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Israel Without Israelis

Three days in, and we have yet to really meet the locals

The mysterious facility at Dimona.(The author)

Two days ago, we hiked. Yesterday, we hiked some more. This morning, we hiked Masada and Ein Gedi and did the Dead Sea thing (it is Sebastopol-in-the-Levant: The Russians love them some mud and taking the waters). We have just arrived at our hotel in Jerusalem, albeit with instructions, at least tonight, not to venture beyond the hotel. In sum? One third of the way through our trip, we basically have not come into contact with everyday Israelis. The lone exceptions have been brief visits to mall-type places. (more…)

Hump Day, at Last

Itʼs Bedouin tent night. Five hours until Masada

Camel riding. (Photo by Margarita Korol)

Weʼve arrived at that storied Birthright Israel experience: Bedouin Tent night. Weʼre at Kfar Hanokdim—an encampment owned by Israelis Jews and operated by Bedouin—after an obscenely long day. (There were two desert hikes; the second took place in 103-degree heat.)

Smelling very, very ripe, we got off the bus and mounted camels two-by-two. Some camels were more headstrong than others. Several took a liking to David Cohen, a yeshiva graduate from Syrian Brooklyn, who screamed as he got licked.

Said one friend of Tablet after the camel-riding experience: “I thought Birthright was about getting young Jews to procreate. And after the camel ride—and I think I speak for most of the men on this trip—we no longer have the equipment.” That was the reigning consensus among the gentlemen of the trip. Another mentioned that the ride was touted by many alumni as the highlight of the trip, but added that it was rather painful.

All that said, we heard lots of laughing, even from the most jaded in the group. Here was our favorite moment:

Hooking Up Gets Green-Lit

A group game that forces participants to reveal their relationship status

The group at Sde Boker.(Photo by Margarita Korol)

The first night of the trip, at the Sde Boker field school minutes from David Ben-Gurion’s grave, our group readied for the requisite first-night icebreaker games. But there was a twist: After sharing our names, hometowns, and expectations for the trip, we were instructed to reveal our relationship status.

Our group leader, Yoav, had a big bag of peanut M&Ms. Red meant ‘unavailable,’ green ‘DTF,’ and yellow somewhere in between.

This sparked giggles, and later passionate debate among some participants—including Tableteers—about what this game says about the trip:

Stephanie: It’s awkward getting to know people you’ve just met, and I was glad to be reminded of everyone’s names. I just feel like things got patently sexualized with that question. Sure, I’m single, and I’m on this trip, but I’m not on this trip as a single person. I’m just here. I guess I’m a yellow?

Bari: I found it sort of incredible that we began the trip earlier in the day with a speech about how this trip is not about hooking up or partying—only to have our guide give us an explicit push to go and get it. (And I say this as a red!)

I was much more interested in hearing about why people had come on the trip. One participant said he’d come in honor of his father, who passed away five months ago from cancer. Another said she’d come to see the place where her grandfather lived. A third admitted she wanted to get over her fear of travel. And then there were the reasons you’d expect: a free trip; a chance to learn about a new culture; and so on.

Marc: It’s perhaps easy for me to say this as a ‘red,’ but I laughed when he simply said the colors and I figured out what they were for, and then I frankly marveled at its brilliance. Whether or not the trip is about hooking up, it’s on everyone’s minds, and this is a question many people likely had about many other people—and that specific people had about specific people. This was a fun and funny way to put it all out there to minimize awkwardness, missed communications, and perhaps the greatest sin of a jam-packed 10-day trip: wasted time.

Zach (24, red, Brooklyn): It takes the mystery out of it. That’s part of the fun of getting to know people. Now it’s just out there.

Mike (21, green, Long Island): A lot of peopled lied. My friend here who’s in a four-year relationship said he was a green!

A Strenuous Morning Hike

In the shadow of Ben-Gurion’s tomb

At the base of the waterfall.(Margarita Korol/Tablet Magazine)

This morning, we visited David Ben-Gurion’s tomb, which turned out to be a solid three-minute walk from where we had stayed the night before, in a kibbutz in the Negev Desert. Our tour educator, Yoav, explained why Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, chose to be buried there rather than, say, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Our kibbutz, Sde Boker, was in fact one Ben-Gurion worked and lived at after retiring from politics; he had been inspired years earlier, according to Yoav, by the sight of a few pioneers who vowed to settle the land that they had defended a couple years before from Egyptian invaders during the War of Independence. Not incidentally, Yoav added, the kibbutz and tomb also lie at the southernmost point of, well, the Promised Land: the geographical area that, in Numbers, Moses reports God has pledged to His people. This brings up a raft of complications, of course: The modern-day political state of Israel includes land (everything south of where we are, down to the resort town of Eilat) not in this Promised Land and does not include much of what was then Judea and Samaria, now known as the West Bank. The more interesting complication for me, though, is the importance of all of this to Ben-Gurion: The father of Labor Zionism was a staunch secularist who nonetheless knew his Torah as well as any yeshiva student. Why was it important for him to be placed in the biblical Promised Land, and in such a way (at the border) as to emphasize that distinction? This paradox, of a nonreligious state dedicated to redeeming the land promised to the Jews by God, is at Zionism’s heart. (more…)

Why We Are Here (Why Are We Here?)

After one day of Birthright Israel, hashing out why all expenses are paid


Lorne Klemensberg, a no-nonsense type with shaved head and goatee who seemed to be (like both of our North America tour leaders) Canadian, is vice president of our trip organizer, Routes Travel. He was the first person to address our Birthright Israel group with more than a cursory introduction or specific logistical instructions. Before touring Neot Kedumim, the biblical nature reserve conveniently located about 20 minutes from Ben-Gurion, he gave us The Talk about the rules, chiefly: no being drunk (a drink or two after 8 p.m. seems permissible) and no drugs. The rules seem grounded in practicality: Being drunk usually means being hungover, and a hungover participant slows down the pace of travel and hiking that, if Day 1 is any indication, is formidable (jetlagged, most of us went on a strenuous cave-crawl in the afternoon). And as for drugs, Israel’s laws are not of the progressive type one might expect from notions of Tel Avivians partying; rather, Klemensberg compared them to those of a “third-world shithole.” (A characterization more true than not.) (more…)

Birthright Israel: Day One

In which we crawl in caves and eat lunch at a gas station. Next up: Ben Gurion’s grave.

Your trusty correspondant.(Photo by Margarita Korol)

We’re hot, sweaty, and covered in clay. We arrived at 7 this morning and have been going Extreme, as promised, all day long. We’ve now been up for more than 30 hours, and we’re starting to get weird.

Stay tuned today for more about Birthright Israel’s mission and rules as explained to us earlier—no drinking before 8 p.m., guys—and where we’re headed next.

Hebrew word of the day: misperei barzel, which literally translates to “numbers of iron.” Apparently that’s what IDF commanders say to their troops. It’s also what our tour guide Yoav says before we start counting off, which we do often, loudly, and in public. Then the person holding our Israeli flag, which travels with us at all times, yells degel. It means flag, people.

-Signing off for numbers 7, 17, 33, and 41

The Gatekeepers

Talking our way into Israel

Newark Airport: the traditional gateway to the holy land(Marc Tracy)

We are sitting in the El Al terminal at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR for you call-sign buffs), waiting for our 1:30 p.m. flight with what appear to be at least four or five other Birthright Israel trips in addition to our own. Our terminal is sparse due to construction: a newsstand and two bars, only one of which (but one of which, thank God) sells tea and coffee.

The thing we’re thinking about right now is our El Al security interviews, which are far, far more extensive than anything you encounter even in the course of international travel—even at, say, customs. Before you even go through security—in the case of Birthright travelers, before you get your ticket—you are subjected to an extensive questioning by an El Al employee (almost all of whom, in our case, were young and female) about your bags, sure, whether you packed them and whether you received any gifts, but also about your reasons for traveling to Israel and your Jewishness. After all, they know you’re with Birthright Israel. Which of course begs the question: If they know you’re with Birthright—which is to say, that you have been pre-screened through a months-long application that includes an extensive phone interview—why do they also insist on this? I suspect the answer lies in security imperative. (more…)

Tablet Prepares for Takeoff

Our Birthright Israel trip begins today. Here’s what we’ve got planned for our time on the bus.

An aerial photo taken on May 13, 2008, shows the ancient hilltop fortress of Masada.(Menhame Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Welcome to the Roll, where we’ll be bringing you news, in real-time, of what really goes down on a Birthright trip to Israel. And you won’t just be hearing from Tablet Magazine staffers. Our goal is to get you as close to the action as possible, so we plan on letting our fellow travelers speak for themselves—in blog posts, photos, and videos.

We’ve been told that we might be asked to withhold the names of some of the active-duty soldiers who travel with us—a condition to which we agreed because it was grounded in security and not central to our mission. Beyond that, everything is fair game.

Meantime, on our sister site Jewcy, we hope to bring you more news in something we’re calling Birthright After Dark. Try to resist the natural urge to only read that.

As you read this, we are probably at Newark Liberty International Airport, to which we’ve been asked to arrive a full four (4!) hours before our flight. If all goes according to plan, we will take off in the early afternoon and land extremely early tomorrow morning, Israel-time. Whether it’s so early that passengers will forgo the traditional applause is just one of the many hard-news events we’re likely to report.

So, want a preview of our trip? Here are some highlights.

Wednesday June 13: We’ll visit Ben-Gurion’s grave, ride camels, and spend the night in a Bedouin tent.

Thursday June 14: Masada! We will be hiking both up and down. No cable-cars for us.

Friday, June 15: We’ll meet the soldiers that will be traveling with us. We’ll also spend sundown at the Western Wall. Why sundown? Do we really have to spell this out?

Monday, June 18: Rafting on the Jordan River, or the River Jordan if you prefer to be all biblical about it.

Tuesday, June 19: We will tour Tsfat and receive a lesson in Jewish mysticism. While there, we will lament missing Madonna’s Israel concerts by less than a month.

Thursday, June 21: Tel Aviv and tearful goodbyes.

A Facebook-Friendly Journey for Young Jews

Jews watching Jews who go on Birthright Israel trips


These days, there are two kinds of young American Jews: the ones who’ve been on Birthright Israel trips, and the ones who haven’t. It’s easy to spot someone about to make the transition from one demographic to the other—the requisite pre-trip Facebook post with some kind of countdown to the date (check!), the likely mid-trip mobile upload of “Look, I’m in Israel” picture (mine will be quirky but also profound), and the inescapable onslaught of photo albums that pop up on Facebook after the trip showing new friends with arms slung across each other’s shoulders at the Dead Sea and atop Masada (fingers crossed).

On Monday, I will join the ranks of twentysomething American Jews who take advantage of the (totally free) group trip known as Birthright Israel, and I am doing everything I can to prepare adequately. Fortunately, I have quite an array of knowledgeable sources to pool information from, as most of my Jewish friends (please, I’m from Long Island) have already embarked on the very same trip.

“Get a lot of sleep before you go,” one friend advised, while someone else suggested bringing granola bars. “Wear sunscreen,” I inevitably heard, and one person even reminded me to take a lot of pictures. That part, I already understood.

While Facebook enabled the uncomfortably voyeuristic realization that all your high-school friends went to college with your camp friends and teen tour friends, Birthright Israel ups the ante, as people from all different threads of your life are thrown together, somewhat arbitrarily, for a deeply profound 10-day experience. All of which you get to watch, if not in brief photographic snippets during their trip, in full, 60-picture albums that pop up just days after they return.

I’m excited and realize that beyond the pictures I’ve seen, I don’t really know what to expect from the actual trip. I do feel as though I’m participating in some kind of new (new-ish?) rite of passage, joining countless other Jewish young adults on what will likely be an extremely memorable experience. Which reminds me, I have to go charge my camera.

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