Israel Education

Neshama 31

Trip Blog

List of 25 items.

  • Thursday, March 30

    Boaz wrote the update:
    march 30
    After waking up, I quickly packed and made my way to breakfast. At breakfast, Ilan and I presented Rob with a leftover pita we had saved from our culinary extravaganza last night. Rob kindly rebuffed, saying he’s on a diet and that the pita was probably stale and hard. Ilan quietly took a bite of the pita and found that Rob was very correct. 
    After breakfast I took one last look at the beautiful views of the sun kissed Jordanian mountains and hopped on the bus. We had a two-hour bus ride to the city of Dimona. The ride had endless views of desert and gray sky, every once in a while, broken up by a date farm or F-16 fighter jets. 

    Following a quick stop at a mall for snacks, we arrived in Dimona. Rob explained that Dimona is an interesting city. It’s fully in the middle of nowhere and received a lot of money from the state in the fifties to develop itself. During that time, and still today, a lot of poorer people and new immigrants go to make a new life. It’s also home to Israel’s nuclear research facility, where they definitely don’t make the 40-80 nuclear weapons that Israel does not have.

    At our destination, the “Peace Village” of the African Hebrew Israelites, our guide, dressed in flamboyant African dress, welcomed us to his village and to Northeast Africa. He explained that “Middle East” is a colonial term from the British Empire and that in reality, tectonic plate-wise, we are technically in Northeast Africa. 
    We were given a quick tour on the way to the common space where we sat down. The space was decorated with pink and gray ribbons everywhere and a couple hanging plastic disco balls. Our guide began explaining their movement. They believe that around 70 CE, when thousands of Roman centurions invaded Judaea from the north to squash the Jewish rebellion, Jewish rebels fled south to Egypt and Ethiopia. Carrying their religion and culture only in their hearts and minds, these rebels slowly made their way across Africa, eventually reaching West Africa hundreds of years later, just in time for the slave trade to pick up. And who better to take as slaves than the Jewish newcomers? These supposedly Jewish slaves came to America and the rest of the story we all know. 

    In 1966, in his apartment in Chicago, their movement’s founder had a forty-five second long visit from the angel Gabriel who told him to make his way to the holy land. He gathered a group of 400 people willing to make the journey with him and made their way to Liberia in 1967. In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. In his last speech, he made reference to Black people going to the promised land, which their movement took as a message to go to Israel. In Israel, they were not recognized as citizens until the 90s, and lived in poverty without access to schools or healthcare. Now they have both. 

    They believe that they are not Jews, but Judaeans, living the way Judaeans lived. They say they are not religious, but spiritual. They call themselves Messianic, but instead of believing in a single Messiah, they believe that any person can be a Messiah. Pretty cool, I guess. They also vehemently disagree with many of the views of Black Hebrew Israelites in America, which is good.

    Preventative health is of utmost importance to them. They are vegan, use as little salt as possible, and have weeks where they don’t eat any added sugar and weeks where they only eat uncooked food. We got a tour of their garden with all their medicinal herbs like aloe, worm root, and the moringa tree we ate from yesterday. We later learned that they did not vaccinate against coronavirus. After some questions, we all got up because it was time to dance. At first there were some grumbles about not wanting to and having two left feet and yadda yadda yadda but soon enough, everyone was dancing. Even Rob got into it, dancing in the middle of our circle.
    We then toured their village, seeing their store, homes, memorial park, and their basketball court, where every person who tried to score a basket utterly failed. Oy. Not our best look.

    After the tour we went back to the common room and ate a vegan lunch of a sandwich with seitan-based salami. Pretty tasty. 
    Once we ate it was time for my favorite activity, a long bus drive. After about an hour of views of the rolling Judaean desert hills and the Dead Sea, we arrived at Kfar HaNokdim, where we would have our Bedouin tent experience. We dropped our bags off in our shared tent and explored the place, seeing their dogs, cats, bunnies, and peacocks. 

    We gathered inside a tent where we were to experience Bedouin hospitality. A Bedouin man adorned with a keffiyeh explained to us the rules of Bedouin hospitality and answered our questions while another man handed out cups of sweetened tea and strong cardamom-spiced coffee. Some people didn’t like the coffee. I drank theirs.

    After the tent and some free time, we ate a scrumptious dinner and some of us met a very enthusiastic group leader of a Birthright trip. For those of you who have watched the show Community, he acted and looked exactly like Dean Pelton, just with a long beard. 
    Once we ate, we gathered around a campfire built and controlled by Daniel Shapiro. I brought my acoustic guitar and the lyrics of “Here Comes the Sun” and “Ventura Highway” filled the night. Slowly, we left the campfire and went to sleep on the foam mattresses in our tents.”
  • Wednesday, March 29

    Boaz shared yesterday’s adventures:

    “I woke up today to another beautiful Ketura morning. Sun shining, birds chirping, my roommates slowly grumbling themselves out of bed. After breakfast and packing sandwiches for lunch, we piled on the bus. 

    After a short ride, we arrived at Timna National Park. We hopped off the bus and began the “Arches Hike.” The hike was strenuous, dusty, and blisteringly hot. I loved it. We had to climb through narrow passages, up cliffs with metal ladders, through a small cave, and as the name of the hike suggested, through stone arches. Once we were up the mountain and had enjoyed the desert views, we had to climb back down through more narrow passages and ladder-assisted descents. In a small valley created by millennia of floods, Rob took some time to explain that three thousand years ago, Timna was the site of a bustling copper mine run by Egyptian slave labor. Rob pointed out that we could even see the copper in the stone around us. We then got a chance to explore the abandoned mines. I was way too tall to appreciate climbing through the very short mine. 
    Once we got back on the bus, we had a short ride within the park to the site of what we learned was a production site for copper. After a short demonstration of the copper making process from Sophie F and yours truly, Rob began talking to us about modern Biblical criticism and analysis. We started talking about this back in Hebron when discussing the authenticity of the Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob storyline, but being here, with ancient remains and arid surroundings instead of a modern city like Hebron made me think more about what Exodus could have been. Rob told us about a letter that was found from the Egyptian governor of the area of Timma, begging for help with a civil revolt. Rob explained that some theories claim that this was where the Exodus story happened, not in the Egyptian mainland. Rob’s information got me thinking. On the bus to the hike, I read a section in Daniel Schiffman’s copy of Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Prof. Yuval Noah Harari about the myths that unite people, how humans are unique in the fact that we share beliefs in non-objective facts, and how cognitive dissonance about these non-objective facts is not a weakness but one of the reasons civilization can exist at all. At this point I had to stop thinking. It was really hot out. 

    We then walked a short distance to a mushroom shaped rock formed by millions of years of rushing flood waters. Rob asked us about how we see the future of humanity and if we think people will survive the near future. Heavy stuff, I know. I liked it though. I love futurism and climate discussions. 

    After some pictures we loaded up on the bus and went a short distance to a small manmade lake with a small restaurant in which we ate our packed lunches. Something about the lake made me angry. Maybe it was how out of place it felt, a lake with fountains and swan-shaped paddle boats, in the middle of a pristine and expansive desert park. I was also tired, so I may have just been grumpy. So it goes. 
    From there we had a relatively short drive to the store at the Yotvata kibbutz, where we could get ice cream made at the kibbutz’s dairy farm. Because of my allergies, I couldn’t have any ice cream, but I was quite happy having a bag of chocolate milk with Grace and an apricot ice pop.  

    After we all had something to eat, we went to Lotan, a kibbutz that specializes in eco-tourism. Sitting on benches in a wigwam-type structure, our guide told us how they view trash not as waste but as a potential resource. She informed us that the benches we were sitting on were made by stuffing tires with trash like plastic bottles and covered with mud. I wouldn’t have been able to tell had she not told us. Throughout the rest of the tour we were visited by Shoko, a very friendly dog, and Shoshie, a cat that couldn’t seem to get enough of us. We were given a demonstration on how the mud bricks that much of the kibbutz is made out of are made. Our guide took us around more of the kibbutz, bringing us to a large hall made out of hale bales covered in mud, and through the garden. She picked some leaves off a tree and told us that they were from the moringa tree and that the tree had immense healing power, for physical and mental ailments. I doubt that was true, but it would be nice if it was. 

    Moving on, we got an explanation of what compost is and how it’s made in nature versus on the kibbutz and how they make methane for cooking from small amounts of vegetable scraps. We then had an activity where groups raced each other to build arches out of rocks and mud bricks and shocked ourselves when three people could stand on the arch without them falling. 

    When we came back, I immediately took a very needed nap. I woke up to the unmistakable smell of garlic cooking. I stepped into the kitchenette to see Ilan cooking mushrooms and garlic. He told me he was making mushroom garlic cream sauce pasta. I jumped in and helped him with the sauce and the pasta, and soon we had a delicious meal that we shared with our roommates. We ate outside and others came over to ogle and beg for a taste, but for the most part we just let them watch us eat. 

    After some time soaking the dishes and read a bit, it was time for the real dinner. The kibbutz served us make-your-own pizzas. Ilan and I only had salads, because we decided earlier that we needed to cook more to finish all of our ingredients. 

    After dinner was an activity that the kibbutz called Schnitzelborscht. I know. I don’t understand the name either. We were split up into our mishpachot (families) and we each were given a board with questions about Israeli food, tech, geography, and history, and we tallied up how many points each group got right. My mishpacha won. Woohoo.
    After that, it was time for karaoke. We all laughed, danced, and sang along to countless Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, and even a Hadag Nachash song. 

    Ilan and I quietly left to begin our second home cooked dinner of the day. We had a lot of extra flour from the sauce we made before, so Ilan started working on some pitot. I used leftovers from today’s pasta and grilled cheese from a few days ago to make a garlic cheese sauce to go with the pasta we had left. Shoutout to Betty and Sophie F who helped by cooking the pasta and pitot and cleaning up. We had a lovely late dinner outside with all my roommates and Betty and Sophie. 

    Quite a good day.”
  • Monday, March 27 - Tuesday, March 28

    “Starting our first full day in Kibbutz Ketura and the surrounding area, my roommates and I groggily walked to breakfast at around 8, as the sun started to feel hot but the morning was still cool, a remnant of the colder desert night. 
    At breakfast, we discussed the latest news in the Israeli judicial reform, that Prime Minister Netanyahu fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who spoke out against the reform. Our madrichim, Amit (הבן the boy) and Omri, told us about how this is a glaring sign of a dictatorship and that the nation had erupted in protest over the night, with roadblocks and universities closing across Israel. Amit said flatly, “I am sad about this country.” Meanwhile, relaxing elevator music played in the cafeteria and rays of sunlight shone through palm tree leaves and in through the windows in the one-story building which had a beige exterior akin to a Florida housing complex. Our pleasant setting, but difficult conversation, at breakfast, set the tone for our first day in Ketura. It was truly wonderful, to take in some of the best natural beauty in Israel in a resort-like kibbutz, relaxing and hanging out, a vital part of appreciating what Israel has to offer, but at times, being so remote and far from the center, it felt like we were not experiencing the most politically charged day (so far) of one of the most politically charged moments in Israel’s history. 
    Though I spent some idle moments struggling with the tradeoffs of our getaway in the south, that certainly did not mean I did not experience and enjoy our packed schedule of fun in nature. Our first activity had two options: a bike ride around the kibbutz or a painting workshop in the desert. I went on the bike ride. On the ride, we smelled the sweet, woody scent of the kibbutz’s date orchards and felt the bumps of the gravel agricultural roads. It allowed us to get our bearings on the layout of the kibbutz and to grasp the various projects constantly in action here. 
    As the excitement of our bike ride fizzled, our group was snapped into a worried buzz when we got the news that the general strike in response to Netanyahu’s firing of Gallant had shut down Ben Gurion Airport. I felt removed from the massive protests in Tel Aviv, the boisterous protests that usually keep us awake with car horns and chants when we stay in Jerusalem, because in Ketura, in the middle of the desert, there was no outcry, just sunshine. 
    However, just as quickly as the news came, we were on to our next activity to learn more about the utopic kibbutz. Our next stop, was the “off-grid village” where the kibbutz researches and displays efficient solutions to help people who live off the grid (without access to a system of water, electricity, and sewage) like a drip irrigation system powered by solar energy that requires much less water pressure or an oven heated by the sun (we even tried sun-baked cookies). We had been told about the kibbutz’s value of social action, but it was amazing to see a genuine intersection of social action, environmentalism, and Israeli innovation. It was an impressive example of Ketura’s commitment to its goals. 
    After lunch in the communal kibbutz dining hall, Amanda and I did some stretching in the astroturf courtyard near our rooms. We heard the notes of one of Ilan’s signature jazz playlists as the smell of sautéed onions wafted into the courtyard from my room. My industrious roommates, Boaz and Ilan, had gone to the kibbutz store and were taking advantage of the kitchenette in our room, preparing for gourmet grilled cheeses later that night. 
    Following the free time, everyone was feeling a little bit more rested and ready for our afternoon hike. However, on our way, we were reminded again of the political turmoil exploding almost everywhere else in the country, when our madrichim Omri and Amit (הבן the boy) announced that they would be making their way to Eilat to demonstrate. They felt they could not stand by, trekking through the isolated desert, and not have their voices heard in their democracy. 
    While Amit and Omri set off to protest, we set off for an iconic GOA Neshama activity: the hike up to the sand dunes. While we trudged along up the steep path, Sophie, Isabelle, Tali, Rob, and I discussed our opinions on how we could improve Shabbat on Neshama, while ahead of us, Elias told an apparently shocking and hilarious story of a Craigslist mishap. Finally, we arrived at the dunes where we ran the soft sand through our fingertips as Rob talked to us about the spiritual value of the desert in its history, purity, and serenity. Afterwards, we ran, rolled, jumped, lounged, and climbed in the dunes and took pictures. When we were tired out, we took some time to sit by ourselves in silence and contemplation. Looking out over the vast desert it was hard to believe how empty it was, how if I had been there alone, I would not have seen a single person and very few signs of human civilization until the horizon in every direction. Also, the unchanging landscape that must have looked nearly identical thousands of years before and will look nearly identical thousands of years in the future was difficult to wrap my head around. To end our meditation, Rachel blew a shofar which echoed out across the desert mountains, and we packed up and headed back to Ketura. 
    After resting for a while, we went to dinner prepared by the Ketura staff outside of the kibbutz in the desert, where we made our own pitot over fire and ate hummus, salatim (salads) and more. We sat at low tables around fires eating our dinner and then s’mores. The darkness surrounding us in the desert, the filling food, and the smoky smell made for a homey, satisfying meal after a tiring day. As people were roasting marshmallows for s’mores, I heard Omri pronounce, “Ben Gvir will have his own private militia!” People started pulling out their phones to check the news as Omri explained the deal. The judicial reform would be delayed a few weeks and in order to appease far-right extremist national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir, Netanyahu would approve a large budget to establish a “national guard” (a portion of the police) solely under Ben Gvir’s direct control. As we started processing the news, words like “crazy” and “fascist” started flying around. It was monumental and scary news, an even more glaring sign of dictatorship than the morning’s events. I could tell Omri was upset he could not be in a major city in the center of Israel during this enormous moment, by his frustrated facial expression and his repeated sentiment that the protest he and Amit had attended in Eilat was “cute.” 
    After dinner we walked back to our rooms at around 8:30. The official programming of the night might have been over, but my night activities were set to begin. First, was tasting Boaz and Ilan’s delicious grilled cheese for second dinner. My compliments to the chefs. Second, Ilan, Betty, and I sat outside in the courtyard in anticipation to watch the first episode of season four of Succession. 
    In looking back on the day, at the forefront was lots of fun, whether it was taking in the nature of the area or casual homemade fun amongst friends, but on the back burner were reminders of the real-life political educational experiences we were missing 3 hours north, and more importantly, reminders of the dissatisfaction in an undemocratic government, and subsequent fiery exercising of democratic freedoms, that gripped the country. 
    March 28: 
    To start our second full day in Ketura, we headed to breakfast and packed sandwiches for our hike in the Eilat mountains. There was a palpable excitement for our day in Eilat. Also, after the agreement had been reached in the government, though problematic, the country was somewhat calmer which added to the relaxed vibe of our vacation-type day in the south. 
    We hiked in the desert mountains, through gorges that many of us exclaimed looked like they were out of a Star Wars set, and up steep rock faces where we had to use all four limbs to hoist ourselves up. The sun was hot, and some of us faced our fears of heights, but good conversation and the motivation for the rest of our day carried us through. It was a 2-hour or so hike with a great view in the middle, and few complications or complaints from our group, evidence that we are starting to gain a rhythm and an appreciation for hiking together. 
    When we came back to the bus, we quickly ate lunches on the drive to our next destination: snorkeling in Eilat. Until that point we had done a surprisingly small amount of swimming on the trip as a whole, and considering the dust and sweat we had acquired on the hike, we were all enthusiastic to jump in a beautiful body of water as we drove into Eilat. After some safety training, we strapped on our snorkels and hopped in the bluish, emerald green water. It took some time to adjust to breathing through our mouths, but when we did, we floated on our stomachs and looked at patterned coral reefs and fish of various shapes and sizes in pink, green, dark purple, sandy camouflage, and rainbow multicolor. Growing up swimming at the Jersey Shore, the clear water alone was luxurious, not to mention the captivating wildlife. After we finished snorkeling, we had about an hour and a half to sit in the sun on the beach, swim more, and eat some ice cream bars and french-fries from the food stand. It was one of those afternoons of pure relaxation that are rare on Neshama and we much appreciated it. 
    Our relaxing, vacation esque afternoon continued into evening with a whopping three hour pizur in a boardwalk-type shopping plaza right on the water in Eilat for an early dinner and shopping. Sophie, Talia, Boaz, Rachel, and I went for poke bowls and smoothies. The palm trees and views of the water made for a picturesque backdrop for dinner. But perhaps the best part was that we left to return to Ketura at only 6:30, and after many days in a row of early mornings we were ready for an early night to catch up on sleep. 
    All in all, our second full day in Ketura was one of the few Neshama days where we did not encounter a controversial Israeli social issue or listen to a lecture from a speaker. Unlike the encompassing political tone of the day before, it was a day just to spend time with each other and envelop ourselves in the beauty of the land of Israel.” 
  • Wednesday, March 22 - Thursday, March 23

    Raff wrote about Wednesday and Thursday:

    Wednesday, March 22: After a nice night in Gvulot, I woke up to another breakfast of some fried eggs, chocolate pudding, and some spectacular orange juice. Our first activity was going to Merchavim High School to talk with students in 11th grade; we later found out that the students were on strike for teachers' salaries. When we got off the bus, the first thing I saw was a bomb shelter; a normal sight to see in areas around the Gaza Strip. 

    We met with our guide, a student named Eliran, and his father Simchi, who teaches at the school. Unlike our school, they had an entire complex of buildings, including a high school, two middle schools, science, and technology buildings. Another noticeable difference were the iron bars on the windows to prevent burglary and students from jumping in and out. We were then allowed to tour around the school which featured classrooms with whiteboards, projectors, desks, and a computer. Along the walls was artwork which compared to the murals along the walls of our school. We then walked past a fence that was written, “Merchavim + Golda Och 2017”, and posed for a photo. We took a quick look at the technology building which had several computers, and highly sophisticated systems we concluded the visit at a small visit to an elderly home within the complex. 

    Next we went to a Mechina (military academy), a bridge from high school to the military. We were given a short tour of the house they live in, and it gave off a college frat house vibe. Then we were paired up with a member of the house, I had Noa. We walked around the neighborhood as she told us her daily life in the Mechina and certain policies they have to follow. After our tour of the Mechina, we went to a shul in the city of Ofakim which was different than others because there was no mahitzah; a rare sight in Israel. We finished our visit in Ofakim by going to a park and having a pizur. We capped off our day by going on a hike, over the B’sor, a water stream with a huge bridge where we sat to talk about the symbolism and significance of bridges.
    This morning, Thursday, we had our final breakfast in Gvulot, they have the most amazing orange juice!. We departed for Shivil HaSalat, the salad trail, which were green houses that had fruits and vegetables. Our tour guide gave us a brief background about the beginning of Shivil HaSalat and her story. We then got to eat fresh tomatoes, carrots, and tangerines. We ended our time with messenger pigeons, which we were allowed to hold and then let go as we watched them fly. 

    We then went back to Sderot for another pizzur; I had penne with rose sauce. Our final activity before the free weekend was a bike ride around HaYarkon Park in Tel Aviv. We rode through the park, a small forest, past playgrounds, and made it to our destination with some breaks to fix some bikes. The Mediterranean Sea was a beautiful sight to see, and after some pictures, we rode into the free weekend”
  • Monday, March 20 - Tuesday, March 21

    Shayna wrote about Monday and Tuesday:

    On Monday, March 20,, we visited a Bedouin city. A man from Rahat by the name of Jamal told us about what the Bedouin lifestyle in 2023 entails. We found out that Bedouins can be any religion, and the idea that they only live in the desert and sleep on the ground is a stereotype. Each family - known as tribes in Bedouin culture - has a family head called the shech. Nuclear families are of little importance, and the extended family is the main family unit. A tribe, or multiple tribes called a hamola, live together in one town.
    Next, we visited an unrecognized Bedouin village (which we viewed from the bus). There are 35 Bedouin villages not recognized as towns by the Israeli government. This means that they don’t always have running water, suage, bus stop or any other municipal services. Next we made our way to a mosque. Our tour guide, a twenty-something year old student, taught us about Islam and took all of our questions. Afterwards, we ate a delicious meal of chicken and rice and salads, and listened to a woman as she told the heartwarming and triumphant story of starting a business to support her youngest child, a boy with special needs. I felt a strong connection to her story, as my brother is autistic, and I find it extremely important to support other families with kids with special needs.
    At Chavat Naot, a beautiful goat farm nestled in a valley, we learned about the history of this independent Jewish farm. Starting out with an empty plot of land, they began operating out of a tent, which grew into a trailer, which grew into an expansive campus. All the while, they maintained good relations with Bedouins, helping them learn English and benefiting them with money earned through tourism. Goat cheese in hand, we headed back to Gvulot for a wonderful program led by Boaz and Sophie F. 
    Tuesday (March 21) was "Good Deeds Day", an international day of doing good (it's in the name). Gimilut Chasadim, Tikkun Olam, and social action all take precedence over everything else, inspiring people to volunteer and make change. In this spirit, we spent the morning at an organic farm, twisting the stems off a seemingly endless supply of strangely shaped radishes. We met a young woman named Moriah, and learned about Hashomer Hachadash, an organization that helps protect farmers from agricultural crimes. From setting hay on fire to stealing a few apples off a tree, the criteria for what constitutes an agricultural crime is vast, although one thing is for sure: crimes like these cost farmers millions of dollars every year.  At the greenhouse, I used my crocheting skills to trellis plastic strings over pepper saplings to allow them to twist and grow up to the ceiling. 

    Later we met with Ayala Jones, a GOA Alumna, as well as my former bus mate. It was surreal seeing someone I knew wearing IDF uniform: ceremonial pins stuck to her chest and a gun draped over her shoulders. Ayala did her two years of service in the iron dome. She first started out reloading rockets into the advanced machine’s turrets during the infamous Guardians of the Wall, but eventually graduated to the more senior role in the actual tracking and then intercepting of  enemy missiles. The way she confidently and affectionately told the story of her service was very reassuring as I want to make Aliyah after college.
  • Sunday, March 19

    Sadie’s write up about Sunday.
    “After a restful Shabbat we were excited to continue exploring Israel. My roommates and I woke up around 7:30, packed our things, and headed down to breakfast. Afterwards everyone went on the bus and our journey for the day began. We had a long bus ride, our favorite kind. 

    Once we arrived in Sderot, we got off the bus to meet Rabbi Ari at a park. He taught us about the history of Sderot and saw different areas of the town. Afterwards we visited a memorial for IDF soldiers with a lookout to the Gaza Border. It felt crazy to me that we could be so close to the border and still be safe.

    One of our madrachot, Einat, explained how the Iron Dome worked because she had experience working with it during her army service. I learned a lot of new information about the Iron Dome which was important because it plays such a vital role in protecting Israel. After our tour ended, we had pizur lunch. A few of us went to a cafe and the food was very good. There were also fun stores in the area to walk around in.

    We then had about a 15-minute bus ride and headed to Netiv HaAsara. After walking learning about the Moshav (agricultural settlement), we watched a video about a woman who lives there. She talked about what life was like in Netiv HaAsara and how important peace was to her. We then received ceramic shapes to write notes/wishes on that we’d be able to put on the peace wall, the border between Gaza and Israel. This wall had cameras everywhere and a Hamas tower in the distance, which felt unsettling. Getting to go to the wall was a meaningful experience. After we said goodbye to Rabbi Ari, our tour guide, we headed to Kibbutz Gvulot. We had some free time before dinner so a bunch of us decided to go to the indoor pool. Later in the evening we had zman mishpacha. We debriefed about what we learned, and it was nice to hear everyone’s perspectives. I learned a lot today and am excited for tomorrow!”
  • Friday, March 17 - Saturday, March 18

    Talia for Friday and Saturday: 
    “After the exhausting, yet fulfilling, two-day desert experience we had, it was finally time to travel back to Agron. The long bus ride was exactly what we needed to get in the sleep we lost from the previous night. As a reward for our hard work and pushing through the obstacles of the trail, we made a pit stop to get some ice cream and go to a small grocery store.
    Once we arrived at Agron and got to our rooms, we had the best showers of our lives. Never had we needed it more. We used the next hour and a half to get ready for Shabbat, which was plenty for the boys and not even close to enough for the girls.

    Once everyone was ready, we took some cute photos, lit the Shabbat candles, and headed to the office at Agron for Kabbalat Shabbat. Before we started, Rob hit us with a question: “What is something new every one tried over the last two days?”. There were so many different answers, from sleeping in a tent for the first time, hiking with everything we needed for a couple days on our backs, and going to the bathroom in nature for the first time. Huge Yasher Koach to Shayna for leading us in Kabbalat Shabbat. During Kabbalat Shabbat there was singing, dancing, and smiles on everyone’s faces. Omri, one of our amazing madrichim, gave us an impactful prayer that he felt so connected to in remembrance of one of his dear friends who tragically died 6 years ago. Following this, I led Maariv.

    Once all was over, we made our way to dinner. We had a great meal and almost everyone went to sleep early.

    Saturday morning was late wake up with the first thing on the schedule being lunch. We had a nice afternoon with people shmoozing together at Agron, continued catching up on sleep, and some went to the nearby park to read and relax.

    We were joined by Rob later in the afternoon where we had our learner’s minyan. Tali and Gabi did a great job leading us with the new Nigun we learned for Mincha. Rob gave us thorough explanations as to why we do certain things during the service and taught us the right way to receive an honor. Overall, the service was wonderful and then we made our way into Havdallah, which was a beautiful ending to our Shabbat.

    For dinner, we had Pizur. Some people went to Ben Yehuda Street, some went to get delicious pizza, and some got incredible sushi. I went to the sushi restaurant and went on a girl’s night out with Amanda and Betty. Then everyone headed back to Agron and we ended the night there. Today was a restful day for all and it was desperately needed.
  • Thursday, March 16

    “We had a wake-up time at 7:30, but of course I wake up at 7:15 having to finish packing up my things. I didn’t have much time, luckily though I made it downstairs in time for breakfast with also having to try and find my lost air pods (which I did thankfully). Thinking to myself before leaving on the bus. 2 days one night. 1 hiking trail to a camping ground. It’s time for the Desert Experience to begin. Finally getting on the bus with my backpack full of water, clothes, and other belongings. 2 hours of thinking what is this experience going to be like? Will the hike be hard, or will it be a breeze? Will I be freezing or warm? I had no idea what to expect. Time passed. 30 minutes listening to music such as Country and Pop. Another 30 minutes going through my phone, a 10-minute bathroom stop and 50 minutes of napping. When finally, I open my eyes and there it is, the desert. As we walked off the bus, we were split into 3 groups to carry the meals for the 2 days and make lunch. I put some tuna, toilet paper, garbage bags and crackers into the bag they supplied us with.

    My group made sandwiches for lunch. They were surprisingly really good!  It took teamwork to make it happen and working together was fun and rewarding. After lunch we went back on the bus for another 15-minute bus ride to the starting point of the hike. After getting off the bus we start the 5 kilometers hike. Finally reaching the summit of the mountain was breathtaking and rewarding. We felt so accomplished, took pictures, and learned about the different types of rocks you can discover throughout the desert and how to tell time by the shadows from the sun and most importantly how to know what direction you are heading.  Finding your way in the desert isn’t an easy task as taking a left at the Sandy hill, isn’t going to cut it. After some rest we continued with the hike. During the hike, before we stopped for another break, we had to walk down this very rocky mountain.  I almost fell but luckily made it down. Surprisingly going down is a lot trickier that going up! We finally stopped together for prayer lead by Sophie. It was a beautiful, peaceful moment. It was nice to all be together on the side of the mountain sharing a new experience. We had a little snack and then headed back on the rocky trails. We found the camping ground with a whole food setup and tents. (Meaning great food, not A Whole Foods!) We had this amazing homemade soup from a pot bigger than I’ve ever seen. There was still more food to go. While waiting for food everyone hung out talking in circles getting to know each other on a deeper level. We all sang around the fire pit and toasted marshmallow. Finally, bed at 11:30. In my tent with Gabi and Chava the chatter and laughing is taking up the quiet desert. I wake up to an exciting new day of hiking again. At 6:00 am to a loud boker tov. Standing around the warm fire waking up in the cold. Trying to figure out how to keep the fire going. The bus arrives and some of us sit on the bus take a break listening to music before starting the hike of the day. Climbing up and down many sides of mountains we make it to a rest stop to make our breakfast. We made jam and chocolate sandwiches. As we continued the hike our guides give us deep questions to ask our friends and have us create secret handshakes as a bonding activity. I hope Amanda and I will remember ours forever. Seeing the bus from the distance when we finished our hike was thrilling! We made it back to the campground where we began and made another yummy lunch, all together. We had a closing program and said goodbye to our survival guide.  But being in Israel, we definitely couldn’t end the day without a quick stop for some ice cream!! (Everyone loves Ice Cream here!) Even though it’s been challenging, I feel proud and accomplished. I survived my first camping trip and bonding with my classmates and surviving together was the best feeling! To top it all off, I think we also all conquered our fears of heights. (At least for now).”
  • Wednesday, March 15

    Issac shared the day’s experience:
    “Wednesday was supposed to be the first day of our desert experience, but it was canceled because of the danger rain posed to our hikes. So instead the staff decided that we needed a day of rest, we didn’t have our first activity until 12:45 which was lunch. After lunch we visited the Gush Katif museum in Jerusalem which focuses on the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip that were evacuated in 2005. We were guided by a South African man named Abner. Abner was extreme in his views and Rob along with some students challenged his beliefs. Especially regarding his views on women and the recent government reforms. If we had listened to him two weeks ago I think our reactions would have been a lot different but after many faces week we were able to filter the facts from the lies. However, it was still interesting to learn about how settlers developed areas of Gaza and how they were evacuated.
    After the museum we made our way to a mall called “Cinema City”. As the name suggests this was a movie theater but there was also a mall surrounding it with restaurants. We did a Pizzur dinner there and then we saw a movie. The movie was an interesting experience as I have never been to an Israeli movie theater, and I found it cool to see all the movie posters in Hebrew. The movie experience itself was good expect for some loud Israeli children in the theater.
    This ended our day, I very much enjoyed the extra rest and going to the mall and the movie. The rest was much needed as tomorrow morning we wake up early for two days and one night in the desert hiking and camping.”
  • Tuesday, March 14

    Issac wrote the update for Tuesday, the last day of the Many Faces of Israel Seminar:
    “We woke up at 8:00 today for an 8:30 breakfast at Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, where we spent the last two nights. We packed our suitcases and boarded the bus. We then headed to meet with a group called Shoreshim (roots) that brings Palestinians and Israelis together to have civilized dialogue. The group was founded after Palestinians and Israelis noticed that there was too much fear, animosity, and ignorance between the two sides. We heard from an Israeli named Myron and a Palestinian named Khaled. They talked about their efforts to bring Palestinian and Israeli teenagers together. After two days where we heard both sides passionately present their narrative, I personally was relieved to hear from people who are considered more moderate.
    After this we went for a Pizzur lunch in Efrat, which is an Israeli settlement. After learning about settlements for two days, it was interesting to see what they actually looked like and how the people there act and look. What I found was that other than a higher security presence it looked the same as any other Israeli city. After lunch we made a quick stop at the “Lone Tree” which, prior to 1967 was a symbol that motivated some of the early settlement in the West Bank to reclaim the area. Visiting the tree was a good way to wrap up our learning about Jewish settlement in the West Bank as the tree is in the center of the four large kibbutzim in Gush Etzion. 
    For our last visit in the West Bank we went to Har Etzion Yeshiva - a modern, eagle-shaped building on a hill overlooking Gush Etzion. In this yeshiva, students both serve in the IDF and study at yeshiva. We talked to some students (one of whom was a friend of Boaz’s) who told us about the yeshiva and their army service. I found it interesting to learn about what kids our age do after high school in Israel and how different it is from America. After a tour of the yeshiva some of the group did Mincha, and we boarded the bus for a much need 45-minute ride back to Jerusalem.
    Back at Agron in Jerusalem we met with a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem named Firas. Firas was educated in the states from his senior year of high school until he graduated from the University of North Carolina, so he spoke near perfect American English. Firas presented a similar Palestinian narrative as Issa on Monday, but he focused more on the future of the conflict. I still personally disagreed with him on a number of things but not as many as I did with Issa. To end the day we had a panel discussion with our Madrichim to hear their perspectives, as average Israelis on the speakers we heard and the conflict in general.
    This concluded our second part of “Many Faces” and it left different impressions on different students. Some of their opinions moved farther left, some of them moved farther right and for some their relationship with Israel is stronger than it was before. I personally haven’t yet figured out what effect this week had on me. But what I have learned from this week is the position of privilege we are in as Americans. After this week, I have learned to humanize the people involved in this conflict. As spectators from thousands of miles away we have the privilege of treating this conflict almost like a game. We get to choose which side we root for and watch on TV as the conflict plays out. Obviously, it is different for us as Jews and we have more connection to Israel than the average American, however far too often we still can forget that these are humans with emotions, hopes and dreams. They are not characters in a TV show, they are not athletes playing a game, and they are most certainly not pieces on a political chess board.”
  • Monday, March 13

    Betty shared her experience from Hevron :
    “As we began the day reading the narrative of Abraham purchasing the burial plot of Ma’arat HaMachpelah, I was arrested by the fugitive sensation of sitting at a little wooden desk, learning the same story over a decade ago. The stylized, sepia-toned illustrations in our Ariyot books were populated with simple figures comprehensible to children: a grey-bearded, robed Abraham; an adolescent Isaac; hands clasped; father and son buying a cave in an empty field.
    Accompanying our reading on the weathered benches of Kfar Etzion was the crowing, pecking, and buzzing from the wandering birds of the kibbutz— a medley which seemed peaceful interlude before we boarded our bulletproof bus. 
    Choking a section of the road to Hebron were hillocks of garbage, stacked so high they obscured the stone foundations of the Palestinian homes through which the street cut. However, just as quickly as jet plastic crowded my view, the intricate and sprawling vineyards and olive groves threaded their way through the mountainside terraces, crowned by the red-roofed, shining limestone complexes of Israeli settlers. The stark distinction spoke for itself.
    We were brought to the gravesite of domestic terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Muslims in prayer at Ma’arat HaMachpelah. Silent, I considered the weight of the dozens of stones sitting atop it, and the spitting of my classmates. I figured that warranted him too much merit. The sun illuminated the lies inscribed in his memorial plaque, decidedly characterizing him as a righteous martyr. I shuffled dirt, and looked toward the fragmented landscape of Hebron. We read aloud Yitzhak Rabin’s censure of Goldstein, the “errant weed”, before leaving.
    We’d then arrived at the “main event”, if you will: Ma’arat HaMachpelah. A proud Herodian structure strikingly reminiscent of the Kotel, with the very same tufts of caper bushes sprouted along its face, it seemed to suggest a natural relation to the holiest structure in Judaism. Walking through the limestone halls, what I found most striking were the extant impressions of changing hands across millennia left on the building. The basilica built on the grounds by the Byzantines; The florid Arabic calligraphy curling along the towering walls of the inner tombs; the blue velvet curtains draped along the entryways, beautified by Hebrew embroidery. An imam’s languid noontime call to prayer warbled through the air when we exited the building. 
    Our first speaker was Rabbi Simcha Hochbaum: a spry, sweater-clad man with that unmistakable reedy New York accent. He acted as a sort of tour guide through the Old City of Hebron’s Jewish Quarter, interspersing throughout his history a number of anecdotes recounting the latent tensions of the area, and how he has endeavored to become a “man of peace”. With that, he led us toward the Avraham Avinu Synagogue, explicating the mystical etymology of its name.
    With the humble ark of the synagogue opened— a building once devastated by the 1929 Arab riots— Rabbi Hochbaum gathered us together and led us in Etz Chaim Hi, our voices and hums floating around the small room which appeared to embrace our presence, with its downy pews and short, softly pointed arches built to cradle the congregation. Outside, we passed by blocks of bright cerulean shutters, railings, and benches— even basketball hoops— coloring the facades of Israeli buildings. It seemed purposeful rejection of the forest green ornamentation of the Arab buildings, especially those shuttered along Shuhada street. How interesting it was, how paint made perhaps the most minute yet resolute distinction: of attributes designating allegiance of property.
    Crossing past the Bab al-Zawiya checkpoint, we saw an affecting scene: a uniformed IDF soldier kicking a ball around with three Palestinian boys, teasing them and messing with their hair as though they were brothers. It’s a picture I haven’t shaken.
    We continued our walk toward Beit Hadassah, the site of the first Hadassah hospital, which now serves as a museum chronicling the history of Jewish life in Hebron. The large, lighted timeline weaved along the vaulted ceilings of the restored building, which was painted in a vivid, Impressionistic style depicting vignettes of the city’s Jewish presence. We commenced the visit in a gift shop.
    As we discussed questions to ask our final speaker, Palestinian activist Issa Amro, the mid-afternoon call to prayer lilted through the winds of Hebron, distant birds chirping in accompaniment. With light dust blowing at our knees, the group trudged up the hill, with Issa’s home situated at its peak. Around the path sat a panorama of H1’s crowded buildings blanketing the swell of the landscape; there was the Palestinian-controlled section of Hebron, whose car horns and familiar city bustle rang through the air. 
    Upon crossing into the gates that bracketed his gardens, my peers’ first remarks were that of shock and disbelief: hanged on an olive tree was a hand-painted sign reading “FREE PALESTINE”, one of many throughout the property. The same sentiment, of course, was expressed through Issa’s decorative choices for his patio— where we all gathered— the wall of which being painted with quotes from the Geneva Convention’s Article 49 alongside a towering Palestinian flag. Directly behind my seat was a poster commemorating every victim of Baruch Goldstein’s terror attack in 1994— one of whom being a young boy which Issa had often played soccer with, before his death. The patio was caged in, with metal sheets pinned along its perimeter to prevent vandalism as well as further harassment.
    I hesitated to divert my attention away from Issa even to scrawl out notes. He was the most arresting and compelling speaker I had ever bared witness to, relating his experiences as a prominent and outspoken proponent of Palestinian human rights— from being physically beaten on multiple occasions by settlers and IDF soldiers stationed in the city alike— to being unlawfully arrested and detained many more times over. I believe his candidness, though, was what epitomized his ethos. 

    Openly expressing the brainwashing and manipulation he had experienced in adolescence, he then illustrated the obligation of youth to harness the critical access available to a world of resources and to educate themselves on both sides of any given issue, without permitting preconceptions to take root and inhibit progress. Issa later spoke of the crucial nature of nonviolent resistance and demonstration, for violence inevitably begets more violence. And what use is bloodshed, save to impede upon the dignity of man?
    Many of my friends and I shook his hand as we departed: an unbroken stream of “Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.”
    Walking along the largely empty thoroughfare to the bus, we had an impromptu meeting with an IDF officer named Elishai, who had been stationed in Hebron for the past few months. He gave brief insight into an average day for soldiers in the city: four hours of patrol, four hours of rest. Input, output. He fiddled a bit with the gun hanging loosely off of his right shoulder, an almost mindless underscore to the cordial exchange. I wondered if he and Issa had traded such pleasantries. 
    Shortly after, as we pulled out of Hebron on our bulletproof bus, we saw a group of young IDF soldiers and Palestinian teenagers walking toward one another. Then the bounce of a rubber ball. 
    Another soccer game had begun. 
    In reading the myriad plaques that glistered through the city, I kept seeing two words repeat themselves: חברון, and חורבן. The former, of course, is simply Hebron; the latter describes destruction. How poignant, I thought to myself, them being anagrams of the other. And how closely they seem to be related, despite their lack of a shared root: constituted by the same letters, the way in which they came together seemed to perpetually engender unrest, violence, and loss. Time and time again, חורבן  swiftly followed חברון: the slippery reflection of a funhouse mirror.
    Yet, laying in my bed, I was once again arrested by an image: of IDF soldiers playing with the Palestinian children. Gathered together, half a kilometer from stifling checkpoints. Despite artificial division, brothers with brothers. 
    After all, I’m told Abraham had two sons.”
  • Sunday, March 12

    Sophia K wrote about her experience: 
    “I woke up to my alarm ringing at 6:30 am and dragged myself out of bed. I was out for the free weekend so I needed to leave the apartment I was staying in at 7:10 am to make it to the Eretz Yisrael Museum in Tel Aviv on time to catch the bus back to Agron at 7:45. Luckily, I made it with 15 minutes to spare. After some delay we departed to meet the rest of the group. After reuniting with my friends who I hadn’t seen in what felt like an eternity but in reality, was only 3 days we lugged our suitcases to the bus and headed off. 
    To continue our many faces seminar, we ventured into the West Bank to Khaled Zakariya, a small Arab village in Area C to meet with a United Nations officer, Hamed, and an American volunteer, Amara. Hamed and Amara, told us about the many problems Palestinians face in Area C of the West Bank and their ideal vision of a two-state solution. Next, we went to Kenyon Harim for a pizzur lunch. I must say the Japan Japan sushi was not bad! With full stomachs we drove over to the Kibbutz Kfar Etzion to the audio-visual museum and watched a film about what happened to the kibbutz during the Independence War. Afterwards, we took a short bus ride to Oz VeGaon park to meet with Nadia Matar, a settler living in Area C of the West Bank. She informed us about the settler perspective of the conflict and her solution of a sovereignty plan where the West Bank becomes a part of Israel. The speakers we heard during the day gave us a broad insight into the varying opinions and living situations of the people who live here the history of Gush Etzion and the complexity of life here. 
    Next, we headed to check into our accommodations for the night in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. Following the long day we went back to our hostel for dinner. To conclude the day we met in small groups to debrief about everything we learned and heard for the day. We readied ourselves for a good night’s rest and another informative day.”
  • Wednesday, March 8 - Thursday, March 9

    Gabby wrote the update:
    “Yesterday, we started our morning a little later than usual and had a relaxing breakfast, and then got on the bus to go to Ein Raffa. There, we met Yasmin, a British woman who had converted to Islam in her 20s. She brought us to her house where we listened to her explain her path to Islam, as well as the rules and most important parts of Islam. We also got to meet her husband Mousa and son Ali, who brought us some delicious tea and crackers. After talking for a while, Yasmin brought us on a tour of her village, and we were able to see how big a role family plays in life in the village. It was really interesting to me to learn about the similarities and differences between Islam and Judaism, as well as to learn about how strong a role family plays in daily life as a Muslim. After the tour, we went back to Yasmin’s house to talk and ask more questions, because the more time we spent with Yasmin, the more interested we became, and more questions came up. While the whole morning was a highlight, an extra fun touch was getting to play with the baby sheep that Yasmin and her family were raising and definitely made the whole experience even more memorable. 

    After saying goodbye to Yasmin and the baby sheep, we got on the bus for a short ride to Abu Gosh. We went to a family-run restaurant with amazing hummus, and we all ate way more than our fair share. 
    After eating our body weight in food, we headed to Yad HaShmonah, a Messianic community. We got a tour to the community from one of the people who lived there, named Gershom. He told us about the history of the community and showed us some of the tools that were used in biblical agriculture, like grape presses and a threshing floor. At the same time, Gershom encouraged us to admire the beauty of the nature around us. We also got to ask him questions about life as a Jew who believed in Jesus. We learned a lot in just a short time with Gershom, and it was clear that had we spent more time with him, he could have spent all the time he could teaching us and it was special to see his love for the community and its history.
    We said goodbye to Gershom and Yad HaShmona and headed back to Agron.  We had a few hours of free time before dinner, and then after dinner we had the option of either joining a discussion circle with Omri about “Before the Law” by Franz Kafka, or watching a movie about an Ethiopian IDF soldier. I chose to be a part of Omri’s discussion group, and we had a great conversation about power, control, and bureaucracy. It was a pretty packed day, with a lot of different kinds of conversations and a lot of learning.

    This morning, we woke up earlier to pack up our rooms and check out. We had some time for breakfast, and then began our intro to the Many Faces section of Neshama by having a discussion about the West Bank. Rob explained the history of the area and showed us a lot of maps from various time periods, and then we discussed how we felt about Israel’s relationship with the West Bank and various proposed solutions to the current situation. 
    After our discussion, we took a quick break and were then able to talk to Rabbi Nava, who is the rabbi for the synagogue next to Agron. She talked about how she became a female rabbi, but also about how she went from being part of an ultra-orthodox community to a conservative one and the kind of community she wants to build. It was really interesting to hear about her experience finding the way she connected to Judaism best. 
    After our discussion with Rabbi Nava, we headed to the Haredi neighborhoods for a pizur lunch. We then went to the Belz Hasidic Synagogue and met with Yeheskel, who talked to us about the synagogue and about life as a Hasidic Jew. Once we left Yehezkel and the Belz Hasidic Synagogue, we had some time to express any thoughts we had about what Yehezkel had told us, and reflect about the past week. It was a long, packed week, but was it was nice to remember everything we did and the fun we had. 
    We then got on the bus and headed back to Agron, where we had a short but sweet (literally—she brought us candy!) surprise visit from Rabbi Kallush, and then split up to our different locations for the free weekend. While we won’t all be spending this Shabbat together, getting to celebrate with our host families is also exciting and I’m looking forward to more new experiences next week. Shabbat Shalom!”
  • Monday, March 6 - Tuesday, March 7

    Izzy wrote updates about Purim (Monday and Tuesday):
    “On Monday, we traveled to South Tel Aviv to learn about the refugee community there. Our guide Leilach told us that while refugees do receive a lot of benefits from the state of Israel, actually getting refugee status is quite difficult. Instead, most people are classed as asylum seekers and consequently receive far fewer benefits. We also saw how gentrified the neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv were becoming. Right next to a building that looked like it hadn’t seen maintenance since before I was born would be a building that looked like it had been built an hour ago. 
    After our tour, we met with Adam Achmud, who had fled Sudan in the midst of the Darfur conflict, and he shared his story with us. After living in Egypt for a few years, it became unsafe for him to stay in a country with a relationship with Sudan, so he made the difficult journey across the Egyptian-Israeli border. Once in Israel, he was frequently in an unstable situation, sometimes facing threats of deportation, with the Supreme Court being the main force protecting him and other asylum seekers. Adam explained to us that he is especially concerned now that the Supreme Court is under threat because of the reforms, since without the Supreme Court, asylum seekers are less protected. Adam is now a teacher, seeking a PhD, and a prolific writer. Talking to him was a wonderful experience, and I felt immensely grateful to hear his story.
    After we heard from Adam, we davened Mincha in the botanic gardens of South Tel Aviv and then got on the bus to go to Shuk HaCarmel.
    At Shuk HaCarmel, we had a pizur lunch and shopped for Gamad Anak (the Israeli equivalent of Secret Santa) as well as for other Purim preparations. It was a beautiful day, and Chava, Tali, and I had a great time exploring and people watching.
    After our time at Shuk HaCarmel was over, we boarded the bus to head back to Jerusalem. Once we were there, we had dinner and continued to prepare for Purim tomorrow. We’re all super excited for Purim tomorrow, but I think it’s also been a day of seeing so much apathy towards people in need that it was a little difficult to get into the joyous mood. Regardless, Purim in Jerusalem is sure to be a special experience.
    Chag Purim Sameach! Today was full of celebration and fun. After breakfast, we all finalized our costumes and put enough glitter on our faces that I will likely be finding glitter in my hair for the next month. 
    We then got on the bus to visit a senior citizens’ home. We sang and danced with them, and I talked to Anna, who after dancing with us more joyously than almost anyone else in the group, cried as she told me her story of survival during the Holocaust. Later, I learned that the only thing that makes her happy anymore is when young people visit, and I felt so glad that we had come and brought her what happiness we could.
    I also met Ezra, who used to be a chazan. He fell asleep a few times while I was talking to him, but when he woke up, he would smile, open his hands, look up towards the ceiling, and sing softly. When I spoke to him, I wasn’t sure if he could hear me all the time, but his smile told me that he understood. 
    After our visit to the senior citizens’ home, we had a break before we went to synagogue for Megillah reading. Then we once again donned our costumes and redid our makeup and loaded onto the bus. The Megillah reading was a lot of fun. Three members read the narration at once while other members of the synagogue read characters’ voices. Of course, there was a lot of noise whenever Haman’s name was read, and we all shook our groggers made of plastic cups and beans. One individual who will go unnamed did not have a grogger, and instead used their voice as a grogger, saying things like, “I don’t like this Haman guy!” and “Haman is stinky!”. It was a wonderful experience. After we left the synagogue, we headed back to Agron for our own celebrations.
    At Agron, we had dinner and then shared our gifts with each other. I would be remiss if I did not mention Ilan’s incredible gift of a head of cabbage to Daniel Schiffman, complete with it’s own Instagram account. Many tears were shed over such a thoughtful present. After presents, we preformed the skits we had prepared, which were based on our costumes. The topics varied from cats and Israeli snacks to plants and frogs. While everyone did amazingly, I think Omri’s musical performance blew us all away. 
    After our skits, we wound down the night and some of us went to bed. Other, more ambitious Neshamaniks (not me, I was tired) went out to celebrate Purim with the madrichim at a street party. Unfortunately, I cannot provide many details about this party, as I will definitely be asleep by the time everyone gets back, and I need to turn this summary in. Purim has been a wonderful experience, and I’m so glad we got to spend it in Jerusalem!”
  • Sunday, March 5

    Rachel wrote about Sunday's experience: 
    "After an intriguing and warm week getting to know Jerusalem, today was an exciting day. For the first time since we touched down in Israel, we were traveling to explore a different part of the country: Tel Aviv. Due to the fact that on na’ale there were rockets in Tel Aviv, this was many peoples’ first time ever exploring all the city has to offer.   
    After my room of four spent hours cleaning up the earthquake that occurred in our room, the morning was filled with suitcases flying every which way. We quickly ate breakfast, made sure we all got everything out of our rooms, turned in the keys, and then it was time to get on the bus! 
    Rob enthusiastically told us the schedule for the day and we only got more excited for what was ahead of us. The bus was filled with good vibes and fun music that got everyone singing along to. 
    We then arrived in Tel Aviv and began a history lesson of Tel Aviv through different foods and locations. The first bakery we went to had been there since 1879! This means it was here before Israel was even a state. The owners decided that the bakery will continue to live in the modern Jewish state, and respect the Jewish country by closing on major Jewish holidays to show coexistence and respect. We all munched on their well know Persian dessert named “sambusek”. It was delicious and something I had never tried before. 
    We then walked around old Jaffa further discussing how the big city of Tel Aviv came to be, and how gentrification is taking over making everything more expensive, consequently kicking out lower income families. 

    Our next stop was a very old church. The architecture was unlike any we saw in Jerusalem and the room was made for voices to collaborate and create a loud and beautiful sound. You can feel the history of Israel just through this one place. After that quick visit we sat in the shade for a while discussing the cause for the gentrification and flee of Arab families from Jaffa, bouncing questions off each other to gain better understandings. 

    We walked along the pretty Mediterranean Sea while taking pictures of the clear water that clearly reminded us, we aren’t at the Jersey Shore. 
    As the day progressed, we continued grubbing, switching between sweet and savory having no problem finishing all of the plates put in front of us. This was especially exciting for me because I am vegetarian and Tel Aviv is known as the most vegan friendly city in the world! As Israel evolves over the years, the variety of food increases drastically. Us going on our “food tour” throughout the day showed us many different foods that even people who consider Israel their second home have never tried. It proved how far the country has come. I enjoyed this because everyone was so excited for each stop anticipating the next thing we were going to put in our mouth. It was a positive and informative morning.  Some would even say it was bussin.  We then left Jaffa and head to the Tel Aviv beach to cool off from the hottest day us neshamaniks have experienced thus far.  We all took advantage of this opportunity and bonded in the clear ocean while throwing a frisbee, despite the sunset being covered by clouds. 
    To conclude our night, we headed to Serona market and had another pizzur dinner. (Never too much food)! Serona is a historical compound once filled with Germans. Eventually the location was taken over and turned into a military base up until around 20 years ago. Now it is a beautifully lit place filled with many different shops, restaurants, and desserts that we can enjoy. I ate wok to walk, my favorite restaurant to visit when in Israel. Today made me feel very grateful for all of the different foods that I was exposed to, as well as the excitement that continues to further bond our group today and every day."
  • Friday, March 3 - Saturday, March 4

    Sabrina shared her experience: 
    "I have gotten quite used to morning routines this far into the trip. Isabelle and Tali being my human alarm clocks, giving me an adequate amount of time to get ready, but me convincing myself time freezes this early in the morning, so I always end up fully getting out of bed with a good 7 minutes to get ready. Maybe a little inefficient, but it works. But alas, the day awaits for the exciting and unpredictable adventure, Neshamaniks will embark on today!  
    Emphasis on the unpredictable part, because today was filled with new scenery and discoveries of people’s cooking skills?! It started off with a drive to the Jerusalem Hills. Everyone was looking forward to our first hike of the trip. Frankly, I was just finally excited to be in nature without the constant worry of being late to something (don’t worry I am working on my time management skills). It was a nice and pretty easy walk through the trail, learning about shvil Israel (Israeli trails). There were a few out of breath moments (from walking uphill and of course looking at the views), but it was all worth it when we finally made it on top of the hill looking at panoramic view of the more “greener” side of Jerusalem. Staring out into the open valley of trees while soaking up a warm breeze had to be one of the most top tier feelings I’ve had so far on Neshama. There was one point during the hike where Rob told us to be silent for 30 seconds and listen to the naturistic sounds around us. Listening to the simple sound of birds chirping and leaves ruffling made me realize how we as people tend to always get caught up in stressful and busy moments, disregarding the solace the exists arounds us. This moment changed my mentality I want to have for the next few months—soaking everything in, even if it’s just as small as hearing flies’ buzz.  
    Once we made it to the camping ground destination, we started to prepare for our grade BBQ. Everyone was assigned different jobs, to ease the process. Special shout-out to Ilan, who gave a step- by-step demo of how to make pita the Israeli way. Elias was the grill master, cooking at least 100 burgers, while Shayna and Daniel used their camping skills to start a fire. It was a communal and fun as well as rewarding activity to do before getting ready for Shabbat!!  
    Our first Kabalat Shabbat in Jerusalem was super special. Getting ready for Shabbat while blasting Yeshiva Boys Choir, with my roommates will be a weekly ritual from now on. We sat outside singing and prayer, matching our nature theme for today. Kabbalat Shabbat was filled with Ruach and vitality, with everyone forming a dance circle every few songs.  
    Saturday morning, our grade went to the Synagogue attached to Agron. It had a “hippy” vibe, which, I guess fascinated our group. The rest of the day kind of flew by after the 3-hour nap I took and an activity our Madrichim lead titled “what is the protest about”. We learned the variety of reasons many Israelis are protesting against the government’s decisions. Shabbat was concluded by yet another energetic and graceful Havdallah. We even got to merge with the Lefell school (Schechter in Westchester) which was extremely fun and contributed to the energetic ambience our grade had already created. Later, we headed out to Ben-Yehudah Street for some much-needed Shawarma and shopping!! There was also a dance party some people in the grade went to happening right near the Agron, as the aftermath of a peaceful protest.  
    The last few days have been amazing, thrilling, breathtaking, and can’t wait to see what the next week has in store for us. We are looking forward to a fun-filled day in Tel Aviv tomorrow!!  
  • Thursday, March 2

    Tali wrote today's update:
    “For our first few days in Jerusalem, we have been exploring the Old City and the different religions and cultures within it. Today, we began with learning about Islam at Har Habayit, or the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock is located, among other mosques. We discussed why Har Habayit is a holy space in both Judaism and Islam, as well as controversies related to the space. When we went up the stairs to the Dome of the Rock, I was struck by the vibrant, detailed mosaics and the curvature in the architecture. Our journey in gaining the important understanding of how different religions connect to the same land continued when we met with Nahla, a Muslim woman, and Sister Rita, a Catholic nun. Hearing about their respective experiences living and working in Jerusalem was fascinating. Both emphasized the need for peace and love between neighbors. I hope that by talking with them, our group contributed to their goal of encouraging dialogue between religious groups in a mutually holy city. 
    After meeting with Nahla and Sister Rita, we spent some time in the Arab shuk before heading off to the Jewish Quarter for a pizzur lunch. From there, we visited the Temple Institute, which focuses on preparing for the potential building of the Third Temple in modern times. A young woman named Elisheva gave us an interesting and energetic tour, showing us reconstructions of objects and clothing items that were used in the Beit HaMikdash. After visiting the Temple Mount earlier in the day, where both temples once were, the history we learned regarding the Temple took on even greater importance.
    To top off the day, some Neshamaniks headed across the street from Agron to buy ingredients for tomorrow’s outdoor barbecue! We are all excited for tomorrow’s hike and for our first Shabbat in Jerusalem!”
  • Wednesday, March 1

    Grace wrote about todays experience; her summary is a reflection of how unique Jerusalem is, how it brings together ancient and new, noise and scilence, harmony and disharmony at once:  
    "Today was a day filled with lots of learning and fun! We started off the day by walking through the Mamila Mall to the Christian quarter of the old city in Jerusalem and visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which we learned is one of the holiest places for Christians to visit. There, we walked around the beautiful church and learned about the rich history of Christianity and even its connection to Judaism! Even though I am not Christian, it was so interesting to learn about another religion and make personal connections between myself and another religion. After this, we headed over to the Jewish quarter where we had a pizur lunch which is where we split into groups and have the option to choose a restaurant to buy food from. I got a burger from a restaurant called Burgers Bar and it was so good! Other people got Schwarma, falafel, and bagels. After lunch, we went to the kotel which was a meaningful experience. There, we wrote notes and put them inside the wall. After visiting the kotel, we went to Ir David (The City of David) where we learned about the beginnings of Jerusalem as a city. We were able to see ancient rocks dating back to years ago. My favorite part of Ir David was walking through the underground water tunnels where about half of the group decided to walk through in the dark, and the other half of the group decided to walk through with flashlights. We had so much fun in the tunnels. We were singing songs and learned the importance of communicating with one another while in uncertain circumstances. Following this, we went back to Agron where we had free time and dinner. In the evening, we had the option of attending an Israeli protest taking place close to where we were staying. I went to the protest, and it was a great experience. We were able to learn about the current political situation in Israel and the tension surrounding it through reading the many signs' people were holding and talking to other Israelis at the protest. I learned a lot today and am very excited for tomorrow!"
  • Monday, February 27 and Tuesday, February 28

    Sara wrote a reflection from Monday and Tuesday:

    “On Monday we ended our time in Poland at the Jewish Historical Institute. The Institute showcased information about the members of the Oneg Shabbat community. We then got to learn more about how Ukraine refugees have come to Poland and connected with the Jewish community there. After that we said our goodbye to Poland, our bus driver Sebastian, security guard Adam, and coordinator Ryfkah.

    On the plane I sat with Jadon and Sophie while we talked about what we learned and saw in Poland and what we were looking forward to in Israel! When we got off the plane and saw the sign that says 'Welcome' in English, Hebrew, and Arabic, it felt so comforting to finally be in the Holy Land! We loaded up the luggage on the new bus and our bus driver Yehuda drove us to the Agron Hostel. Being back at Agron made all of us nostalgic and brought back memories from Na’ale. Everyone went to their rooms to get settled. For dinner, we had a choice of either falafel and hummus or a burger. Then everyone got into bed and rested after an exhausting travel day. 
    Our first full day in Israel started off with a delicious breakfast in the Agron dining hall. We had a Neshama meeting to go over some information and to safely put away our passports. Our madrichim took us to a park nearby so we could have some goal setting and bonding time! 

    We came up with a list of group goals and expectations for Neshama. Lunch was back in the Agron dining hall. From lunch we boarded the bus to explore Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. Rob led us through multiple churches and taught us about Christianity. We visited the Dominus Flevit Church, the Grotto of Gethsemane, and the Tomb of Virgin Mary. It is important to learn about other religions that co-exist in Jerusalem. We walked the extremely steep Mount of Olives and learned about the history of the area and the Jewish cemetery. 

    Today we also had our first pizur dinner at Ben Yehuda Street. I enjoyed a falafel platter from Moshiko with some of my friends. We spent the rest of our free time walking around and exploring different stores. The night ended with a program about our personal connection to Israel led by our amazing madrichim and celebrated Sophie Fischer’s birthday! It was a great first day in Israel, and we all cannot wait for the many more to come.”
  • Sunday, February 26

    Elias wrote a powerful reflection of today’s visit to Auschwitz: 
    "Another early morning. We woke up at 6 am, prepared for yet another day of walking in the blistering cold. Unlike New Jersey, we witnessed snow here which consisted of the largest snowflakes I had ever seen. To be completely honest, Boaz, Sam, and I ended up waking late - just 30 minutes before our departure from the hotel this morning. While others may not feel the same, I strive to be on time and having to finish packing our bags, get dressed, eat breakfast, pack lunches, and load the bus in 30 minutes from opening my eyes to sitting ready to go on the bus certainly made me stressed. I was running around the breakfast area preparing my food, and I was nervous about being on time. 
    We pulled into Auschwitz-Birkenau in the gloomy, cloudy weather and all my stress from getting ready in the morning rapidly vanished as all of that became a distant focus compared to what we were about to experience. On the one-hour drive, we all enjoyed seeing the snow fall to the ground. As soon as we arrived, the snow began to dissipate and the sun finally poked through the clouds in the sky. The entrance was full of buses and various tour groups, which made me happy since I saw how many people were being educated about the horrible events that occurred during the Holocaust. Our tour guide was excellent. Even though we have spent countless hours in school learning about the Holocaust, she offered great information based on what we saw. She made an interesting point about how deliberate the Germans were with what information they released to the public. Contrary to popular belief, the tour guide explained that they actually made information about the concentration camps public. When being sent to a concentration camp, people believed they knew what to expect and had no idea about the worst that can happen. This is why we have many examples of what the labor sectors of concentration camps looked like via pictures but never any content about the gas chambers, since the Germans made sure to keep this a secret.

    To add onto this, we saw images of people disembarking the trains at Auschwitz-Birkenau, beaming with joy as they are reunited with their families and now they believe they will simply work together at this camp. The heartbreaking fact is, most of them had absolutely no idea what was to come. Since the gas chambers were kept so secretive, the people just didn’t realize they would be put to deaths only minutes after being reunited with their families. Most likely until the last second, they still thought they were just going to take a shower until they realized their fate in the final moments. 
    We walked into one of the ‘blocks’ at Auschwitz and saw pictures lined against two walls. Imagine 8x8 picture frames, five rows tall and stretching across an entire long hallway. Each person had a name below their picture, despite being given a number to replace their name once they arrived at Auschwitz. At first, I ran my eyes quickly along all the pictures as I felt overwhelmed by how many there were. Halfway in, I decided to go one picture at a time. I noticed when they were born, observing people both young and old. I also noticed the dates they were deported and the dates they died. Unfortunately, I noticed that many of these individuals died a month or so after arriving at Auschwitz although there were certainly others that survived longer. Every picture showed a person staring directly at us. I looked at some of these individuals right in the eye. Although they could not hear me, I said in my head to them, 'I will not disappoint you and all of us are here to forever remember the past.' 
    Auschwitz (Auschwitz I) and Birkenau (Auschwitz II) are actually entirely separate camps even though people commonly believe that there is just one ‘Auschwitz,’ which I initially thought as well. While Auschwitz was mainly comprised of military barracks which had already been built by the Polish Army, Birkenau was essentially entirely built during the war by prisoners since it was an expansion to Auschwitz I. Upon arriving to the camp and walking along the infamous train tracks, I was shocked by the vastness of the camp. The trees blended with the horizon in the distance, and I couldn’t believe this entire complex completely revolved around killing innocent people. As we walked around, it almost felt like we weren’t moving/making progress because we felt so small in such a large place. We could barely imagine how small one of the thousands of people felt like when living at Birkenau. To expand on the theme of vastness, we saw the exhibit that contained the largest book we would ever see. The museum partnered with Yad Vashem to create a catalog for the Jewish people who passed away during the Holocaust. We spent a long time trying to find our family names and these several feet tall pages filled with names made me realize how many lives were taken during these years. I realized how long it would take to read through all the names in this catalog versus how quickly the Nazis could mass murder the Jews in a gas chamber. So many lives were taken in such a short period of time. 
    The snow picked back up again. Our mispachah was preforming our Tekes (ceremony) by one of the destroyed gas chambers as we read aloud inspirational poems and sung several songs. As Sophie beautifully sang one song, I took a second to take in the surroundings. Trees stood still, and the buildings surrounded us. The rate of snowfall picked back up again. I felt like the countless snowflakes in the air represented a small fraction of the number of people who perished in the Holocaust. It’s hard to imagine six million people, but seeing the seemingly infinite amount of snowflakes surrounding us really put it into perspective. The snow continued to fall faster as we recited the Hatikvah as a grade and it felt beautiful to be surrounded by snow in this moment, relating it to all the souls of the people who passed away during this time. 
    You might have read Ilan’s summary the other day and seen him quote my observation from all of these experiences towards the end. While everyone gets emotional at these memorial sites for various reasons, I am always hit by one fact: No matter how horrible these sites we go to are, and no matter how dangerous it was for the people at the time, we can always walk away. At a concentration camp where 1.1 million people died inside, we can walk across the grounds observing the camp and we can still simply get off the bus, walk around and return. We can walk into gas chambers that were filled with Zyklon B gas and the blue stains are still all over the walls, yet we can walk into the room and walk out unharmed. We are incredibly lucky. Our ancestors persevered through these exceptional times so that we can see this concentration camp as a museum rather than ever having to experience it as reality. I will always get emotional coming to this observation and appreciating the fact that hundreds of thousands of people walked through the same places we did, yet could not make it out alive like we easily could."
  • Friday, February 24 and Saturday, February 25

    Sophie F. wrote reflections about Friday and Shabbat:  
    “Shabbat was an incredible experience. We started our Friday with a tour of different synagogues in Krakow. The architecture was stunning and transported us back to a time before the Holocaust. We then travelled the beautiful streets of Krakow and learned about Polish culture through our stomachs. Personally, I had some of the best pierogis of my life. 
    We prepared for Shabbat and made our way to the Krakow JCC where we sang Kabbalat Shabbat and prayed Ma’ariv. I felt incredibly connected to my grade and to my Jewish ancestors while singing along to my favorite Kab Shab tunes. At Shabbat dinner, we met the director of the Krakow JCC, Jonathan Ornstein, who told us about all of the work they do. We found out about a rally being held in the square in support of Ukraine. After dinner, we decided to join and it was a surreal experience. To be a part of something bigger than myself, my grade, and my community felt important and was one of the most memorable parts of this Shabbat. 
    On Saturday morning, our grade split in two. One group went to a Krakow synagogue for Shacharit, while another group stayed behind and spoke about Righteous Among the Nations, bystanders in the war, and morality as a whole. I was in the discussion group, and it was incredibly interesting to hear the many opinions of my peers and the madrichim. After our tefillah activities, the grade came back together to hear a story from the daughter of a woman who helped a Jewish woman, Helena, escape the Krakow Ghetto and survive the war. It was very moving to see the papers that saved Helena from the ghetto. 
    We ate a delicious Shabbat lunch and then made our way back to the hotel for some much-needed rest time. Books were cracked open, naps were taken, snacks were eaten, and many good conversations were had. 
    After a few hours of rest, we split into small groups and discussed God’s role in the Holocaust. This topic has always baffled me, so it was very interesting to hear what my friends had to say about the ways they view God, God’s role in life, and God’s role in the Shoah. 
    Then, one of my favorite parts of Shabbat arrived, Havdallah! Standing outside our hotel, with our arms wrapped around one another, singing songs and greeting the new week was truly magical. We ate a yummy dinner and went off to bed to prepare for an early Sunday morning. 
    Overall, our Shabbat in Krakow was peaceful, fun and full of bonding moments. I have never felt so connected to myself, my grade and my religion before. I cannot wait to make more memories in the weeks to come.” 
  • Thursday, February 23

    Daniel Shapiro wrote todays update.
    “Today we went to the synagogue in Lancut, and met Mirek, the Polish caretaker of the synagogue. His Hebrew was perfect and the fact that a non-Jew would dedicate his life to preserving the history of the Jews of Lancut at both times astounds me and warms my heart. Learning that we will be remembered even if there is no Jews to do the remembering is one of the best experiences I have ever had. As we entered the Beit Knesset in Lancut, the overwhelming sense of history hit me at all once. The tall cream-colored arches stretched up like they were gently sheltering us. The Aaron Kodesh sat pristine as we sang our tffilah. And as we chanted our Nigguns and danced around, arm in arm, I felt an immense sense of joy. The Jews had, for however briefly, returned to Lancut. There were passages of prayer written on the walls, and while most seemed to be restorations, there were a scant few that seemed to be much older. Perhaps they were original, perhaps they were older restorations. We may never know. But I choose to believe that those few prayers were original to the synagogue, and that our tffilah brought some joy back to the old walls. 

    Next we travelled to what I would consider the hardest part of our trip so far, Zyblitovska Gora, which was the mass graves of Jewish children. As we stood over the mass graves of 800 infants, and hundreds of other children the profound weight of the Shoah hit all of us. Almost all of us were in tears, and we all began to understand the true magnitude of the atrocities committed against the Jews. I was struck with the staggering unfairness of it, that these children would have their lives, their very potential cut short. In that spot, I heard birds chirping, and on one of the mass graves, mournful white flowers were poking their heads out through the dirt, which served as a small symbolic comfort. When we were at the child graves, I found a piece of cloth with a name written on it. Chana Aberstein. I want to believe this was the name of one of the children murdered there. I will remember that name for as long as I can, to attempt to honor the lives taken from our world. After processing what we had just experienced, we traveled to Krakow, and here we toured the city. Unlike a lot of the other cities we had seen so far (perhaps due to the weather) Krakow was alive, buzzing with hundreds of people walking to and from. We toured the castle of the city and got to freely walk around the town square. The architecture was magnificent, hundreds of years of style mixing in an enchanting wordless symphony. Today represented to me, a fundamental aspect of Holocaust education and remembrance. We are at once saddened and horrified by what has happened and at the same time delighted and uplifted by the fact that these people lived, and that we are here. I will never take for granted, for as long as I am on this Earth, that I am here.”
  • Wednesday, February 22

    Ilan wrote today's update:

    “Elias and I had only 30 minutes to get ready for breakfast. Thirty minutes to collect the dirty clothes (mostly mine) scattered aimlessly throughout our hotel room. Thirty minutes to brush our teeth - to shave and whine about the schedule. Thirty minutes to get dressed in clean clothes. Thirty minutes to discuss the idea of showering, then resolving at “nah." And 30 minutes to wipe the crust from our eyes and prepare for whatever fabulously depressing escapade Rob was planning for us that day.
    But instead, we listened to Rihanna.
    Now, if I’m being completely honest, I’m not a big Rihanna fan. I mean I’ll happily listen to her whenever she comes on, but I’m not actively seeking out her music. But Elias…Elias is a Rihanna zealot. Whether it was the hook, bridge, or Eminem’s lightning-fast verses, he knew every word. Treblinka hurt us both so much, causing us to relentlessly ask ourselves deep, dark, philosophical questions. But for now, everything was just Rihanna, and maybe a bit of Eminem, so all that emptiness we felt and saw at Treblinka melted away.
    I think Rob got it too. We started at Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, reciting together a page of Gemara in the synagogue once used to teach the students of Rabbi Meir Shapiro. “The walls can hear you," Rob told us. We argued through the intricacies of the text, saturating the dull vacancy left there in the long-abandoned synagogue. It acted as a breath of fresh air from the inhumanity we witnessed the previous day, and recharged us in advance of our next stop.
    The first thing you notice at Maidonick is that it looks like a concentration camp. The barracks lay out endlessly like fallen dominos, claustrophobic even from the outside. Rocky paths surrounded by electric fencing serve as the only way of getting from one place to the other.  Guard towers loom over the entire operation, silent and oppressive. In Treblinka, there was nothing, in Maidonick, everything. 
    The shower heads were rusted, and the walls were stained blue. Behind glass, pellets of gas sat stacked on top of each other, and I could feel my throat clench. It smelled like camp - the old, humid wood and dusty bunk beds, but the ceiling was dark blue, the walls pastel. We walked outside, and it was cold again. Shavings of ice melted on our skin and jackets, the path extending out past my comprehension into the clouds. We passed a small group of tourists as we made our way down to the clouds, and into another barrack. Daniel and Alec huddled with Rob, Strangely, they were smiling. 
    “He’s here," Daniel informed Rob. “Wow!” Rob exclaimed. “We just thought you should know," Alec added proudly. How can they be so apathetic? I thought. Did they not see the showers, the blue walls…? I approached Daniel and asked him what happened. “Jesse Eisenberg is here."
    Now, I’m not a big Jesse Eisenberg fan. I mean, I’ve never seen the Social Network, and even though I watched Now You See Me, I wasn’t really that impressed with his quirky performance. As Alec cleverly quipped on the bus later in the day, “Jesse Eisenberg is not an A-lister - but he’s definitely on a list." But I think that was enough for me. Actually, I think it was enough for all of us, as we spent the next 10 minutes packed together in  Barrack 3, giggling about the craziness of the situation. Rob asked us what our next move should be.
    “Should I say anything?” he asked between chuckles. “This is so wrong,” objected Sam and Daniel Shapiro with big fat smiles on their faces. “Okay, how about this?" Rob said. “I’ll go over there and tell him that my kids all recognized who you were and were wondering if you could explain to them what you were doing here.” Huddled there in Barrack 3, we all agreed that this was both the most appropriate and responsible course of action for us to take. Rob left, and when he came back, Jesse Eisenberg stood before us craving fans as a God. 
    You can ask your son or daughter how that interaction went. I’d love to elaborate on every minute detail of the actor’s quirky demeanor (how he awkwardly said, “see you soon” as his final words), but I still have half a day to cover, and Rob is not so happy that it’s taken me this long to finish what was supposed to be a short summary. 
    Next, we listened to Sophia and Talia tell us their families’ Holocaust stories in front of thousands of lost shoes of the dead. The beds behind Talia looked cramped, and even more so when Rob explained that nine people would have to sleep together in one bunk. Again, that nostalgic smell of camp.
    I remember that I became nauseous when I saw the pile of ashes. It felt too solid when everything else was so untenable and gaseous. I put my back to it and listened as some of my friends recited honoring texts. We were all freezing, but none of us felt like complaining. 
    In the town of Lejansk, we sang niguns by the grave of Rabbi Elimelech. The guys and girls stood on opposite sides of a Mechitza, re-enacting the Acapella battle scene from pitch perfect (it was very Jewish). 
    We ended our day at a memorial commemorating the Ulma family and the other righteous among the nation. Alec read us their story, and we had a long discussion about what it means to be a bystander. 
    On the way back to the bus from the dome of ashes, Elias said something to me: “What gets me is that we can just walk away." His eyes were red and distraught, and I could feel all his pain. But it kind of stuck in my mind: “What gets me is that we can just walk away." To be Jewish is to be eternally hurt. It means that you inherently have this dark part of yourself that’s always clinging to the left or right side of your brain. But to be Jewish is to also be a survivor. It’s that we’ve been given this chance to live, to love, and when we can, to walk away. We can go to a concentration camp and completely forget why we’re there. We can sit there in barrack 3 and lose ourselves to silliness. We can sing songs 20 feet away from a grave, and read Gemara, “the walls can hear you." The tragedy and beauty of being Jewish is that the walls are always stained blue, but Rihanna is on, so we’ll jam - even if it’s just for 30 minutes.”

  • Tuesday, February 21

    Sam reflected on his experience: 
    “The trees in Tykocin have no bark towards their tops, maybe because of the intense wind, and what wood lies under their gray exterior is a soft orange. It almost looks like a sunset is throwing light at them, regardless of the time of day. The noon-evening in all of its chilly beauty hovered dormant above us as we stood in a circle around a mass grave. The dissonance between setting and context was surreal.
    Thirty minutes earlier, we traveled by bus the same route that thousands of Jews had by Nazi convoy. We held our tongues for perhaps the first time since we arrived. A bit of sun shone through the clouds, which some of our ancestors weren’t able to see through the opaque walls of their train compartments.
    Right before we entered the forest on this path, I saw a dark-feathered bird glide towards the ground in a spiral so smooth that it almost appeared performative. I caught a glimpse of it on the ground, standing as if waiting for applause. We left it behind.
    Treblinka was our last stop before the hotel. The trees there, also stripped of their bark on top, swayed as if davening. The hundreds of stones which served to memorialize fallen communities and enclaves received these prayers without giving feedback.
    Before any of this, there stood an oft-used synagogue. It is now a museum, beautifully-preserved, holding no minyan but those from tour groups like ours.
    I am not someone who believes in ghosts, even if I know they exist."
  • Monday, February 20

    Chava wrote a reflection of their day in Warsaw:
    “We visited the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery, the Monument of Nathan Rapoport, the Nozyk Synagogue, and the Ghetto Heroes Monument. While much of what we see in Poland is surrounded by tragedy, the fact that we are able to see all of these sites are testimony to the Jewish community in Poland before, during, and after the Holocaust. The Jews that died were a wide range of people who all lived different lives. Visiting these sites is a saddening experience, but it also allows us to learn about the diversity in the Jewish community as well as how they showed resistance against a great disaster.”

Photo Albums

Israel - March 31

Neshama 31 - March 31

Israel - March 29

Neshama 31 - March 29

Israel - March 28

Neshama 31 - March 28

Israel - March 26-27

Neshama 31 - March 26-17

Israel - March 23

Neshama 31 - March 23

Israel - March 22

Neshama 31 - March 22

Israel - March 20

Neshama 31 - March 20

Israel - March 19

Neshama 31 - March 19

Israel - March 15-16

Neshama 31 - March 15-16

Israel - March 12-14

Neshama 31 - March 12-14

Israel - March 8-9

Neshama 31 - March 8-9

Israel - March 6-7

Neshama 31 - March 6-7

Israel - March 5

Neshama 31 - March 5

Israel - March 3

Neshama 31 - March 3

Israel - March 2

Neshama 31 - March 2

Israel - March 1

Neshama 31 - March 2

Israel - February 28

Neshama 31 - February 28

Poland - February 27

Neshama 31 - February 27

Poland - February 26

Neshama 31 - February 26

Poland - February 24

Neshama 31 - February 24

Poland - February 23

Neshama 31 - February 23

Poland - February 22

Neshama 31 - Febraury 22

Poland - February 21

Neshama 31 - February 21

Poland - February 20

Neshama 31 - February 20