Someone asked me if I could describe my Israel trip in a word or phrase what would it be? After a half of a minute of thought, it came to me: "filled-to-the-brim". That was my phrase. I felt "filled to the brim" for ten days. I cried, I laughed, I was so full of emotions and challenged my entire trip. It was one of the most incredible trips I've ever been on.
For those a little more curious about why I went to Israel it was a trip called "The Caravan for Democracy". It's the non-jewish version of birthright (Jewish-American students get a free trip to Israel once they turn 18). So 250+ Student Leaders from around the country who weren't Jewish and had never been to Israel, applied to the program supported by the Jewish National Fund. A few of us got called back for a skype interview over the summer and then sixty eight students were selected from that to be split between two trips.
At first, I was intimidated by the other students attending. I was the only art major and many of the other students were from esteemed universities like Yale, Harvard and (THE) George Washington University. Most of these students were engineering, political science and international studies majors. Despite many similar majors, we were a diverse bunch. We came from different races, different states, different political stances, some of us were well traveled (or lived abroad) and for some, the trip to Israel was their third or fourth airplane flight ever.
I'd like to think our diversity brought us closer. Our bus group didn't really have cliques and just about every time we sat on the bus, we'd all sit next to someone different. I found that this group was a curious one, I had so many incredible conversations and was asked many hard, but deep questions that helped me learn about myself. To add to the incredible qualities of this group, we had no fighting and no drama (how incredible and rare is that in a group of 30+ college students?).
One of my new friends, Mike, said this about the combination of the community and experience: "putting me on the trip with the content alone would have been amazing. Putting me in an empty room with all of you would have been a blast. Combine the two? Changing."
It was so changing. For many who know me personally, they know that this trip came at the perfect time, like a breath of fresh air.
It wasn't all fun, but it was all moving.
I cried and prayed with Jewish women at the Western wall. I dipped my hand into the Sea of Gallilee and was left breathless at the thought that Jesus had walked on this water centuries before me. I brushed away silent tears as I walked through the children's memorial at Yad Vashem (Israel's Holocaust Museum). I changed my 'scope' as I was challenged by journalist Matti Friedman on the issue of conflict between Israel and the middle east.
Our trip was rich with conversation and talks with a diverse group of speakers. We heard from Kher Abez, a Bedouin (group of Arabs living in the Negev desert in the south of Israel) man and the struggles of raising his daughters in the small education system that exists for them in their area of the Jewish State. We heard from a disabled Israeli who was brought so much joy by being able to work at Lotem (An organization south of Haifa that serves to make nature accessible for people who have special needs). We toured Sderot (the bomb shelter capital of the World) and looked out over a hill where Hamas was probably digging tunnels and preparing for rocket launches against Israel.
Another intense experience I believe we all had was on New Year's day. When we had boarded the bus, most of us extremely tired from the previous nights festivities, one of our chaperones Yishai, broke the news to us that 39 people were killed in a terrorist attack. The shooter had entered a club in Istanbul (just like the one we had been celebrating in the night before) and open fired, killing club goers from 14 different countries. Yishai didn't say this to make us feel bad, he said this to bring us to reality. Suddenly this was real, the Middle East wasn't so far. We were in the middle east, just a two hour flight away from Istanbul, Turkey.
Experiencing Israel has given me a link to the middle east that I did not have before.
One of my favorite talks was about the efforts by Beit Hagefen, Haifa, Israel. It's a non-profit program that "believes in creating shared egalitarian spaces that contain the variety of identities and cultures in Haifa in particular and Israel in general". Some of the facets of the program include a library, an art gallery and after school programs for Jewish and Arab children. The woman who spoke to us had been working at the Jewish-Arab cultural center for over twenty years and hadn't seen an immense amount of growth in her time there, but still was passionate about how the program was bringing the Jewish and Arab communities together even if it had a smaller effect.
I was astonished and inspired by Beit Hagefen and you can read more here at this site.
It's hard to sum up my trip in a blog post or in photos. In fact, none of this really does the trip justice. Israel is not a place where photos are enough, you need to experience the people, eat the food, breathe the air.
I didn't want to come home. I wanted to stay in Israel, rich in culture, with my 33 new best buds. There are moments and feelings I will never forget. I am so grateful I had the opportunity to experience it all and inspired to look at the world differently.
I also created a video... please don't expect greatness, I could barely figure out the focus, but you can view it here.
Overall, I think I learned the more you discover about the World, more you realize you don't know much at all. We are complicated beings with complex problems. No answer or conflict is so simple, there are so many facets to any one problem. Borders, cultures, politics, and religion all entangle into a mess that is the conflict. I'm pretty sure I came back more confused about what I thought the conflict with Israel was about.
I do know this, I left a lot of a pieces of my heart in Israel. I left a piece with the Bedouins in the Negev Desert, a piece with the Druze in Isfiya, a piece with the Israeli's in Sderot and a piece with all the Israeli, Arab and Jews making an effort to make Israel a better country.
A special thanks to:
The Jewish National Fund - for making the trip possible and recognizing the value in sending Non-jewish students to experience Israel.
Yossi- for being our fearless tour guide who gave us a neutral view on Israel, answering a million questions for us and always making sure our count-off was EXCELLENT.
Yishai- for always cracking jokes, adding onto Yossi's plethora of information, encouraging us to bring this experience home and constantly pointing out JNF efforts all throughout Israel.
Audrey- for being our fantastic 'Mom' of the trip, taking us to urgent care if we needed and always looking out for us.
Omer- for never leaving one of us behind and always being Sababa.
Mohammed - for badass (it seriously deserves that word) bus driving.
These words and photographs do little justice to this incredible experience and i'm so blessed and thankful I was chosen to be on this trip with a phenomenal group of people.