For four weeks this summer I traveled to Spain and Israel with BBYO Passport, the organization’s summer travel program, together with 42 other Jewish teens from the US, Canada and El Salvador. It was a month of enriching and meaningful experiences and I returned home with a stronger sense of my own Jewish identity.
The 8-hour plane ride from New York to Spain gave us a chance to get acquainted and friendships began forming easily. By the time we landed at Barajas Airport in Madrid, we felt a sense of community within our group.
Our week in Spain was spent exploring the country through a Jewish lens. On our only day in Madrid, we went to Plaza Espana, the central place in the city, and the Royal Palace where the King lives, before heading south to Toledo. I vividly remember our first group dinner that night. It was around 8:30 and we were all exhausted, but the sun was still shining brightly! In parts of Spain, there is only six to eight hours of darkness that time of year, so many nights I went to sleep in daylight.
Toledo is a diverse city packed with religious sites. We were surprised to see that each step leading up to the Jewish quarter had a tile with either a Chai or a Star of David. The mountaintop city is a complex blend of three cultures – Christians, Muslims and Jews – who all lived and flourished here. Two of the city’s original ten synagogues remain, and we visited the famous Sinagoga del Transito and the Sephardic Museum. In a city that feels like a living museum, I was keenly aware of the heightened security.
Seville, the largest city in southern Spain, is on the banks of the Guadalquivir River. Our first stop on a Friday morning was at Plaza de Toros, the famous bullfighting ring In the summer, the bullfights are held on Thursday nights so the staff was cleaning up from the night before. Seville is also home to the tomb of Christopher Columbus in the Cathedral of Seville and the tombs of Isabella and Ferdinand, who together instituted the Spanish inquisition in the 15th century. We enjoyed shopping in the colorful Plaza de Espana and wandering around the lively streets.
Our first Shabbat abroad was in the British territory of Gibraltar, famous for the Rock of Gibraltar. On Shabbat morning we climbed the Rock and stopped many times to take in the fantastic views of all of Gibraltar, Spain and Morocco. But the highlight of the climb was seeing the Rock Apes that live on the top half of the Rock. They are a favorite among tourists, despite being famous for pickpocketing. Food, hats and pretty much anything they can get their hands on is fair game. While I was taking a picture, one of them even ran off with my water bottle!
We spent our last two days in Spain in and around the beautiful city of Grenada. Highlights included Marbella, a cosmopolitan beach resort on the Costa del Sol, a Flamenco show, climbing 6,000 feet to explore the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains and visiting the Arabic baths. We savored our two hours in the steam room, hot pool and cold pool and emerged relaxed and rejuvenated.
We took an overnight flight from Madrid to Tel Aviv, arriving at 4:30 am. While still at the airport, our group merged with another Passport group coming from Eastern Europe. The staff from both trips worked as one team to help the two distinct and unique groups get to know each other and form an amazing kehilla (community). We had a wonderful first day in Israel, exploring the Old City and had our first visit to the Kotel, where many of the boys put on tefillin, some for the first time. Everyone enjoyed dinner and shopping on Ben Yehuda Street that evening. Quite an introduction to the Holy Land!
After a day visiting Caesarea and the world famous Bahai Temple, we made our way up north to the gorgeous Western Galilee just before Shabbat. Everyone took part in the outdoor Kabbalat Shabbat services. On Shabbat, participants on Passport trips rest from traveling but there is always lots of activity. Our group was given the challenging task of identifying the Jewish values most important to us, and we talked about how we can integrate them into our community. The top three were (1) being part of a community; (2) learning about Jewish history and (3) raising our children/family Jewish. A fascinating discussion ensued.
The next day began a week of exciting adventures. We hiked to Sarach Betzet, then headed to Rosh Hanikra, where we saw natural caves formed by the sea along the coastline. Being right by the Lebanese border, our group had an insightful discussion about Israeli-Lebanese geopolitics and ongoing concerns involving Hizbollah.
Almost every day of the trip included a hike. Our toughest one was down Nahal Jilaboun Canyon to the Gilabon Stream in the Golan Heights. But the stunning views along the way, including the Devorah waterfall, made it worthwhile and we all agreed that it was our best hike in Israel. Before leaving the Golan Heights, we visited Mount Ben-Tal, a former military base overlooking the Syrian border. A sign indicated that we were just 60 km away from Damascus!
One of my favorite, yet most tiresome days in Israel was a triathalon of sorts. It began with a bike ride around the Hatzbani River, followed by a water walk in the river and then rafting down the Jordan River. Sometimes the water was calm, other times it was choppy and we had to work hard to avoid crashing into each other’s rafts. The day was topped off with a visit to the famous Shulman chocolate factory, where all of us found many gifts to bring home.
Midway through our time in Israel we took a break from hiking and touring to participate in a volunteer project at Pitchon Lev, an organization that supplies clothing and food to the needy in Carmiel. It was a great way to “give back” to others less fortunate than us. That evening, we joined over 350 teens on all of the other BBYO Passport trips to celebrate being together in Israel. The event is called B’Yachad, the Hebrew word for “togetherness,” and drew Jewish teens from the USA, Canada, Europe and Latin America. The night resembled a Bar Mitzvah party, with a dance, carnival and plenty of music. We concluded the party by singing HaTikvah, followed by a popular song called “Yachad.”
The theme for our last day in the Galilee was Aliya (moving to Israel) and the various groups of people that live here. We held a coexistence workshop with Arab teens from surrounding villages. It was fascinating to get to know them and talk about the similarities and differences between our lives and theirs. They were friendly and open and willing to talk about topics such as relationships, school, politics and what it’s like to live as a minority in Israel.
Leket Israel is the country’s largest food rescue network. Volunteers pick vegetables for distribution to needy families in Israel and we joined them at a farm to pick and sort tomatoes. It felt good to get our hands (and clothes) dirty and make a positive contribution to such a worthy cause.
Our trip continued “up” to the Negev desert, as Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion liked to say. We visited Sde Boker, the kibbutz where David Ben Gurion and his wife lived and are buried and the Ramon Crater.
We got an early start – 4:00 am! – for a once-in-a-lifetime sunrise hike up Mt. Tzfachot, that overlooked Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Despite the hour, the hike was amazing. Next up, kayaking and paddle boating in the Red Sea, guided snorkeling at Coral Beach Nature Reserve, beach time and a desert ecology seminar at Kibbutz Keturah’s Arava Institute. Our Negev adventure included a visit to Eilat, which is a beautiful oasis amidst the desert.
At the end of one of our most active days on the trip, we headed to our next “hotel,” the Kfar Hanokdim Bedouin Tents. Unfortunately, on our way there, the gears on our bus broke and the driver had to travel up the mountain going 5 miles per hour. The trip ended up taking four hours but we entertained ourselves by having a dance party on the bus and singing to our favorite music.
When we finally arrived at the Bedouin village, our hosts welcomed us but didn’t speak much English. Our Bedouin experience began with camel rides in the Judean desert, which was more fun than I expected! We met several Bedouin villagers and it was fascinating to learn about their culture and unique lifestyle. Dinner that night, served on the floor of a tent, was one of the best on the trip – chicken, potatoes and rice. We all shared large platters and ate with our hands. After dinner, we went to our own tent where the almost 50 of us enjoyed rooming together on mats and sleeping bags.
We had another pre-dawn wake up call the next day to climb Masada. We began our ascent at about 5 am and reached the top at sunrise – a spectacular experience. From this vantage point, we saw Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. We couldn’t stop taking pictures and marveling at the natural beauty. The day’s early start allowed us to be in the swing of things at 8:00 when we went to the Dead Sea, where we covered our bodies in black mud and floated in the famously salty water. The day concluded with a visit to the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. After a long day in the hot sun, we were happy to swim under the waterfalls.
We headed back to Jerusalem for the final few days of our trip. The most solemn but meaningful day started at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Museum. We spent four hours touring the memorial, and then walked to Mt. Herzl National Cemetery and the Herzl Museum. All of us had some knowledge of the holocaust but most of us didn’t know much about the father of Zionism, Theodore Herzl. We learned about his life, from his initial interest in becoming a journalist, to his leading the Zionist movement and eventual death at age 44. Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir and just about every other important Israeli politician is buried at this cemetery.
Our third community service project was at Pantry Packers, where we labeled, filled and packed bags of rice for 200 needy families in Israel. We also volunteered with an organization called Kol Haot, where we made art projects of our journey in Israel using different color paper to represent different aspects of our trip.
Friday night was our final trip to the Kotel and also the most meaningful because five members of our group had their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs in the Old City. Even though we had been to the Kotel twice before, this was our first time on Shabbat and it was an unforgettable experience. On the men’s side, there was a mosh pit to show spirit during a prayer and many of us jumped right in.
On our last full day, we were determined to make it last as long as possible. We visited Machon Ayalon and learned the story of the Haganah and the founding of the IDF, Independence Hall, Tel Aviv University, the Diaspora Museum and had a walking tour of Jaffa. At our farewell dinner that evening we agreed that the month together flew by, and that we felt like one big family.
I was lucky to be able to share these experiences with such an awesome group of people. The group’s energy motivated all of us to explore and enjoy Israel in a wonderfully supportive and caring environment. Every moment of the trip was filled with humor, bonding, sharing and learning.
For information on BBYO Passport trips in 2014, go to passport.BBYO.org.