We are pleased to present a guest post from Eli Wolkenfeld, a former Little in our mentoring program and former JBBBSLA Scholarship recipient who graduated from Yeshiva University in June. This summer, Eli participated in a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Israel with Taglit Birthright. Although the trip was free, there are expenses associated with the travel that were generously covered by the Mogerman Birthright Scholarship. The Mogerman Birthright Scholarship, generously funded by longtime JBBBSLA Big Dennis Mogerman, is a $500 award open to current or former JBBBSLA Littles taking a Birthright trip. Each applicant must submit an application which is reviewed and approved by Dennis.
Eli shares a beautiful recap of his birthright trip as well as several photos that capture the beauty of Israel and the spirit of community on the trip.
For the last 23 years I have done just about everything I wanted to do. I have attended a multitude of schools, played sports, and made numerous friends. All of these things are common in a human’s life as time goes on. Part of my identity is also my religion. Although I have been to Jewish school for most of my life, I have never been on an organized trip to Israel, like the majority of my friends. Going to Israel was something I needed to experience before I started my journey in the working world. Luckily for me, I got to experience Israel with a group of individuals just like me.
Going into the trip I was very excited, but also very nervous. I was happy to finally be able to go to Israel and even happier when I heard I was accepted for the Mogerman Birthright Scholarship. Although the trip was free, there were still various expenses that were inevitable. With this scholarship money, I was able to experience Israel, without having to worry too much about how much it would cost me. Furthermore, the trip was everything I expected it to be and more. I had an unbelievable time and was not expecting everybody to be so friendly. Fortunately, I experienced this trip with a couple of friends that I have known since middle school. This really enhanced my experience because I got to travel with some of my good friends. Furthermore, from the moment we arrived at the airport, everyone on the trip became friends instantaneously.
Although everyone was somewhat shy at first, some fun ice breakers really opened everyone up. In addition, when we met the three Israeli soldiers, there was another instant connection. It was like we had been friends our whole life and by the end of the trip, everyone felt like family.
Although I wish we did some more active activities, I am still happy with what we did. Usually, trips do not spend so much time in one area. Because we arrived on a Thursday, we spent five days in Jerusalem. At first, I was skeptical about this, as I wanted to explore as much as possible, but the with the historical significance Jerusalem has, it was a really special place to be. I really enjoyed going to the Kotel because all different areas of Judaism are present there. There were extremely religious Jews wearing their special garments and then there were people like me who was wearing shorts. My friends and I felt it was special to be at the Kotel, that we did some exploring on our own on Shabbat and walked there to pray. Also in Jerusalem, we visited their “shuk,” which is similar to a Farmer’s Market in the United States. There were all types of boutique stores selling food, snacks, clothes, and even drinks. However, during the night everything turned into bars for their local nightlife.
As far as food goes, the local food was amazing. I had Shawarma and falafel as much as I could because those are my favorite types of food. Due to the hotel food not being so great, we got the chance to explore a decent amount and try new places. Another cool place we visited was the Bedouin Tents. I thought the whole Bedouin experience was extremely interesting. To hear about their lifestyles and to see a Bedouin person was eye-opening. We slept in tents that night, which obviously wasn’t an ideal sleeping arrangement. There were other Birthright groups there that we got to meet, which added to the experience.
We also rode camels there, which I have never done before. I thought it would be similar to riding a horse, but they were much bigger and a lot slower. Our tour guides, who have been on Birthright before, warned us that the food wasn’t going to be so great there, so don’t eat much of it. However, I thought the dinner was really good, as it was some type of shawarma-type food. The next day, we drove up to Masada and did a tour of the mountain. Normally, groups wake up at 4 am and do a huge hike to the top of the mountain for sunrise. However, because it was so hot, they did not recommend that we do this hike, so we took a trolley up.
The tour was absolutely stunning. From so high up, we were able to see so much of the desert. It looked as if it were the Grand Canyon, which I thought was interesting.
After the tour, we drove to Tel Aviv, which was by far my favorite place to visit. We were placed in a hostel, which I was skeptical about at first, but it turned out to be amazing. It was across the street from the beach and it was brand new, so it was as if it were a hotel. Being across the street from the beach was convenient because we did not have to waste any of our free time. We had the beach and local restaurants all within a couple hundred feet. My favorite place I ate at was called Kaspi. We had some free time in Tel Aviv, so my friends and I walked to this recommended breakfast place and had Shakshuka, pita, hummus, and Maloah. When I go back to Israel, I will definitely be eating there as much as I possibly can.
Another place I want to emphasize is this IDF cemetery. It was one of the most beautiful cemeteries I have ever seen. Our tour guide walked us around the cemetery and showed us some significant former soldiers who had a very popular and well-known story. He mentioned that although he was telling us the story of these few people, each soldier had a unique story, but obviously not enough time to go through everyone. Although it was sad to see all the soldiers who died at such a young age, I thought it was so special that all these people dedicated their lives to fighting for their country.
My trip to Israel on Birthright really affected the way I am today for the best. I learned so much about the land of Israel and why it is so important to the Jewish people. I was fortunate enough to visit Israel with a phenomenal group on Taglit Birthright. I believe it is extremely important for every Jewish person to visit Israel at least once for the spiritual connection it can offer you. It is a very spiritual place and there is so much from where our history as Jews lays within the state of Israel.
My trip to Israel with Birthright was an experience of a lifetime and there are 13 other people from my trip that can confirm that. I have always known how special Israel is to the Jewish people, but I had never personally felt that connection. After this trip, I can finally say I feel connected to it. I was so lucky to visit all the cool places I visited and make the lifetime relationships I made. I know that whenever I go to Israel again, there are four people that will welcome me into their home. As much as I tried to describe my experience, I will never be able to explain the feeling in my heart. I am truly so lucky to have explored Israel with the group of people on my trip. I am forever grateful for the Birthright organization, JBBBSLA, and the Mogerman Birthright Scholarship.
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