Journal Entry # 56 - Road Entry#46 (Dahab, Egypt - 1:02am (Local) - January 30, 2011)

I am sitting on the roof deck of the Sea Dancer Dive Center in Dahab writing. The Red Sea is right in front of me. I am about to snorkel. This corner of the earth smiles at me.

Back to the future – Taglit-Birthright 2011 – Israel Day 5 – January 14, 2011

I wake up at 6:30AM after a great night’s sleep. “I feel great!” as my brother would say proudly.

The breakfast in the morning is not better or worse than the one in the kibbutz. Aesthetically, it looks better, but the food quality is the same and I am happy with a free meal once again. I notice during my morning meal that the IDF soldiers that will be joining us are gathered around a table together meeting one another. After breakfast, it was time to have our Mifgash opening ceremony with the soldiers and learn more about them.

There were 8 soldiers in total. They came into the meeting room with their civilian uniforms on, pressed, boots shinning, and smiles on their faces. They were as happy to meet us as we were to them. The soldier’s ages ranged from 20-23, with one now working as an officer. They represented different divisions of the IDF: coming from the Navy, Air Force, Special Forces, and Intelligence. Their functions within their divisions varied from environmental engineer to paramedic to flight simulation instructor. These 5 men and 3 women represented the diversity of what makes up the Israeli Defense Force.

Men and women both get enlisted in the nation’s army after they complete high school. They said there are different ways to get out of serving the required 2 years for women, and 3 years for men if they wanted to. Their names were Matan, Shay [Shy], Erez, Lee, Oria, Dan, Ron, and Michal [Meechall – Female]. I am happy to have them as friends after our short 4-5 days together.

The large group of 48 plus staff got into the bus for our short ride to the outside wall of the Old City of Jerusalem. Along the way, I sat next to Dan from the Air Force and got to know him better. The conversation quickly turned very serious as I was asking detailed-specific questions about Israel’s conflict. I had this clouded perception and limited knowledge on what the IDF was what they do, how they do it, and why they do it completely. Dan was gracious to answer all my questions straightforwardly. As we were talking along the way, he mentioned that the entirety of our time together doesn’t have to so serious as I was making it. He helped me grasp the fact that they are 20-23 years old and like the same things we do in the states (i.e. – Facebook, music, parties, movies, friends, and the opposite sex).

The bus dropped us off and we walked to the outside wall where Ran had us sit down for a 30 minute overview of Jerusalem and it’s history. We were presented with the camp-friendly script of Jerusalem which included a long time-line sheet with dates, historical events, and 3rd grade images to summarize over 5,000 years of a city. From here, we got to walking to King David’s tomb and where the ‘last supper’ (Passover) happened. The room where the last supper was located is now decorated with Islamic script, moldings, and art because the room was converted into a mosque more recently than that dinner.

We walked down the old stone walkways through the Zion gate into the Jewish quarter of the city. The old city is divided into the Islamic/Muslim quarter, the Christian quarter, the Jewish quarter, and the Armenian quarter. The Armenian quarter was established during and after the Armenian genocide as a refuge area.

We walked along old roman columns that still stood in the old city which used to lead to the central market of the city. Most of the data and facts were interesting at the time to hear, but there were so many that I failed to write them all down and remember them all. Amongst the information overload session, we moved all the way into the heart of the Jewish quarter where Ran showed us the recent completion of the Ashkenazi synagogue. He directed us to have some free time on our own in the quarter, making sure to emphasize that we couldn’t venture into any other quarter for liability reasons. He also recommended that people should follow him on a voluntary min-tour to see another side of the old city – which I obviously opted for.

There was about 10-12 of us who went on the mini-tour. He took us to the roofs of the old city where we got a fantastic panorama view of the four quarters. It felt totally liberating to be above it all at the intersection of the quarters. I took some photos with Adam and others before going back down to the street level to find a quick fix of food.

On my walk to find the food and the bathroom, I quickly passed a barber shop where I considered shaving my beard and head to change things up a bit. My conscious advised against it.

I wound up walking around a bit after the bathroom before settling on a bunch of fruit and an avocado. I was craving bananas since we arrived in Israel. There are fields and fields of banana trees everywhere. I ate them in the center by the synagogue we were at earlier.

Ran gathered the group together and took us down towards the Western Wall. I fell quiet on the walk there. I started to try and gather my thoughts and start putting them down on my small scroll of paper. I hadn’t experience such spiritual emotion since my bar-mitzvah. Introspective, introverted, and ever other inner reflective word consumed my being. I started to write my prayer in English, and for a moment – it didn’t feel authentic. I thought it should have been in Hebrew. Then I realized it didn’t matter and just wrote what I felt.

In the moments walking alone to the wall, I felt somewhat oxymoronic. Here I was at the center of the Jewish world, on a trip that was reconnecting me with my Hebrew school education and upbringing. Yet I was lost, running away, and questionably taking advantage of a “free” trip to the Middle East. Although it felt like hours, I was at the wall for 20-30 minutes and it took me only 3 minutes to put my prayer in the wall.

As I was walking back to the group meeting location, I couldn’t release the insurmountable load of thoughts racing through my head until a man stopped me. A Hassidic Jewish man asked me, “Where are you from?” in a perfect American accent. My head cleared instantaneously, as I answered, “Oregon”. He then proceeded to ask, “Did you just finish college? Why are you here?”… I responded with, “I’m on Taglit-Birthright”. The next question was the most shocking to me – “Why are you so sad?”

I told him I wasn’t sad and that I was happy. I was happy to be here at the wall and in Israel. I felt blessed and thankful that I was in that spot and that time. I was excited to be having a Friday night Shabbat at the wall later that night. I was misrepresenting my emotion and being hypocritical with my external demeanor. The first four and a half days I might have looked depressed, sad, or downtrodden – but I was constantly at odds with my reality in Israel and the expectations and perceptions I had before coming. I wasn’t following some great advice that was given to me by my brother. He wrote me once – “The fullest life is the one that breaths deep, breaths constantly, consistently full.”

I was taking short and sporadic breaths and thoughts up to that moment at the Western Wall. My trip changed dramatically from that point forward.

This led to a plethora of positive emotion with the group on the walk back to the bus. I felt elation, gratefulness, celebration, and growth! The group moved on it’s way to one of Jerusalem’s central outdoor markets where you can find anything you need for Shabbat or otherwise (produce, nuts, breads, wines, gifts, etc…)

On the way there, I sat next to Oria and talked to her about her Wall experience and the market. She said that I had to try this amazing falafel place and some other things along the way. It was good to have a local guide of the market. Oria lives in Reut, which is 30 minutes from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – right in the middle of the two cities. Along with Matan, Shay, Dan, Ben, and Hannah, we walked through the throngs of people trying pastries and dried fruits before making it to the falafel place that was off to the side of the pedestrian streets.

Oria said that there were only a handful of these falafel restaurants throughout Israel and they are so delicious. When we got into the doors, there was a line of 15-20 people amongst the people eating at their tables – absolutely crowded. It took us 25-30 minutes to order and get our food. It was worth the wait.

Pitas, hummus, kubbe, kubbe soup, and a couple of beers together were spectacular. It hit the spot perfectly. Hannah, Ben, and I were luckily treated to this lunch and didn’t have to pay. I was surprised that they covered it all because we got a lot of food - so much in fact that we didn’t finish it all. On the walk back, we stopped by the candy store to pick up so Israeli chocolates and candies for our sweet teeth.

We made it back to the hotel where we all got ready for Shabbat at the Western Wall. I wanted to take a quick nap, but that wasn’t in the itinerary. It was actually opposite of what I had to do because I volunteered to be apart of the Shabbat committee. We had a meeting 30 minutes before the bus ride to the Wall. Adam, Hannah, Noah, and I discussed what prayers, songs, and stories would be shared with and for the entire group at the Wall. Before we headed for the wall, some of the ladies lit the candles in the hotel lobby and said the respective prayer for the candle lighting. It was a nice moment.

Once we got to the Wall, Noah said a few things as the Shabbat leader while Hannah, Adam, and I followed suit. We helped by standing strategically amongst the group during the songs and the prayers so that others could follow along. Each one of us also read a story from the booklet we had that explained the significance, importance, and simple definitions of what Shabbat is to the Jews. During the committee meeting, I suggested that we have a speaking moment to allow people to share what they were grateful for in the past week, what Shabbat means to them, and what they were looking forward to in the next week. It is something we did at home at our Shabbats, and Noah agreed that it would be a nice sentiment for our group.

Once we were done with our Shabbat program overlooking the Wall, we moved down to the heart of the prayer and celebration for the end of the week. There were thousands of people there. It was an amazing site to see and I tried to imagine what it would look like if it were Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or Passover.

Marat, Dan, Shay, and I walked through the different congregations of people near the wall. There were layers upon layers of prayer and song resonating from the space. The energy was invigorating and comprehensively communal with “Shabbat Shalom” being said to and around me constantly. I felt as if everyone there was a brother, cousin, friend, and loved one. I felt safe, complete, and blessed. It will be a moment that lives with me forever.

We then walked an hour back to the hotel. I felt as if it went by in 20 minutes. For most of the time, I was talking with Tami (the Taglit observational researcher) about life in Jerusalem and what she has done for most of her life there. She asked some questions, but I forgot what I answered – just the truth. When we got back to the hotel, we had dinner together and a Shabbat evening program discussing what we had felt. At the end of the conversation, Ran let all of us that we didn’t have to wake up as earlier as we were used to. That got everyone excited for a night full of drinking, talking, playing card games, and getting to know each other better.

A group of us wound up going to the 12th floor to play some card games. We had two decks and split into two groups. We played cards for a while, but I went to bed by 12:15AM because I knew I had to run the next morning.

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Time to relax on the Red Sea with some sunshine while listening to John Legend.

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