Kayla Sokoloff is a sophomore at the University of Texas. This summer, Kayla interned at Hillel's Charles and Lynn Schusterman International Center. She shares her reflections on her Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trip experience, which marked her first visit to Israel.
Pictured: the author with friends in Israel, on left.
Stepping off the plane into Israel, all I could think was "finally finally I can get off this plane- and more importantly, finally I have made it to Israel." Growing up, Israel was a word associated with my Judaism. I remember sending money from my tzedakah (charity) box to plant a tree in Israel, and around age 13, some of my friends had their bar and bat mitzvahs in Israel. Yet at 19, as a sophomore in college, I had never been to Israel myself. Being so involved with the Jewish community, it seemed natural that it was now my turn to travel to the Promised Land.
The 17-hours of travel- including a 3-hour layover in Moscow- were beyond exhausting. Having never flown outside the United States, the 10-hour flight to Moscow felt like a lifetime. When we finally landed in Israel it was all I could do to contain my excitement, firstly, to get off the plane and secondly, to actually step onto Israeli soil.
Describing my 10-day Taglit Birthright Israel experience in words is nearly impossible. I could spend hours simply talking about the soldiers on our trip. Four male and three female soldiers joined the group our second day in Israel. I think most of the students on my trip would agree that this was truly the best part of the experience. By Shabbat dinner that night with the soldiers no longer in uniform, it was difficult to tell the difference between student and soldier---minus the Israeli accent of course! I will be honest and say that we were all a bit nervous to meet the soldiers, "What will they think of us?" "Can they speak English?" But moments after they had stepped on the bus our fears went away.
By the last day of their journey with us it felt as though we were losing a part of the group. Standing by the Kotel (Western Wall) in a big circle, we all shared the things we had learned from each other. Saying goodbye was harder than any of us expected. The soldiers enhanced the experience ten-fold, and I can honestly say I have 7 friends waiting for me back in Israel the moment I return.
Sleeping in the Bedouin tent was my craziest experience. I do not consider myself the outdoorsy type. I kept a positive attitude while we ate dinner on the floor and sat around the campfire talking and laughing. In all honesty, sleeping in the middle of the dessert, on the floor, in the winter, is not something I was looking forward to. But when someone blasting music on their phone unexpectedly woke me at 6 in the morning, I realized I made it through the night with the rest of bus 1031. I am proud to say I happily roughed it in Israel!
For me the most emotional part of the trip was the morning we spent at Mt. Herzl, the National Military Cemetery of the State of Israel. As we walked through the cemetery, our tour guide, Sagi, would occasionally stop and tell us the story of a brave soldier who had died in battle. One story that stood out to me was that of a young man named Michael Levin. Michael was an American from Philadelphia who made Aliyah (moved to Israel) to serve the country he loved so much. When fighting broke out in 2006, Michael cut short a family vacation to serve with the Israeli army. He was 21 years old when he fell fighting for Israel. This story reminded me of the deep connection I have to Israel because I am Jewish. It doesn't matter that I am 19 years old and from Sugar Land, Texas; I am Jewish. Standing there that day, listening to Michael's story I cried for him, his family, and his bravery in standing up to fight for the Jewish people.
My favorite moment was on our last day, when we went to an archeological dig site. I still cannot believe I crawled underground by candlelight in rooms that are more than 2,000 years old. As I climbed out of the cave, I took a moment to stare at the beauty of Israel and to truly appreciate the history all around me. Remember, before this trip I did not like anything having to do with the outdoors---but getting down in the dirt and climbing through the caves is something I will never forget, and I hope to do so again.
On the bus ride back to the airport on the last night, my friends and I decided to play a game of 20 questions. We went around in a circle asking each other our craziest experience, most touching occasion on the trip, and our favorite moments. What started as a game to pass the time became a great way to reflect on the amazing trip that was all too quickly coming to an end. I was surprised by how different our answers were- my craziest experience was someone else's favorite- but then I realized that is part of the magic of the trip. With so many activities bundled into every day, each person is able to find their own unique experiences to connect to, whether the Western Wall or Jaffa, climbing Masada or swimming in the Dead Sea.
Being in Israel those 10 days gave me a chance to grapple with my own identity as a Jewish woman in modern day America. Sleeping in the Bedouin tent, visiting Mt. Herzl, and crawling through 2000-year-old caves were all part of everything I have learned for the past nineteen years. Not one day went by when we did not pass some historically significant landform, building, or statue. My Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trip experience ignited a small spark in my Jewish identity. Though I do not know exactly where my Judaism is headed, I know that my ten days in Israel were only a small, but significant, part of my Jewish Journey.