Quality Hikes & Deep Conversations
After wrapping up surf lessons, history lessons and conversations about faith on Sunday, we began one of our most active and enriching days of the trip on Monday morning with a hike through the historic Golan Heights. Driving from Kibbutz Gadot through winding roads along the Jordan and Syrian borders, we received a history lesson on the Yom Kippur war and saw the signs warning passerbys of the 100 million anti-tank land mines dotting the historic landscape. One of the Israelis in the group, Matan, serves in the IDF as an explosives expert and walked the group through an explanation of the challenges these disused weapons pose to the Israeli military.
Stepping off the bus and into the trail, all of us looked around for our water bottles-- this was the first substantial outdoor activity of the trip and the hottest day yet! Our tour guide, Yonatan, reminded us that hiking is an important part of Israeli culture and we soon understood why. As we got on the trail, most of us soon forgot about the heat, distracted by conversations about why we joined birthright or what biblical stories the surrounding scenery may have inspired or the history of the old ruins of Druze buildings along the trail. Time quickly passed and before anyone knew it, we found ourselves taking a break in a beautiful valley with a freshwater pool and waterfall. It was a desert oasis.
After the hike, we stopped near a military base to refuel and our security guard and combat reserve officer, Mickey, knew exactly where to go. "This is the BEST hummus in all of Israel," he yelled on the bus and he was right. With a quick negotiation with the owner, we soon had massive refillable bowls of what was unanimously considered the best hummus we ever had along with some lemonade. All of us learned that everything is negotiable and that Micky's food recommendations are always right.
With more food in our stomachs came plenty of new energy for questions about the modern geopolitics of the scenery we were driving in and our next stop at the Syrian border gave us answers. We climbed to the top of a military lookout overlooking the Jordan, Israeli and Syrian borders and stared at the fires on the horizon representing one of the most consequential conflicts of our time.
We hear about this in the news everyday but seeing it with our own eyes was powerful. It's the world at a crossroads-- the crisis is challenging the values, ideals and even allies held dear in Israel. UN Peacekeepers at the lookout chatted with our group and gave us a greater perspective of how the delicate border between the two states is patrolled and kept safe.
We also heard from Israeli intelligence reserve officer about the history of the Syrian and Arab conflict, backed by the smoke of a Russian-led airstrike conducted on the nearby city that day. Hearing the numbers was staggering and the emotions felt from standing just a few kilometers away was overwhelming.
Our time outdoors ended on a lighter note with a rafting trip along the Jordan River! Our heavy boat of six kept getting stuck in the shallow water, but it didn't keep us from having a great time. We had a water fight with a flotilla of Orthodox Jews making their way through the river, was offered hookah and kebabs from onlookers on the riverbanks and sampled some fresh mint from trees lining the water.
After dinner, our day ended with a lesson on Israeli dancing that including everything from the late 19th century to the modern bar mitzvah. The class ended with us "celebrating" independence day with a dance party, and the day ended with us passing out in our beds pretty quickly thereafter... though, a few of us enjoyed a drink or two in the Kibbutz's bombshelter-turned-bar before calling it a night.
This was a day dominated by talk of conflict, but also by an understanding of what we could do together, whether that's carrying a raft through the water, experiencing dance, or managing one of the worst humanitarian crisis happening within an enemy border. Together, Israel is stronger.