6 weeks in Israel: Western Wall, Shabbat bring forth tears, pride

Contributed photo A blindfolded Rosie Bernstein (third from left) and two other first-timers among the Mach Hach Ba’aretz group prepare for their first-ever glimpse of the Wall. The trip is through Bnei Akiva, an international Modern Orthodox, religious Zionist organization.

Editor’s note: TJP intern Rosie Bernstein, a rising Yavneh junior, is spending six weeks in Israel on Bnei Akiva’s Mach Hach Ba’aretz program. She will be filing a weekly report about her experience.

By Rosie Bernstein
TJP intern

It didn’t take long for me to connect with Israel: only what seemed like a few hundred blindfolded paces toward the Western Wall.
“There’s a railing to your left. Grab it,” our leader instructed on the walk. “OK, good. Now step down. Careful, careful! There are lots of steps. Good. Step. Step. Step,” they instructed me as I walked blindly down the stairs.
“OK. Here, give me your bag. There’s a metal detector in front of you,” he said. “Walk straight through. You’re fine.”
I shuffled my feet slowly, wondering what my surroundings looked like and hoping that a blindfolded girl walking confusedly through security didn’t look too suspicious. I felt a familiar hand grab mine.
“Walk. Fast! Let’s go!”
And we were off, flying through what felt like a large empty space. Skeptical, I took tiny steps and flailed my arms around me, making sure there were no obstacles in my path.
“We’re here. Stand right here.” I was shoved into what was apparently my place, and I held my breath and waited.
The head of my bus, whose voice I recognized from our introduction earlier, began to speak. He told about a place that has connected our nation with God for thousands of years. He told about the people who sacrificed their lives so we could come and go and connect at any time of day or night. And he told about the importance of never forgetting this place, for if we did, it would be losing a part of ourselves.
“Now, please remove the blindfolds,” his strong voice instructed.
I reached behind my head and pulled off the blue cloth that had encircled my head, stripping me of my sight.
And as my eyes lifted and my heart stopped, I was hit by the reality of where I was standing.
Right before me was the Kotel. A place that had once existed only in school textbooks, on artsy postcards and in the wildest of my dreams was real, tangible.
And as the tears began to fall, I reached out and brushed my hand on the cool stone and extended my lips to the rock, and that’s when it hit me. This is the feeling everyone talks about. This is why I am here. Because even though this is my first time to Israel in my entire life, I immediately feel like I am home.
I’m on a Modern Orthodox trip to Israel for 16-year-olds going into 11th grade called Mach Hach Ba’aretz. The trip is through Bnei Akiva, which is an international Modern Orthodox, religious Zionist organization. Bnei Akiva believes in a lifestyle of Torah and work, and its motto is “Am Yisrael (the nation of Israel), Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), al pi Torat Yisrael (through the Torah of Israel).”
Every hike we traverse, every sight we see and every activity we do will be in efforts to grasp the history of the Jewish people and their homeland while understanding how it fits into modern Israel and the lives of Jews today.

Shabbat in Israel

Fast-forward six days. My first Shabbat in Israel is coming to a close. I am sitting with my 41 bus mates and six counselors on the beach of the Kineret, the Sea of Galilee. One of my counselors, whose family made aliyah to Israel when he was 4 years old, and who will, God willing, graduate from the Israeli army next week, stood up to tell a story.
He told us about a class trip to Poland that he took in high school. He described the solemn scene of him and his class hearing about two young children in a concentration camp who managed to stay alive because they blocked out the pain and lived life as normally and carefree as they did before their lives were confined to persecution.
One day, however, they were hungry, and they snuck into Nazi camp and stole a slice of bread. The two kids were brutally murdered.
Upon hearing this story, my counselor and his class began to sing a famous Jewish song. “May the angel who hath redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”
Years later, my counselor told us, when war broke out in Israel in the summer of 2014, he was called to the battlefield. After more than a day of missiles, guns and rockets, my counselor was able to call home for the first time since he left to fight, in order to comfort his parents and let them know he was OK.
He explained to us that this was a disturbing ritual that had become all too familiar to him. As he was saying goodbye to his father and getting ready to hang up the phone, his father asked him to pause so that he could bless his son. “May the angel who hath redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”
And as my counselor swallowed back his tears and took a seat, all 48 members of Bus 2 linked arms and began to sing the very song that our counselor’s high school class mourned over two of many young souls lost in the Holocaust and the very song that his father blessed on him as he sent his son to the very country that those victims and so many others didn’t dare to dream about.
It was at that moment, looking out into the faces of my newfound friends and beyond them, the land of Israel, that hot tears began rolling down my cheeks. Tears of pain, gratitude and hope. Tears of joy that I am home, and tears of sadness that this will end in the blink of an eye.
I honored the soldiers who fought for the sand I was sitting on and continue to do so day in and day out, night in and night out. I felt the touch of my brothers and sisters: brothers and sisters who came from the four corners of the earth, drawn together by the land that connects every Jewish soul anywhere — past, present and future.
And I felt proud. Proud to be part of the nation who has gotten knocked down and knocked down again for thousands and thousands of years, since the beginning of eternity, and continues to rise up again and again and again, stronger than before.
It takes me a moment to realize that I am not dreaming. I am really here, standing on the sand upon which my ancestors walked and their ancestors before that, and the sand upon which my children and my children’s children will walk one day soon.
I turn and begin walking away from the beach. I am finally here. This is my Israel. I’m ready to see it, feel it, live it.
And finally, in that second as I wiped the tears from my eyes, a piece of my heart that I never knew was missing finally clicked into place, and I became complete.
I have found my home, found my people and found myself.
Written in Tiveria (Tiberias), Israel

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