying to think of the conditions they lived in, with constant fear and little food.  Many times, the Romans smoked them out in order to kill them, burning up all of the oxygen in the caves.  We ended the tour by entering a small alcove barely big enough for us with no ventilation where the Jews hid when the Romans found the tunnels.  We turned off all of our flashlights for one minute and sat with hot air, dripping in sweat, unable to see; the Jews there had to do this for days on end in the past.  This stood as a solid contrast to Masada, with survival instincts defying all else.  Finally, we ended in Tel Aviv for a short swim and then drove back up to the university.  Even though the trip was fun, I am happy to be home :)

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