After a false start, our 40 students took off from Newark to beautiful Tel Aviv, Israel. We wasted no time in engaging with the country, starting off with the Mount Barkan lookout, which offers stunning views of Jordanian and Israeli countryside. Continuing our drive north, we went to Lake Kineret, the largest freshwater lake in Israel (and the lowest freshwater lake on the planet). There, we loaded aboard ‘banana boats’ and had a blast hanging on for dear life as the boats were pulled along the surface of the Kineret.
We ended our first day in Tiberias, exhausted but excited for more! We woke up bright and early the next morning to head to Tzfat, one of the four holy cities of Israel, where Jewish mysticism is alive and well. This city’s element is air, and it perches on the top of a mountain, practically floating in the clouds. Blue is everywhere, from the painted walls to the opals set in shimmering silver glimmering from the shops lining the Artist’s Colony.
In Tzfat, our students had the unusual opportunity to meet David Fridman, one of the most recognized and celebrated Kabbalistic artists in the world. They listened with rapt attention as he explained the mystical connection Jews have with the world. With that connecting spark burning bright, we attended an interactive musical performance by the group Agadata. Some of our lucky participants had the opportunity to play the instruments! We ended that experience with a sing-along to music with inspiration from global Jewish culture.
After all that theoretical work, we needed a break to really connect with the earth. What better way to do that than stirring up Israeli soil under the tires of ATVs? With the chance for nearly every student to drive, we bounced over rocks, raced around corners, and narrowly avoided cacti. Covered in dust (and therefore properly connected to the literal earth), we ate cookies, drank tea and coffee, and watched the sunset over the beautiful North.
Today, we woke up and loaded the bus, sleepy but determined to pack the day with as much fun as possible! The beginning of the day was marked with the kindness and hospitality of Wifki, an influential Northern Bedouin guide, who welcomed us into his home and culture. We sang, danced, clapped, and dressed in beautifully embroidered gowns. The hospitality of the Bedouin people is legendary, with only their compassion a rival. We watched as Wifki roasted coffee beans and cardamom pods on a copper paddle, and some of our strongest participants ground it into powder. The bitter, aromatic coffee was the perfect way to cap off an unforgettable experience.
We bid farewell and thanks to Wifki and his family, then drove to Zichron Yaakov. This city is one of the original modern villages founded by returning Jews in the 1880s. There, we ate ice cream and had lunch at the Baronita restaurant. There’s nothing quite like good Israeli cuisine, with its mix of global flavors and traditions, and all left with filled bellies and happy hearts.
The two hour drive to Jerusalem was a perfect chance to catch some much-needed Zzzs (and for the coordinator to write this update!). Tonight, we are attending a seminar with the noted educator Benji Davis, who will guide us in exploring the complex and often confusing landscape of Israeli politics. Afterwards, we will have free time at the famous Mahane Yehuda Shuk (open air market), where we will eat, drink, and hang out. In recent years, the market has become a local hotspot for young adults to have fun with their friends. It’s common to see a group of young Israelis break out into impromptu song on these nights. The mood is always magnetic and often exhilarating.
We look forward to the next six days of action packed adventures! As always, the staff are appreciative for the opportunity to introduce young Jews to their native homeland. Wherever they go in life, whatever they do, they know they have a place to belong and a people to belong to. Your children are sweet, compassionate, and endlessly curious individuals for whom it is a privilege to staff.
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UMASS AMHERST HILLEL IACT COORDINATOR