As I sit on the bus, waiting for the group to get comfortable for our trip into Jerusalem, I’m blown away by the immensity of the truth.
We are in Israel. Gorgeous, hot, sunny, wonderful Israel.
While our trip to get here was arduous and almost 24 hours, in itself, the time that we’ve spent here has seemed fleeting. We’ve done almost nothing yet, but we have so much to do it seems like too much for how short our time will be. Mostly, I feel extremely blessed and lucky to be here.
Yesterday we met at the JFK airport in New York City. I left early, to make sure I’d find the right terminal, but I’d neglected breakfast to do that. Big mistake. I should have grabbed some breakfast from my hotel but I woke up just a little to late to do that. Ah well. When I got to the terminal I sat for a while on my own, listening to Ke$ha while trying to get my internet fix before the airplane travel that would take us the better part of 24 hours.
Facebook, the great social connector that it is, had already seen me conversing with some of my birthright group; it dinged with a question: Michael, where are you? For the next few minutes I talked back and forth with a woman, trying to find each other. When we did, we were the first of many, and our group began to grow.
I didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t know that we’d had 40 people signed up for our group, even though our midrachim (I’ve likely spelled that wrong) had warned us of it. As our group grew, our first foray into group dynamics started: we debated about where to wait for our midrachim, who were late due to traffic. Eventuallly the group decided to move and we found another group about the same size as ours, waiting for the self-same trip and bus. Shortly afterward our midrachim arrived and we signed in, getting our tickets and boarding passes.
Of course, as with everything, I ran into a snag. I was (rightly) nervous of my luggage. You see, dear readers, at 6’7″ tall, and quite fat, my clothing weighs quite a bit. On my trip into JFK, my bag had been over-weight by five pounds, and I moved three T-shirts to my carry-on and it was at weight. I’d repacked everything at my hotel so that weight wouldn’t be an issue.
But it was. Only my carry-on’s weight and size, not my checked bag, was the issue. Flustered, I moved some things to my big bag, but the person checking the bags still insisted that the bag, itself, was too large to take on the plane. I’m not ashamed to say I got upset, and I’m actually proud to say that I avoided tears and affected a strange mixture of bravado and dignity. My medications and electronics were in the bag. Yes, I needed them for the flight. No, they would not fit in my small bag with everything else I had in it (I brought a small backpack for my notebook and plugs). I gave the woman checking me in a cold gaze and, to my surprise, she became flustered and asked a coworker for help.
Her coworker asked “are there medications or electronics in the bag?” When I answered yes she turned back to the woman who’d been checking me in. “It’s fine, just add a marker that it’s medications.”
Despite taking the longest of everyone, I was still not the last person back. There was someone who hadn’t even arrived yet! We began orientation then proceeded through security and to the gate.
Our flight was delayed but not by much; I took the opportunity to shop, getting new headphones because mine died, and a neck pillow as well as some lunch (at this point it was 1:30). Then we got on the plane.
Of the flight, I’ll say little except this: My carry-on fit just fine and I did not fit in the seats. When I say that, please understand: it wasn’t uncomfortable or just tight or anything like that. I literally did not fit; I could not sit in the seat all the way because my knees prevented it, jammed into the seatback in front of me. I talked to a flight attendant, who didn’t speak English (Russian, only); she got a coworker to take care of me. I was moved from row 37E (a middle seat with two other people on either side) to seat 11G, the aisle seat of the five-person section. I fit, just barely. My knees still jammed into the seat in front of me, but no one sat there and there was an extra two or three inches which let me at least be seated, instead of propped.
The flight was long and took us to a Moscow airport in tremendous disrepair that was understaffed. It took us over an hour to get through passport control into the terminal where our connecting flight to Tel Aviv left and, much to the chagrin of a majority of our group, there were very few food vendors in the terminal. Even worse, what ones there were did not take credit cards! Only one vendor did, a cafe right by our gate, but my credit card was denied, likely because I told my bank I’d be in Israel, but not Russia.
We got on the flight to Tel Aviv and I actually fit in my assigned seat. Sort of. The flight was light enough that we were able to rearrange and I took up one of the two-person sections next to a window. I slept for most of that flight, waking up only to shift because it was very uncomfortable.
We arrived in Israel. Passport control took forever (again) and there were so many people they were allowing foreigners (us!) to use the Israeli booths to check in. Surprisingly, the person checking me in didn’t know what birthright was (we were told they would and we wouldn’t have to explain). She also didn’t understand my English very well. I did my best to explain what the purpose of birthright was, but I think she stamped my visa more to get rid of me than because she thought I was being reasonable.
This cued the “hurry up and wait” hustle and bustle of our trip; we waited for our luggage, quickly formed in a group, then waited again while the midrachim coordinated. We went through customs (by which I mean we literally just passed them by? No one stopped us or screened us or anything) and found our bus, stabled with a lot of other birthright and similar tour busses.
I only fit in one seat, dear readers, but I don’t mind. It’s the seat furthest back and in the center, so my knees and legs extend into the aisle instead of into a seat in front of me. It’s the seat that I’m writing this from now as we drive in the Jerusalem traffic to the Kotel.
We weren’t ready to rest ( or eat) just yet; while in Tel Aviv we stopped at the Independence Hall museum. This museum (which my pictures are below are of) was the site of David Ben Gurion’s (probably spelled wrong) house that he turned into an art museum. When Israel was approved as a sovereign Jewish nation, coexisting side-by-side with a Palestinian state, the threat of war loomed over Israel before it was even born. David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir and the other founders were forced to make a difficult decision: declare Israeli independence and affirm it’s existence while thrusting the under-armed, fledgling nation into war on all sides with five armies from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, or give up the chance for a Jewish state.
Of course, they affirmed the existence of Israel. The armies invaded, and, amazingly,, Israel emerged, tempered and strong.
I’d known all this. Throughout the movie (which was the same movie we saw when I came here in middle school…) and presentation, the group’s energy was clearly flagging. Some of us (me included) fell asleep during the presentations! Oops.
Afterward we were starving; a lot of us couldn’t stomach the airplane food so many hadn’t eaten for almost 16 hours. We hopped on the bus, thankful for the air conditioning and heading to the hotel.
I am so sad that I was so hungry and tired. What I saw of the scenery on that trip from Tel Aviv to our hotel outside of Jerusalem was very moving, The houses on the hills, the winding roads, the people everywhere… it was just gorgeous. Mopeds and motorbikes seem to be extremely popular here; there are a ton of shops for them and people riding them everywhere (even on sidewalks!).
Our hotel is VERY posh, but only has wireless in the lobby and restaurant. We got lost looking for our rooms, which were in a “guest house” unattached from the main building, but we quickly went to dinner, did some more orientation things and then, blissfully, went to bed. It may seem silly, but I’ll reserve our day in Jerusalem for another entry.