• Hillel at Virginia Tech

Summer '18: Birthright Day 6

By: Penina Harte

Tuesday was a wonderful adventure-filled day with an array of emotions. We started the day off with a celebration of Jerusalem. We drove to a spot in the mountains with a perfect view of the city from afar. Even though I had been to Israel before, seeing Jerusalem from this angle was just as striking as I remember. We greeted the city with song and dance and prayer. A man dressed all in white with a hand drum strung over his shoulder joined us and led the group with energy and excitement. One of the guides uncovered a challah about 3 feet in length that was still warm and chewy for us to share, and a glass of wine to honor the treasured city (I can't deny the challah was a highlight :p).

After our celebration, we re-boarded the bus and made our way to the old city of Jerusalem. Dror, our guide, weaved us through the city, down narrow alleyways and stone-lined roads. The old city of Jerusalem is like nothing else I've seen anywhere else, an entire city made of stone. Stone buildings and roads and walls and stairs. Everything is so enclosed that I was almost relieved to exit the old city. I find it disconcerting to not be able to see what is around me, to not be able to see the ground beneath my feet or the mountains in the distance. To be fully blocked from the outside world.

When we reached the Western Wall, a quieter and more spiritual energy came upon the group. Each individual seemed to be taken aback by the experience of being there, a place that has meant so much to our people for thousands of years. We had thirty minutes at the wall and I decided to spend my time in silence. I had my written note in one hand and my other hand on my heart as I slowly approached the wall. I took my time observing those around me, watching the birds flying over head, and trying to get in touch with how I was feeling. When there was space, I stood before the wall and put my forehead against it. Hearing the whispered prayers of those around me was comforting. Even though I didn't feel God, I felt a connection to my people and to my heritage. And, later that evening when reflecting on the day, I was happy to hear just how many of my peers and friends did feel a connection to God, and did feel like their prayers were being heard.

We split off for lunch at the Yehuda Market, a well-known open-air market in Jerusalem. Every step came with a whiff of something new, one step welcoming the smell of fresh fruit or vegetables, with the next step forcing the ever-encompassing smell of fresh fish into my nostrils. Luckily, whenever I passed by a fish stand, I could just take a few steps further to avoid the smell and instead inhale something far more pleasant like falafel or chocolate or fresh plums.

Our final stop of the day was Mount Herzl, Israel's National Cemetery. Dror guided us through rows of identical tombstones honoring fallen IDF soldiers, and then to a section of the cemetery dedicated to lone soldiers. We learned some stories of these soldiers, and then our Israeli soldiers/friends each stood by a grave and taught us about the human being buried beneath. Maya told us the touching story of the death of a lone soldier and the synchronicity of meeting this soldiers parents when honoring their son at his grave a few years earlier. Many of us were hugging each other and tearing up. It's amazing the love and support that can form in just a few days of knowing each other.

When we finally got back to the hotel that night, we were all very drained. We had the opportunity to have a night out in Jerusalem, but I chose to stay in to get some rest. Overall, it was a beautiful day. A day filled with tears of sadness, tears of excitement, and at other times, tears from feeling a connection to something far bigger than ourselves, tears of connection to a painful yet powerful history, tears of connection to the Jewish people.

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