Birthright-Mayanot, Bus 357

Summer 2011

Follow BU students as they embark on their first trip ever to Israel on birthright this summer!

Day 6: “Pumping through the heart of Israel”

There’s an episode Friends that takes place in real time, in which the crew is desperately struggling to get ready in time for a Paleontology dinner in which Ross is getting honored. At one point, Phoebe is noshing on some hummus, where she spills a glob of it on her dress. As she put it, “I got the hummus! I got the hummus!” Well folks, today, I got the hummus. More on that later.

So anyway, here we are. Jerusalem. After 20 years, 10 months, and four weeks, I finally made it. The heart of Israel, the heart of Judaism, the holiest place in the world. If my language seems all too grandiose to you, then I’m doing my job. “Grandiose” seemed to be the theme of the day, and it started right from the top. About five minutes before our first destination, bandanas we had been carrying, whose purposes were shrouded in mystery, made their debut, and were used to blindfold us. With some careful help from our advisors and soldiers, we were led out from the bus, on a 2 minute-walk, and after a few words about the city of Jerusalem, Ronen told us to remove our blindfolds. And there it was. Standing on a hill just south of the city, we got a panoramic view of the entire city, the same view Abraham saw, just before taking his son Isaac up to be sacrificed. All he saw was mountains and desert, but we got something a little different. It was a picturesque moment that none of us are soon to forget.

After soaking in the view for a little bit, we made our way to the Old City. We trekked through its alleyways, and in a day full of grandiose moments, we emerged at the Western Wall. As per custom, men and women separated, and we made our way up. You’ll get some different perspectives from both sides of the wall from guest columnists soon, but for now, all you have is me.

This was a special, special experience. All the men donned tzfillin-the first time I had done so in my life; it couldn’t have been more appropriate-wrote our prayers down, recited the sh’ma, various psalms, and each went about our own unique way of placing our prayers in the wall.  I don’t think I’m going to return from this trip with a religious revelation, completely changing the way I practice my religion, but there’s no denying that this was a special, holy experience.

After taking it all in, we got some photo opportunities, reunited with the ladies on the plaza, and celebrated the B’nai Mitzvah of Dan, Paul, Jamie, and Jessica, as well as the giving of Hebrew names to Kat, Sam, Izzy, and Jordana. It was an awesome moment for them, and for the rest of us. We got to celebrate with song and dance right outside the wall. Some bystanding Israeli soldiers even joined us, which was a bunch of fun. Hopefully we can get one of the new Bar or Bat Mitzvah to write a guest post to give you some better insight.

We toured a little bit more throughout the Old City, checked out the ruins of the southwest end of the temple, and got some time to stroll about the Old City for lunch and shopping.

Oh, right, about that intro from before. So me, Ethan, Andrew, Chicago Rachel, Jen Goldstein, Alecia, Shir, and Rabbi Levi went for lunch. It was all fun and games, until I learned the hard way that the laffa surrounding my shwarma madness wasn’t wrapped as tight as I thought. As soon as I bit into the delectable goodness, a stream of creamy hummus made its way onto my white khaki shorts. There was no club soda or Tide To Go in sight. I thought back to the plight of Phoebe Buffay. She opted to cover the stain up with a Christmas ornament. I don’t know many things, but I can be fairly certain that wasn’t an option for me.

I sucked it up, finished my meal, and made my way about the shops. Mom and dad, rest easy, I got little ditties for each of you. Alex, stand by. Yours is coming soon, I promise.

We finished up in the Old City, headed back to the hotel for a Taste of Jewish Learning with Rabbi Braun, where we dabbled in a little lesson in companionship, and made our way to where we are now, on the bus to the Taglit Mega Event. I’m from Plainview, NY, and I go to Binghamton University, so when I was told this is going to be the biggest gathering of Jews I attend in my life, I wanted to retort. I’d probably lose, though. All things aside, we’re all pretty excited for the event. Rumors of Matisyahu, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Lou Bega, and Los Del Rio performing at the event have all been circulating, but they all seem to be as true as, well, something that isn’t true at all. (I tried to think of something to complete the simile, but nothing came to mind. Sorry).

Alright, we’re parking, so I’ve gotta go. Laila Tov! 

Haz P 01 

Haz P 02 

Haaz P 03 

Haz P 04 

Haz P 05

Haz Group 
at Haz Promenande 

 Girls at Wall

Guys by wall 

BM 01 

BM 02 

BM 04 

BM 03  

BM 05 

BM 06 

BM 07 

BM 08 

BM 09 
Bar / Bat Mitzvah at the Kotel

 Shwarma in the Laffa
The Shawarma in the Lafa 

Taste of Jewish Learning  

Mega Event 
The Mega Event

Day 5: Living and Learning in Tel Aviv

When we last spoke, Mayanot 357 was fresh off of a night out on the town in Tel Aviv. After a long night of dance and drink, the only viable solution was to spend a cool hour in the morning on the beach. The beaches of Israel’s Mediterranean coast are a far cry from my stomping grounds, Tobay Beach. I mean, they both contain mostly Jews, but that’s about as far as the similarities go. The water was a deep, deep blue, and the waves crashed with a consistent calmness. Some were swimming, tanning, chilling out, maxing, relaxing all cool, and taking it easy at the Mediterranean Sea. As this trip goes though, we had to rush out from the beach, check out of the hotel, and make our way into Tel Aviv.

Our first destination in Israel’s bustling metropolis was Independence Hall, the site of the conference that declared independence for the state of Israel on May 14, 1948 (as if I needed to make it clearer as to why it’s called Independence Hall. Get a grip readers! I don’t need to spell it out for you!)

We sat in the very same room-a converted art gallery-that independence was declared, listened to an audio clip of an uber-emotional David ben-Gurion, and sung along with the meeting’s rendition of Hatikvah. I know it was Memorial Day back in the U.S., but in our temporary home, it was all about Israel, though when it finally hit our still jet-lagged heads that it was Memorial Day back in the states, we broke out into a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner on the bus.

After Independence Hall, we made our way to a marketplace in Tel Aviv where we got to eat and shop for a few hours. Today for lunch, I went with schnitzel. I almost opted out and fell back on some falafel, but the cashier advised me to stick with the schnitzel. I think I made a good choice. Afterwards, I made my way about the marketplace, looking for gifts for my family. Ben, if you’re reading this, then congrats! You were the first one to get a souvenir from me. Wear it proud at Fredonia next year. You’ll be a baller. Mom, dad, and Alex: stay posted.

Rabin Square and Yaffo rounded out our afternoon in Tel Aviv. We learned all about the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, a little bit about the political system of Israel, and caught some incredible panoramic views of Tel Aviv, Yaffo, and the Mediterranean Sea. I have this weird fascination of seeing the conglomeration of ancient and modern architecture, and sitting atop a hill in Yaffo, taking in the view of ancient and brand new cities alike was like eating a satisfying meal.

And finally, after we couldn’t stay awake any longer, we hopped on the bus and headed eastward for Jerusalem. Our hotel is on the outskirts of town (I think) and the digs are, well, interesting to say the least. I’m in no place to complain about the hotels on a free trip, so I’ll wrap this part up now. The hotel had wi-fi. Let’s focus on that.

The night consisted of two activities with our friends from Lehigh and U of Colorado on Mayanot 358. We first had a small information session about signing up to become bone marrow donors through the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation. We even got an opportunity to register if we so choose, which I did. I’m a frequent flyer at the NY/Penn Blood Services, so if I’m giving blood, why not give a little more, right?

The second activity of the night was a talk with Neil Lazarus about the current state of politics and goings-on in the Middle East. Revolutions, Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and Israeli/Palestinian conflict were the talk of the night. Lazarus, a British-born Israel citizen, was a charismatic, funny, informed guy who definitely enlightened a whole bunch of us, however tired we may have been. The night rounded out on the hotel’s patio, where we mingled with some students with another Mayanot group, most of whom were from Washington University in St. Louis.

Depending on when this gets posted and how the time difference works out, today (May 31st) is Kat’s 22nd birthday! Happy Birthday to Kat! I know I said for Alexa’s birthday, that there was no better way to spend it than a night out in Tel Aviv, but a trip to Jerusalem’s Old City and the Western Wall might put up a pretty good fight.

Next time, in Jerusalem! 

Hall of independence
at Hall of Independence

Jaffa 01 

Jaffa 02 

Jaffa 03
at Jaffa

Kikar Rabin
at Kikar Rabin Square

Day 4: Finishing up in north country with a new cast of characters

Well, we had a real cushy gig at the King Solomon Hotel in Tiberias: big rooms, outdoor patio, grassy knolls, bountiful food, and a panoramic view of the Kinneret. It was fun while it lasted, but the show must go on, and the trip must proceed. So yesterday morning, we packed our bags and said goodbye to Tiberias as we shipped up north for a day that was incredibly fast-paced, and certainly kept us on our toes. Click on Images to enlarge 

I know I said previously that lunch was the most anticipated part of our trip. That might have been a fabrication, so I apologize. But what actually might have been the most anticipated part of our trip happened yesterday morning, when we were finally accompanied by our eight Israeli soldiers. Esti, Bar, Shir, Sara, Idan, Raz, Hagar, and Yuval, soldiers from all branches of the Israeli military, from all across Israel, joined our crew with just as much excitement to meet us as we did to meet them.

We headed up towards the Golan Heights near the Syrian border for an ice breaker with our new friends, and had a short hike to get all of us sleepyheads going for the day. And not that I’m envious of the plight of the characters from my beloved TV show Lost, but all these hikes through valleys, up mountains, and across creeks makes me feel right at home with Jack, Kate, Sawyer, and the rest of the gang. But no smoke monster for us.  This Israel, not “the island.”

After the hike, we made our way to a kibbutz on the Lebanese border and listened to Arie-an American-born Israeli citizen of 50 years-talk about his experiences in the Israeli army, on the kibbutz, and his feelings on the many political and religious conflicts Israel has endured-and is still enduring. Arie was nothing if not incredibly passionate and earnest in his beliefs. I would be lying though if I said his speech wasn’t divisive. After having chatted with one of our soldiers, Shir-someone who has certainly been closer to the action, and has a deeper understanding of it than me-described Arie as a “radical,” though she undoubtedly agreed with many of the basic Zionist ideals Arie conveyed, as did the rest of us.

We also received a treat from Ronen, as he shared with us two stories from his 12-day mission into Lebanon during the Second Lebanese War in 2006. We knew of “Ronen the Tour Guide,” but here we got insight into “Ronen the Soldier,” and “Ronen the Family Man.” He stressed how different it is to be a soldier returning to a family, rather than to a solitary life. And after his 12-day tour in 2006, he returned home to his wife and newborn daughter.

Coming down from the mountaintop kibbutz, we stopped for lunch in a mall. I figured to keep an alternating schedule of shwarma and falafel, so I opted for falafel at this meal. Probably not the best falafel I’ve had, as some of the soldiers were describing it as “mall food.” It seemed to make sense. It was the Panda Express of falafel, I suppose. However, I heeded my parents’ suggestion and had my first dabbling in Aroma via an iced cappuccino, which was a cool, soothing pick me up to carry me over through the rest of the day.

We travelled a few more minutes after lunch to the Jordan River for a late afternoon raft ride. We sailed down the river amongst each other, some locals, and another birthright group from the University of Maryland. It was more of a lazy river than a rapids ride, but fun all the same. We also got a little tongue tied when we had some Jordans pushing Jordans into the Jordan, but I’m pretty sure we got it all
ironed out.

Though, the three hour bus ride to Tel Aviv in a damp t-shirt and air conditioning wasn’t the most pleasant trip in the world.

Upon arriving in Tel Aviv-or a few minutes outside of Tel Aviv, rather-we quickly had dinner, put our hot pants on, and the whole group headed to a bar/club in Tel Aviv to drink a little drink, dance a little dance, and have a good night out. It was a fun time, but the highlight for me didn’t come until the trip back to the hotel, where we saw Ethan fall victim to some false idol worship, anointing Rabbi Levi the messiah. Belligerent? Maybe. Loyal? Undoubtedly.

The writing of this post was scattered throughout today (Monday), as I’ve been writing these on the bus and our rides today have only been short trips throughout Tel Aviv. A full recap of today should be up eventually, but you’ve gotta give me time to enjoy my time in Israel before I write about it (not that I’m bitter or anything).

The heart of the trip is just around the corner. We head to Jerusalem tonight, and while our crew of lazybones and sleepyheads are itching for the pace of this trip to slow down, I’m not counting on it.



Banyas 01 

Banyas 02 

Banyas 03
Hike at the Banias river 

Misgav 01 

Misgav 02 

Misgav group 
At Kibutz Misgav Am

Night out tel Aviv 01 

Night out tel aviv 02 
On the way to the Night Out!

Night out TA 03 

Night Out TA 04 

Night Out TA 05 
Night out in Tel Aviv!  

Day 3: Shabbat at the Sea of Galilee

 Boker Tov! Day 4 is underway, and don’t for a second think that I was going to rob you of our first Shabbat experience in Israel. We’ve been busy since havdalah, so I haven’t been able to sit down with a computer, but here I am, ready to give you a full report.

Imagine a Shabbat like any other Shabbat. Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Z from Mayanot 358 led a short service in prayer, song, and dance. Pretty standard, right? Now, make the backdrop a sunset over the Galilee, and a glistening Kinneret. It was pretty awesome, and although we were all pretty hungry, I think we were all able to really appreciate it. They don’t do Shabbat like that in the States. Maybe they’ll start. Who knows?

Services finished up, we had a festive Shabbat dinner, partook in some more ice breaker activities, and enjoyed a cool Shabbat evening out on the patio of our hotel. Fortunately for us, we got to sleep in, hoping to rid ourselves of the jet-lag that’s been plaguing us since our arrival. That still remains to be seen, but since we’re about to go on another hike, we’ll find out soon enough.

Most of Saturday was spent relaxing out on the hotel patio, tanning, reading, talking joking, and a bunch more “ing” words that I can’t think of right this moment. In the early evening, Ronen led us on a walking tour of the city of Tiberias, whereupon we learned about Israel’s four holy cities (Jerusalem, Tzfat, Chevron, and Tiberias), and even met some locals.

Note: Talking to some 12-year-old Israeli boys and girls across a language barrier is pretty difficult, but just as fun as you think it’d be.

So we returned to the hotel, freshened up, had a small Havdalah service to commemorate the end of Shabbat, and made our way to “downtown” Tiberias for a dinner of salad, pasta, and pizza. The area of Tiberias we went to was a boardwalk-style pier on the Kinneret, full of eateries, shops, bars, clubs, and things of the sort. The street was lined with hustling magicians-Jordan Waldman thought he knew how to play the game well, but a local advised him against it; he still holds to it that he wouldn’t have lost any money-and freelance guitarists. Some of us got some fro-yo (raspberry for me), and mingled with some other birthright groups. A fun night overall.

After a good night’s sleep (for very few of us), we’re back on the road with our brand new guests, Israeli soldiers. Today looks to be an eventful day of hiking, rafting, a visit to a Kibbutz, and night out on the town in Tel Aviv. Keep checking back for updates, as the trip is sure to pick up.

And one more note, it’s Alexa’s 20th birthday! I can’t really think of a better way to celebrate your birthday than a night out in Tel Aviv, so it’s sure to be a fun day for her and the rest of us. Until next time, Shalom!

Day 3: Some photos

Full report of the past day and a half to come, for now-several photos of tonight's outing:

 Click on images to enlarge

Tayelet 01 

Tayelet 02 

Tayelet 03
Enjoying dinner at the Dairy restaurant at the lake Kineret Boardwalk

Binghamton Reunion
Spontaneous Binghamton meet up!

Day 2: How we learned to stop worrying and love Kabbalah

Scroll down for photos

Our first day brought us to Miron for a little hiking, and to the city of Tzfat for a lesson in Kabbalah, a trip to the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue, our first bites of authentic Israeli shwarma and falafel, some shopping, and for a few of us, a trip to a mikvah.

The first lesson in hiking up Miron with Mayanot 357 is to wear a hat. I mean, it’s probably important for anyone under the powerful Israeli sun to wear a hat, but they’re not running the risk of being singled out by our guide, Ronen. Take a comedian, and make him one of those comedians that loves to embarrass members of his audience. Now, give him a deep knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, the land of Israel. Here you have Ronen. He’s pretty witty, and pretty sharp, so just wear a hat and stay on his good side.

The hike itself provided some amazing views of the outskirts of Israel’s northern border. Picturesque mountainsides of Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan caught all of our eyes and camera lenses. We were even able to spot some snow-capped mountain tops in the distance. Considering the heat, I was all game for going skiing or sledding.   Though, the hike was certainly not a bad way to start our trip.

After the morning hike, we hopped back on board our bus and headed for the holy city of Tzfat. Our first excursion in the hillside village brought us to the workplace of artist-and Detroit import-Avraham Loewenthal. Avraham showed us a few of his pieces from his Contemporary Kabbalistic Art Gallery, and elaborated briefly on the teachings of Kabbalah, and how he went from being Robert, a student at the University of Michigan majoring in psychology, to Avraham, Israeli citizen, father of three, student of Kabbalah and art. It’s hard to paint a picture of Avraham’s unbridled enthusiasm for Kabbalah to those who’ve never met him in person. His impish giddiness over his art and Kabbalah got us all enthused. It’s no coincidence his artwork became a popular purchase for most of us on the trip.

Upon leaving Avraham’s gallery, we made our way briskly to the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue, and learned (briefly) about the religious history of the city of Tzfat and the Ashkenazi synagogue with some Sephardic flare. Before we were ushered out of the synagogue-they needed to prepare it for Shabbat-Rabbi Levi talked with us about realizing and discovering the deeper sides to people in our lives, the parts of them we might not know much about. It’s an important lesson, considering there are still plenty of us on this trip still forming our first impressions of each other. While ten days doesn’t seem like too long a time to discover the “deeper” side of 38 other people, I’m going to try as hard as I can. I hope. We’ll see.

Next was the most hotly anticipated part of the day, perhaps of the entire trip thus far: lunch. We had some authentic Israeli shwarma and falafel, and for all of us, it was a warm welcome to the culinary delights Israel has to offer. Personally, I had shwarma with the works, a coke, and a mango slushie. Alright, I gotta stop going on about lunch, I’m getting pretty hungry and we’re still a few hours off from dinner.

Ronen proceeded to take us on a small tour of the city and gave us some time to shop around. If my family is reading this, I want to apologize. I didn’t shop for you. That having been said, I didn’t shop at all. Rabbi Levi, our student leader Robbie, a few others, and I went to the local mikvah and had our first “When in Rome” moment, spiritually cleansing ourselves before Shabbat amongst the Tzfat city dwellers. So, sorry mom and dad, I didn’t get you any souvenirs yet, but I think my alternative gives me a free pass. After all, it was a pretty cool experience.

And here we are, back on the bus heading back towards our hotel in Tiberias for Shabbat. I’ve got the Kineret to my left, a bunch of sleepyheads to my right, and a whole bunch of excitement right here to see what the Sabbath in Israel is going to be like. I’m sure it won’t disappoint. Until next time. Shabbat Shalom!

 Click on images to enlarge  

 On the bus 02

on the bus 01 

mt miron 01
Ascending Mt. Meron

Mt Miron 02
The view from Mt. Meron

Tzfat 01 

Tzfat 03

Touring Tzfat

At the Mikvah & Ari's resting place

Avraham L
Kaballah Artist Avraham Levental

Ari Shull
In the Ari's Synagogue

YAY! We got internet!

So, finally after attempting many different wireless hot spots (due to a malfunction in the wireless modem we have.....) we finally tracked down a reliable internet connection. So, now Jordan can resume with his blogging and we have lots o photos from the last few days.

Sorry folks for the delay, if you were wondering why there has been no update until now - that is why....

-R. Levi

P.S. It was awesome to meet up with other Binghamton students [that are here in Israel on various trips] tonight at the Tayelet in Tiberias, a great treat for all BU students on our bus and for all of us!  Full photos and report to come.

Day 1: “Making a first impression, again, and again, and again”

Well, here we are. Mayanot 357 has touched down in the land of milk and honey. You wouldn’t be able to tell by our jet-lagged appearances, but excitement is brewing amongst all 40 of us about finally making it to Israel.

That having been said, the 10-hour plane ride from JFK to Ben-Gurion was no Sunday drive. While some of us may have gotten a nice chunk of sleep aboard the flight and are decently coherent, I’m still unsure about what day of the week it is. Wednesday? Thursday? Friday? Your guess is as good as mine.

Regardless, we all made it here on what was a peaceful flight, and we would’ve been unloading in Tiberius, but due to some issues with Rabbi Levi’s computer and my inability to finish this post last night, we are actually eating breakfast at our hotel, ready for our first full day in Israel.

It’s a funny thing about first impressions, because you always seem to get more than one. I thought our meeting back in Binghamton was my first impression of everyone in the group. Then we had another orientation at JFK. And another at our hotel here. But I think I can confidently say that the first impression grace period is over, and I also think I can say with confidence, that Mayanot 357 scored a pretty awesome bunch of students and staff. A bunch of us were hanging out at the outdoor hotel bar last night-don’t worry mom and dad, we were being responsible young adults-and I think we all collectively realized that this is exactly the group of people we want to be with, and that our next 10 days here are going to be some of the best of our lives. Okay, I’m done being cliché. For now.

My fellow bus-mates weren’t the only thing to make a first impression on me. There is of course, the land of Israel itself. While we haven’t gotten too many glimpses of it in the daytime yet, I must say I’m excited to see what the country has in store for me. 

Okay, now I’m done being cliché. I promise.

Airport 01 

Airport 02 
Moments before boarding the flight at JFK

“it’s about time”

A few weeks ago, as my friend Alexa and I left Birthright orientation, we found ourselves in a pickle. We had a test the next day that needed studying for, but we weren’t really in any place to do so. We were simply too excited. Well, Alexa was having trouble breathing and needed to call her parents, I was just excited.

We haven’t gotten the grades back for that test, but they probably won’t be good.

But that won’t really matter, at least in the long run. What will matter though, is our impeding trip to Israel. In ten days, El Al Flight LY008 takes off from JFK, headed for Tel Aviv, and I think it’s safe to say that all of our summers are going to get off to a pretty amazing start, though that’s something I can’t really overstate.

All of us have different reasons for going to Israel. For some of us, it’s been a desire since we were young. For others, it might just be something we were told to do by friends and family. Personally, it’s become more of an “it’s about time” kind of thing. My older brother went on birthright. Then my parents went on adult birthright. Then my younger brother went with a URJ camp program. Now it’s my turn.

While going to Israel is certainly going to mean something pretty special to me and my sense of place in the Jewish community, perhaps the biggest impact it has will be on my connection with my family. When all of us have that one thing in common, the fact that we all made that pilgrimage to Israel, it’s going to mean something really important for all of us.

But for now, I guess I just have to wait out these next 10 days as patiently as I can. Luckily for me, and probably many of my bus-mates, finals and papers and studying will take our mind off the excitement for a little while, but you can bet it’s only a matter of time before me and everyone else starts to feel how Alexa did that night of orientation.

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