24 August 2010

Home In Israel

Reminiscing about my Birthright Israel experience more than two years later, my thoughts are flooded with memories of joyful laughter, stunning vistas, inspirational stories, and lifetime friendships. Atop the flood of unforgettable memories, three moments in particular stand out. 

I was born in a country, the former Soviet Union, where anti-Semitism was a matter of public policy. Being a Jew automatically disqualified you from many occupations, as well as matriculation to the best schools. Practicing Judaism or learning Hebrew was categorically illegal. In the face of such repression, my parents bestowed upon my brother and I the singular Jewish tradition they knew: pride. 

Due to my upbringing, even as a child I embraced my Jewish roots with fervor unusual for other children my age. I was six or seven years old when I first became aware of a place called the State of Israel, the Jewish homeland. And despite my young age, I instantly vowed to myself that my first act upon arrival to this special place would be to kiss its hallowed ground. My youthful precociousness surprises me now, almost 20 years later. But the very idea of Israel, of everything it represents to Jews and Judaism, has always resonated with me. So my first act upon exiting the main terminal of Ben-Gurion International Airport was to cross the street, find the first decent piece of soil I saw, bend down, and plant a passionate kiss on the face of the Holy Land. This was the first moment. 

The next moment occurred a week into the trip. We were awakened at 4 a.m. by a loud knocking on the door. It was time for the most anticipated part of the trip: sunrise atop Masada! The pre-dawn air in Arad was warm but dry. Being up so early made it difficult to spark excitement, but the 40-minute ride to Masada was an experience in itself. Although shrouded in darkness, the surrounding terrain outside the bus window resembled the surface of the moon — a fitting setting for a truly otherworldly place. 

At the base of the mountain, the excitement that had eluded me earlier finally set in as I raced a pair of IDF soldiers, who had joined us on our trip, up the mountain. Watching the sunrise atop this ancient mountain fortress redefined the phrase awe-inspiring. The first rays peeked over the Jordanian mountaintops in a scene uncannily similar to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. It did not escape me that this was the very panorama the Sicarii, the ancient Jewish insurgents, witnessed every morning during their yearlong siege by the Romans. 

What happened next ranks as the most spectacular moment of my life: Armed with my indispensable iPod, I plugged in my earphones and instinctively turned on the first track from Jimi Hendrix's Live at the Fillmore: Stone Free. Maybe it was the rocky formations surrounding me, or the thematic elements of the song ("I'm stone free to do what I please"), but the track matched the moment sublimely. As Hendrix's guitar seared, adrenaline burst into my arteries and I began to run down the descending path of the mountain, my increasing speed forcing me to jump from rock to rock.

As I approached, the other descending hikers turned with foreboding concern. The sound of my frenetic trek must have resembled the rumbling of a rock-fall. I felt superhuman. When I reached the bottom, in what must have been record time, I was overcome with emotion at the profundity of the moment. 

The siege at Masada may have ended tragically with the mass suicide of a thousand insurgents, but the story represents the best part of the Jewish character, of our perseverance, our traditions, and our community. It was two centuries later, and here I was standing atop the mountain at sunrise with my Israeli brothers, and then recklessly running down the mountain as if I owned it. The Romans had won the day back in 73 C.E., but history has proven that despite the efforts of countless nations, the Jewish people could never be fully pushed aside, nor the fire of our Jewish spirit ever extinguished. 

If that magical morning at Masada was the most exhilarating experience of my Birthright Israel trip, then the afternoon at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv was the most poignant. Here the curator narrated the story of the tenuous beginnings of the modern State of Israel. The part of his narrative detailing what happened just after the start of the War of Independence particularly pushed my emotions over the edge. 

The funds of the foundling state were alarmingly low. With nowhere to turn, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion sent then-ambassador Golda Meir on an emergency diplomatic mission to the United States. She was charged with raising one million dollars to pay for arms, munitions, foodstuffs, and other essential supplies. In just two weeks, stopping only in the East Coast cities of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, Meir returned triumphantly to Israel with more than $50 million in donations.

There were tales of families devoting their entire savings in support of the Jewish homeland. Tears streamed down my face as I recognized that it was this spirit of communal philanthropy that made Birthright Israel possible for me and countless other Jewish youths. I wish I could personally shake the hand of every benefactor. 

My hope is that I can thank them through this piece, my love letter to Israel. Because of their generosity I fulfilled a lifelong dream, forged new dreams, and felt truly, for the first time in my life, that I was home -- home in Israel.

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