By Bobby Hutnik. Edited by Leora Matian.
“No matter where you are in the world, no matter what kind of life you live, you can look up and see the same stars in the same sky as everybody else, and that fact binds us as a people,” explained Yael, our Israel Fellow. Standing in a circle of friends old and new on my Birthright trip this January, I stared upwards, looking at the magnificent expanse of infinite celestial bodies, the most I had ever seen in my entire life. Our amazing ninth day, jam-packed with a dip in the Dead Sea, a crazy camel ride, and a delicious Bedouin dinner, was concluding with a humbling walk into the Negev. It was this path that led us past any man-made lights from the desert camp. It was an opportunity for us to think about our beautiful experience as a group, to clear our minds as one.
Walking into the darkness up the rocky path, I could not help but reflect not only on the wonders of the trip, but the amazing things that the people of Israel had accomplished. As we trek, my mind reflects back the wonderful experience of seeing the first small, gentle snowflakes fall for over the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. I remember seeing the how our IDF soldiers, who joined us during the second half of our trip, were jumping for joy at the sight of the first snowfall of the year. I remember seeing the market owners dancing in the slushy street as the shops began to close for Shabbat. Our previous misconceptions of Israel as a dry, barren desert were virtually erased. From their groundbreaking drip irrigation techniques in the farms of the south that conquered the Negev, to the massive tech parks that lined the outskirts of Jerusalem, Israelis souls had transformed not only the land but also our American perception of what it means to survive—and thrive—in the Middle East.
Our guide instructed the group to disperse to find a seclude spot where we could lie down and look up at the stars and think. Laying in a flat space surrounded by jagged desert rocks, I thought about my family, my friends back home, and the beauty of the amazing trip that had been gifted to me. While I was looking upwards, my thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a cannon blast from within the surrounding mountains, apparently a training exercise for IDF soldiers. After what seemed like an hour of calming thought under the dark sky, we were called back to our circle. As the group reformed, we looked up to watch the desert silence break again as two low-flying IAF planes flew over us. “As you can see,” whispered our tour guide Doron, “even here in the desert you can witness the dual nature of modern Israel. Those pilots are training to fly in the desert during the night for possible combat situations.”
On the long flight home, I again found myself reflecting on the amazing trip. I thought of the millions of people that call this sacred place home. I thought of the dichotomy of the ancient and modern in this country, of the past fusing with present and future, forming the basis of Israeli culture and society today. It is this juxtaposition that draws me back to explore even more of my motherland in the near future!