Student Spotlight – Feeling the Power of Community in the Israeli Desert, by Brooke Smallson
“That’s going on the ‘gram!” Variations of this phrase became a joke on our Birthright trip whenever we would stop for an extended period of time to take “Instagram worthy” photos in iconic locations in Israel. I can guarantee that everyone who has gone on Birthright has a photo of riding on a camel, standing atop Masada, floating in the Dead Sea, and, of course, some artsy close up of the colorful stalls of goods being sold at the shuk (an Israeli open air market). One of my favorite things to do is go back in my phone or on my friends’ Facebook pages and look through pictures from our trip for the thousandth time. It’s easy to relive experiences through photographs and I’m lucky to have them as documentation of the life-changing journey I went on.
But rather than post posed photos of myself and my friends, I want to share a moment that did not get to be captured digitally because every one of us was so immersed in living it first hand. And despite what is represented on social media, it was this particular experience which solidified my connection to my fellow participants, the trip leaders, and the people, culture, and land of Israel.
On the second to last night of our trip, we slept in a Bedouin camp in the Judean desert. We learned about the nomadic Bedouin people, were treated to a delicious meal, and slept in giant tents all together. After dinner, we were told to dress warmly for a walk into the desert. Despite complaints about the cold, we bundled up in sleeping bag cocoons and ventured out into the dark. It was advised that we take the time to walk to our destination silently in order to embrace the sounds of the desert and our own thoughts. The walk was short, but once we stopped and circled up we saw that all the light from the camp had disappeared as we’d descended into the terrain. Our wonderful tour guide, Gal, asked us to close our eyes. He led us on a meditation where we reflected on our lives, our past years, and the trip we were on. We reflected on the people we loved and the people we trusted. He reminded us that wherever life would take us, we would all have this moment, this community, and these memories. We all turned our faces up to the sky and opened our eyes.
The number of stars that were visible without the light pollution of a major city must have outnumbered the grains of sand in the desert beneath our feet. There were audible gasps from our group of thirty something Americans from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York who had never seen such a sight. I couldn’t help but think that we were witnessing the beauty of the night sky just as our Jewish ancestors must have thousands of years ago when they looked up from that same spot at that same piece of sky. From the powerful and awed silence, there was suddenly music. I’m not sure how he did it, but Gal had managed to bring his guitar out with us into the desert without anyone noticing. He played us a song that he had written. The melody was beautiful and the words were in Hebrew. And although my Hebrew comprehension is sometimes lacking, but there was one line in the song that I understood perfectly: את הרגע הזה לא אשכח I will not forget this moment. When the song finished, the desert was no longer quiet, but filled with the words of friends comforting one another as we cried together at the powerful moment. Mere days earlier we were all strangers with no idea what to expect of our free trip to Israel. But as former strangers held one another in the desert, I realized I never could have imagined I would gain as much as I did.
Two months have passed since this moment and this journey and not a thing has faded. My friendships remain strong, my commitment to my Judaism is as powerful as ever, and I think of my memories from Israel every single day. Birthright is always referred to as a gift for its participants and now I understand why. On top of being able to go to another part of the world with my brother and my cousin, even more than improving my Hebrew and eating delicious food, I became a part of something so much greater than myself. Birthright participants from all over the world understand exactly how I feel because they’ve felt it, too. Being a part of a Birthright community has given me connections with Jewish people from across the state, the country, and the world. It is a profound sense of belonging to a special niche corner of Judaism that I’m not sure I would have ever found were it not for this adventure. To put it simply: את הטיול הזה לא אשכח I will not forget this trip.
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