When I told people I was going to Israel, the first question I was asked would always be, “Is it safe?” Truth be told, I was more scared waiting in the airport for our El Al flight on June 24th of last year than at any other point during the trip. I was visiting as part of NFTY’s EIE, an exchange program that offers months of visiting time in Israel while also attending school classes. Those who work within the program are quite vigilant about ensuring the safety of the children. Most of the time, however, we were not even aware of their efforts. We just strolled around, normal teenagers that felt just as – and, in my case, more so – at home in this foreign land as in the United States. We were based in a kibbutz, Tzuba, where were would return after trips – some that would last for only a day, others up to a week – and also where we attended our lessons.
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While on the road we would board in youth hostels, ones much nicer than those thought of when the same phrase is uttered in the United States. Our group, a small one of eighteen, would travel by rented coach buses. We were advised to have at least two liters of water for day to day activities, due to the dryness of the region and teenage tendency to ignore our ills in favor of fun.
Summer courses consisted solely of Hebrew language studies and Jewish History. The Hebrew courses varied according to level, as we had filled out a preliminary placing form while applying for the program. Hebrew class would last for about two hours a day, while Jewish History would span three or four hours. Jewish History also consisted of field work. We would tote around our notebooks while on day trips, or even week trips, and take down notes from our teacher's lectures. It was the field work that made the class, to be honest, as it was an invigorating way of learning.
Of course, the real fun was the trips. We trudged around the Red Canyon, hiked up the daring Snake Trail to Fort Masada, now almost two thousand years old. We navigating through the winding art colony of Tzvat, and we held a prayer service near the Southern Wall. Our nails broke as well crawled on all fours, only to stop to take notes, in tunnels carved in rock by natives hiding from Romans. Water splashed around our ankles in the slight relief of an oasis in the desert. Our voices rose in song with others in a boardwalk Shabbat service – tough half the time we had no idea what was going on. We also tested out our novice Hebrew skills at markolits- markets- throughout the country.
The hardest thing of all to describe is just the change in feeling. Stepping out of the plane that first day, I felt it. The remnants are still there now. There’s something different, being in a country not so heavily saturated by Christian culture. As similar as many claim the two religions are, there is something much older about Israel, something mystical, something in the absence of activity Friday nights and Saturdays. Something in the relaxation of that weekend morning. We went to service, but we were not dressed especially nice. We didn’t have to hurry in worry that we would miss an allotted service time. The Sabbath has a relaxation to it that is unlike anything we busy, bustling Americans know. And the spirituality is tangible, a taste in the air, a feel in the ground beneath your feet. You’ve stepped into a new world. A world that feels like home, yet very much still alien.
For more on NFTY's EIE program, please visit their website: http://www.nftyeie.org/
For more on El Al and its flight schedule, please visit their website: http://www.elal.co.il/ELAL/English/States/General/
You can find more about Masada, the Red Canyon, and Tzvat on Wikipedia.
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