Having completed half of our trip, we, the participants of Shorashim’s Bus 119 awoke in Tel Aviv’s Grand Beach Hotel to greet the day with sleepy eyes and sunken heads. We are exhausted. The past five days we have endured have been some of the most constructive and impacting that we have ever known. We rub our eyes and lift our heads. There is no time to rest now, we still have plenty more to experience. We stuffed our faces with an assortment of delicious Israeli food and boarded the bus for the Museum of Independence. It was here that David Ben-Gurion publicly declared the existence of the state of Israel. We listen intently to each word of Ben-Gurion’s declaim. I have no idea what words he spoke nor what they meant, but I can feel the passion in his voice. Each word rumbles like thunder from the depths of the souls of a people who have been waiting over two thousand years for this moment. This is a land unlike any that we have ever known, a land that redefines the concept of history.
Tel Aviv, to me, is the epicenter of modern Israeli politics. Jerusalem contains a large portion of the history, rich and bleeding with a ghostly vapor like a large phantasmal tomb. But Tel Aviv represents the future of Israel, the culmination of a struggle as old as modern history. We strolled through the urban streets, marveling at the tall buildings and the quaint shops, feeling cool under the shade of the lustrous trees that protect us from the scorching sun. Tel Aviv is the first Israeli city we have seen where the buildings are not made of stone. It is strangely modern, a juxtaposition from the Chicago we are used to. Our guide, Leor, leads us to Rabin Square. This, he explains (with rather impressive English) is where Yitzchak Rabin, the former Prime Minister of Israel, was assassinated. I had heard of the event. I had heard it was a tragedy. But in this strangely human world we are prone to produce tragedy, and simply hearing of these tales does not necessarily invoke any sentiment within me. What was to follow would be a moment of significant introspection, just one of the many that we will have in these ten epic days. Leor separated the Americans into groups of five or six and appointed an Israeli soldier to each group.
At this point I will digress for a moment so that I could make an effort to convey to you the tremendous impact that these Israeli soldiers have had on this trip. They represent Israel as we would know it were we citizens. Their demeanor, their knowledge, their infallible charm, and their openness in sharing memories from their army experience have all served to make this a very special trip for each and every American student. Coming into this trip, I had thought very little about the group camaraderie, but that seems to be one of the most potent elements of birthright. It was amazing how all of us, both American and Israeli, seemed to meld into a team from the very onset. This is much more than a vacation, it is an exploration of human connection. Connection to each other, connection to the land, and connection to the history.
But back to Rabin Square. Our group traveled the square and stopped the civilians to inquire about their personal experience with the Rabin Assassination. Immediately, a solemn expression shuddered in the peoples’ faces. They spoke seriously and contemplatively, much like we do of 9/11. This was no mere tragedy, this was magnanimous event of earth-shattering capacity. One soldier, clad in olive fatigues with the strap of an M-16 wrapped snugly around his shoulder told us “we did not just lose a leader; we lost a hope for peace.” We learned of the Candle Kids, a band of adolescents that would wander to the spot of the shooting and light candles, play guitar, graffiti the walls and wallow in solidarity. A wall-size poster is all that remains of their marks of despair, but it carries a very powerful statement. “Slicha” it said boldly in block-Hebrew letters at the very top. Forgive. Forgive who? Forgive the assassin? Forgive ourselves? Forgive God? This was an event that incited people to question the very foundation of their ideology. The earth had been shaken. And people are being asked to forgive? This would be the most difficult request that you can ask of us as a people, but is it the right request? Yes, I decided. “Peace shall be his legacy” reads the insignia at his memorial. Harboring resentment will get us absolutely nowhere, it will not lead to peace. We must forgive.
We walked to lunch near the marketplace and were given time to wander the markets and explore. At every moment, I am reminded by something that I am in a land far different from what I am used to. It leads to a shared cognizance that what we are doing is something that is really special, something we will never forget. The merchant at his fruit stand vehemently pleads with us to stop and browse his selection. This is something new to us, something unfamiliar. At every moment I can feel my perspective growing, heightening, lurching toward completion.
One concern I had before this trip was that it would push religion on me. This has not been the case. In fact, we have learned about more than just the Jewish religion. We bussed two hours from Tel Aviv to a Bedouin tent. Halfway through the ride, I watched the scenery change in an instant, as if we had driven through a portal to a new, arguably more foreign land. The desert. Israel is a land of impressive variety, but every topographical facet is mesmerizing. The scenic aestheticism is something that is unparalleled in my personal experience. It’s beautiful. I look out the bus onto the horizon and I could see endless rows of rolling mountains, tanned by the sand and arid from the sun. This is a landscape I have only seen depicted in art. We arrive at the Bedouin tent and are served dinner. I am doubtful at first, but the food is delicious. The Bedouin owner of the tents gathers us and he explains to us his customs. This is a man that preaches ideals that seem entirely alien to me. It is fascinating to see how he lives.
The sun is set and darkness coats the land, only illumined by the gleaming stars. Our Israeli friends have a surprise for us. They approach us in their army fatigues and guide us through a simulation of their boot camp in the IDF. What ensued was both fun and enlightening. It really put into perspective how privileged our lives have been. We slept, all forty-seven of us, in one tent. This is where group camaraderie comes in handy. We toss and turn on top of each other under the goat-hair tarps, and although setup is not ideal for catching sleep, we prevail together.
We awake in the tents and head to breakfast. Once again, the Bedouins served us delicious food, with homemade pitas and fried eggs. They lead us outside where we ride camels. Never before have we been in close contact with an animal like the camel, but by now we have become accustomed to trying new things. We ride the camels around the Bedouin plot, overlooking the vast desert land. Our driver, Moshe, drives us several miles to a spot to hike. Leor leads us through the desert as he explicates the nature of the land and the history behind it. He seems to have the answer to any question we ask him, whether it be about the history, folklore, botany, or geology that we are working through. Again, the scenery is astounding. I haven’t gone on many hikes in my life, but I find that all I want to do lately is go on more hikes. They are challenging enough to be fun, while maintaining a sort of ease that is not so physically demanding. And, again, being surrounded by the most beautiful phenomena in all of nature doesn’t hurt. From the hike, we bussed to David Ben-Gurion’s grave and pay our respects before stopping off for lunch. We are now on our way to the Dead Sea where more adventure awaits us.
Shorashim has provided for all us an exploration in the human condition. In these ten days, many of us will accomplish far more than we will in the remainder of our summer. We will savor each second that remains of our trip as both an exploration of the unfamiliar and an education of the philosophical and theological boundlessness that we have come to recognize.