A Reporter's Birthright Blog
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Cleveland Jewish News reporter Amanda Koehn is a participant on the Summer 2017 Cleveland Community Birthright trip. Check out her travel blog below. For more information about Birthright, contact Matt Newman at email@example.com or 216-593-2880.
by Amanda Koehn
Hi everyone! You probably know my name from writing for the Cleveland Jewish News as a Staff Reporter. What I’m working on now is a little different, because I’m about to go on a Birthright Israel trip.
For those who don’t know, Birthright is a program that gives Jewish adults who are under 27 years and who don’t live in Israel, a free organized trip to Israel. The purpose is ensure Jewish continuity and help young people feel connected to the Jewish state. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey among American Jews showed that while more than half of American Jews age 65 and older agreed that caring about Israel is essential to their Jewish identity, the percent decreases as age brackets decrease, with 32 percent of American Jews under 30 saying that caring about Israel is essential to their identity. So Birthright aims to change that.
While there are many options for Birthright trips, depending on your interests, age and location, as well as several trip organizers, I chose a Cleveland community trip, so I won’t be the only local young person there. And full disclosure: I will be traveling with trip organizers from the Jewish Federation of Cleveland – which I often cover for the paper.
I like the idea of Birthright because I don’t have to plan anything – the trip organizers and tour guides do it all. Seriously, I read the pamphlet I got at an orientation, packed up some stuff, skimmed a slew of emails from trip organizers, and that’s it.
Hi From Israel: Days 2 and 3
Shalom! I think where we left off I was riding down to Beit Shean- Cleveland's "sister city." We spent the last two nights there and traveled around northern Israel during the day. Now we are on the bus again, headed south to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Yesterday we headed north to Tzfat, which is sort of an artist's/Kabbalah city. It's also super touristy and there were several other Birthright groups around. We heard from a couple artist/Kabbalah experts and then shopped around for art, jewelry and ate these delicious crepe-type wraps called a lachuch.
Afterwards we headed to a winery on the way back to the hostel we are staying at.
Amiad Winery makes wines out of what they call "everything besides grapes." We tried some wines made out of passionfruit and dates (I think) and a chocolate liquor. I bought some chocolate liquor to take home and I'm not planning on sharing it. L'chaim!
And last night we went to dinner at a Beit Shean home for an Iraqi-style dinner. It was lovely. I found out the chef for the night I actually met previously at a Jewish Federation of Cleveland dinner in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood of Cleveland, which I was covering for the Cleveland Jewish News. Which is interesting, because the next day (or today) we went to this school in Beit Shean, Youth Futures, to hang out and garden with the kids there. There I met another woman who works at the school who I had met at a program in Cleveland a few months ago, which I was also covering for the CJN. So it's pretty cool to have met these folks in Cleveland and then see them again across the world in their home country!
One thing that's struck me is that we see other Birthright groups everywhere. I wonder what Israelis think of these random, Hebrew-deficient people roaming around everywhere. They pay for part of Birthright with their taxes, so they must like the push it gives to tourism, but I also know what it's like to live in cities with lots of tourists and know how annoying they can seem. I guess I'll have to ask the group of Israelis who just joined our group for the next few days! They are around our ages (22-27), and many of them are in the Israel Defense Forces.
Anyway, we just went on a swimming adventure which was great because it was very hot today (around 92 degrees and a dry heat). Now we are off to Tel Aviv!
Hi From Israel: Days 5-8
Hi From Israel: Days 9 and 10
Hi! Full disclosure: I’m writing this post at my desk at the Cleveland Jewish News, post-trip. The last few days were so jam-packed I didn’t have time to update!
So yes, as I mentioned in my last video, our Birthright group attended the “Mega Event,” which thousands of Birthright participants attended to get us all in the same place for one night. It included dancing, a concert and a short speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was fun, but tiring. At the end of the event our group joined together as quickly as ever to be the first group to leave (the line we would have had to wait in for buses to get out did not sound appealing to us).
Anyway, the next day (Monday, June 26) we went to Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery. Among those buried there are former Israeli Prime Minster and President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (who was assassinated in 1995) and many IDF soldiers who died fighting. The Israeli members of our Birthright group gave talks about soldiers who died, which made the deaths seem more personal. Afterward we had a slightly more uplifting experience at the popular Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. I love going to markets when traveling and think it’s a great way to see local cultures. We only had an hour, so I booked it from place to place, overpaying, I’m sure, for halva, spices and Israeli snacks to bring home (which also surprisingly made it through customs at the airport).
A busy day, we went from the market to the Western Wall, where I stuck a note very carefully so it wouldn’t fall. We left straight from there to the Negev desert in southern Israel. There we rode camels, which was a cool experience, but something I likely would never do again as I feel it’s not really a great experience for the camels/ not very natural. We then set up camp at this weird desert camp, where many other Birthright groups were staying. In case you didn’t already sense that Birthright is like summer camp for adults, this experience was exactly that. We were served food to eat not on plates, but on plastic on a table (I guess it saves paper?). We slept in sleeping bags with no pillows for 3 hours or fewer, depending on how long we sat at the campfire.
That night we also did a nighttime desert hike, where our tour guide, Hannan, essentially led us through meditation, laying under the stars. The man is kind of my hero and definitely someone who was born for this – he is like 25 percent spiritual leader, 25 percent survival expert/guide, 25 percent Israel culture and history expert and the last 25 percent is just him playing tricks on us (when he first met our group he did took on a fake, caricatured Hebrew accent and persona as a joke, before actually introducing himself).
During the desert hike, the group shared personal reflections on themselves and the trip. I told them that part of the reason I went on the trip was to learn more about Israel culture and regional conflicts and to come away with a better understanding of the issues at hand. Although I made some progress in that area, the sheer busyness of the trip made it so I was just taking in whatever I was doing from minute to minute, without too much reflection – which for someone who probably spends too much time analyzing and reflecting, was a welcome surprise.
After about three hours of sleep after that hike, our group departed on another hike to climb Masada, an ancient, historical site on a rock plateau, before sunrise. Although we left at 4 a.m., we were off to a late start and essentially ran up the mountain at the advice of Hannan to get the best spot to watch the sunrise. It was a beautiful view, which can only be described sub-adequately through pictures.
We spent a couple hours walking around the historical sites and four group members had b’nai mitzvah there. Anyway, we then embarked on our descent downward from Masada which turned into a mess very quickly. It was much to hot to be hiking and we had to keep stopping and cover ourselves in water and stop from overheating. After finally arriving at the bottom and going into a local place for breakfast, many of us rushed to the bathroom to put our heads under the sink to cool off. Other people there looked confused as to what happened to us and it was very funny in retrospect.
A little later, we headed over to the Dead Sea. Floating there was easily one of my favorite experiences. That night – the final night! – we went out on the town to a beer garden.
Wednesday morning we packed up our stuff and before departing for the airport visited Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where Israel’s Declaration of Independence was signed. To be honest, after getting four hours of sleep or fewer for the last few nights, I was focused mainly on trying to keep my eyes open before a 26-hour long trip home (three hours spent getting through the airport, a 12-hour flight to New York, followed by a nine-hour layover and airport transfer, a one hour delay, a one hour flight to Cleveland, and finally, a drive home with my parents from the airport).
And alas, I’m back at the CJN and am awake. More to come!