(Photo by Stephanie Butnick)
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The Longest Days I’ve Ever Had

Birthright made insane demands on our time, but showed us how to make the most of a day

Marc Tracy
June 22, 2012
(Photo by Stephanie Butnick)

“I just won’t sleep, I decided. There were so many other interesting things to do.” -Jack Kerouac

Yesterday, when a few of us Tableteers arrived at our hotel in Jerusalem and knew we needed to be across town in an hour-and-a-half, we efficiently divided up tasks—I did the pharmacy run, while another colleague did laundry—alternated showers and shaving, grabbed fast lunches, and managed to make it. As my days get shorter—I can’t ignore the symbolism of the fact that our trip ended on the longest day of the year—I hope I retain Birthright’s lesson of getting the most out of a day.

I learned this lesson sometime between Wednesday and Sunday. On our second night-and-morning in Israel, Wednesday night, we were told that we were waking up at 3:45 a.m. in order to hike up Masada in time for sunrise. I didn’t see the point. You can see a sunrise anywhere, and 3:45 is absurd even if you aren’t jet-lagged. On our sixth night-and-morning in Israel, Sunday night, having completed an emotionally wrenching day at Yad Vashem and Har Herzl, and having then driven over three hours to a northern kibbutz 500 yards away from the Lebanese border, we were told we would be waking up at 6:30 a.m. I, for one, just started to laugh. What did 6:30 in the morning even mean anymore?

The early mornings and late nights, the 18-hour days, was another Birthright Israel coup. My colleague Stephanie Butnick does an great job capturing the vertigo we all feel right now—we who for the first time since the Sunday before last don’t have a specific place to be and specific thing to do at a specific time. But the point of all this regimentation and the insane hours was less ideological than practical: There is just so much to do, and this is the only way to cram it in.

At one point, I began wondering if this isn’t the way to live life. I mean, right? Grab five hours a night; catch some shut-eye on a subway or a bus ride; be a bit tired, but get the most out of the day. But I quickly realized that wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t work because only on Birthright, as Stephanie noted, is everything taken care of for you. You can wake up early in the morning and plan to board the bus an hour later because you know breakfast and the bus will be waiting. You can sleep on the bus because you can rest easy knowing you will arrive at your destination. You don’t have to confirm the hotels in advance, or pick the meal spots, or do absolutely anything other than follow directions.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve just described a happy childhood. So, yes, the result is that you become a kid again for 10 days. Birthright conspiracy theorists, take note: Yes, you do, to some extent, become putty in their hands (although one thing the experience taught me is that you can’t brainwash intelligent people). But the reason is that this is simply the most efficient way of doing things.

And while I can only speak for our trip, to say there were no logistical screw-ups would be unfair to how smoothly our trip was run. There were no logistical hiccups. It was a small miracle of organization, without which some activities would surely have been left by the wayside. Credit here should go to our bus driver, Chaim; our security guard and medic, Smadar (a 24-year-old woman who carried around a backpack, an empty handgun, and two clips wherever we went outside of Jerusalem); Mark and Ilana, our Canadian counselors; our guide Yoav, who by all evidence truly doesn’t sleep; and last but not least, our trip organizer, Amazing Israel, which is the Birthright division of Routes Travel. Tablet Magazine approached Birthright Israel; Birthright put us on an Amazing Israel trip. I’m extremely glad they did.

I had the thought that, truly, I got my money’s worth. Then I remembered that the trip was free.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.