This past Wednesday morning, I was hiking along the Gilabun stream in the central Golan with our Hillel Taglit-birthright israel group, which comprised forty students from the University of Oregon, UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside. This was to be our last full day in Israel after a phenomenal 10-day trip. It was a hot morning in the Golan, and we were very adamant that our students wear hats and take along an adequate supply of water - standard practice for summer hiking in all parts of Israel. After about 45 minutes on the trail, we arrived at our destination - the Gilabun waterfall, where we swam and took photographs for the better part of an hour. Thanks to a group of women soldiers that arrived just as we were leaving, our environmentally-conscious students borrowed some trash bags and proceeded to pick up trash along the trail as we hiked out - spirits could not have been higher within our group.
Oregon Hillel Tzedek Project in Tiberias.
Our trip had included several powerful moments - star-gazing at the K'far HaNokdim Bedouin encampment followed by a dawn ascent to Masada in order to view the sunrise, an enjoyable float in the Dead Sea, a sobering visit to the Holocaust Memorial at Yad VaShem, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem and, of course, a visit to the Western Wall.
But throughout the first nine days, the highlight for me would have to be the Bat Mitzvahs for five young women on our trip, held in the temporary synagogue of our Jerusalem hotel on Shabbat afternoon. These five individuals decided to use the opportunity of their first Shabbat ever in Jerusalem to express their commitment to the Jewish people. The Torah portion that afternoon was Pinchas, a most-appropriate portion which deals with the taking of a census among the people. I was extremely moved when Liz Rubin from Eugene, Oregon, whose family is close friends with my family, spoke about how she could also now be counted in the community. Likewise Maddie Liebowitz and Amy Burian of Portland, close friends since grammar school, were able to share the experience in the presence of Maddie's parents, who were also visiting us in Jerusalem.
None of us could have anticipated how our high spirits were to change as we arrived at the bus after our morning hike. A planned lunch in Kiryat Shemona was cancelled for security reasons; although we remained in the Galilee, we began hearing artillery fire from the northern border with Lebanon. We assured our students that there was no reason to be nervous, that Israel's border with Lebanon occasionally heats up due to the terrorists of Hizbollah that occupy South Lebanon right up to the fence line. It was only later that day that we learned that Hizbollah had opened fire along the border as a diversionary tactic to an attack on an Israeli patrol which resulted in the death of three Israeli soldiers, the kidnapping of two others, and the opening of a horrific campaign that has dragged Israel into another bloody conflict.
As we all watch the sad unfurling of events over the past week, I think back to our students. Their trip certainly strengthened their connection to the Jewish people, to the State of Israel and to the dilemmas our people face as we search for a peace that seems more elusive than ever. I have no doubt that when they hear the phrase "pray for the peace of Israel," it has a deeper meaning for each of them than they ever imagined before.
Hal Applebaum is the executive director of Oregon Hillel.