Through the Desert
Today was a journey of literal highs and lows as we traveled from Haifa (1000 feet above sea level) to Masada and the Dead Sea (1400 feet BELOW sea level) and then to Jerusalem (2600 feet above sea level).
Gathering at Hugim at 6:00 AM, we said farewell to Haifa and began the next leg of our journey. Since over the course of the past week the two groups spent most of their days apart, everyone was thrilled their weekend together had finally arrived. As we dozed on the bus, Elias (our faithful driver) took us the 150 miles to Masada. The contrast between the two locations could not have been more stark. Where Haifa was verdant and filled with activity, the approach to Masada was barren and lifeless. The sight of a few camels grazing in the wilderness caused a flurry of excitement on the bus!
We climbed up to the ruins of Masada via the ramp that the Romans constructed in their assault of the fortress. Although razed to the ground, the outlines of the complex were still clearly seen. A few of our students were fascinated by the active archaeological digs underway at the peak. Several of our teens participated in historical readings (complete with costumes provided by Dror, our guide) to our enthusiastic applause.
As we prepared to make our descent, Dror gave us a treat. The wall of a cliff opposite to Masada made for an excellent echo reflector – our voices returned to us clearly as we shouted in unison. I felt goosebumps as we heard the echo of our call, Am Yisrael chai – the people of Israel live! This affirmation of life was an incredibly moving moment, redeeming a place that had formerly been characterized by tragedy and loss.
The walk from Masada down to the bus at the bottom was tricky at times, but we managed it in good spirits. Lunch was an enthusiastic affair – everyone was excited for our next stop: the nearby Dead Sea!
After a short drive, we stopped at a resort to access their beach. Our students changed into bathing suits with several of their Israeli friends. The high concentration of salt in the water makes it incredibly buoyant; it was a delight to watch the students playing in the water and exploring its unique beauty. After what felt like no time at all, we showered off the salty water and continued on our way.
Many of us napped on the bus, so it was another moment of contrasts when we were awakened on the final approach to Jerusalem. Although it had rained earlier in the day, the sky was clearing and the city had been washed clean (we’ve had AMAZING luck with the weather). Rabbi Lisa gave a wonderful introduction to the spirituality and history of the Kotel (the Western Wall) as we both prepared the students for an experience of unique power and meaning.
Together, we walked through the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, as Dror pointed out landmarks and gave us several historical orientations. Our students were awed by the age of the buildings and the beauty of Jerusalem’s narrow streets. (As the shadows lengthened, Jerusalem’s cats emerged from the shadows, to the delight of many.)
After clearing security, we found ourselves standing before the Kotel. Dividing into two groups (the Kotel remains gender-segregated), we approached the Wall at our own pace, each of us finding our own quiet time in this precious space.
Some of us were struck by the multitudes of people who represented faiths and nationalities from all over the world. Others were impressed by the Kotel itself, built of massive stone blocks. Yet others described feeling a special energy in that place, a sensation that they struggled to describe despite its intimately sensed power.
Profoundly moved, we left the Kotel as dusk descended and traveled through the upper levels of Jerusalem back to our bus. Elias was waiting for us with his customary patience and took us swiftly to the hostel where we’re spending the night.
Following dinner, the students connected together and made friends with another group of Jewish youth who had travelled to Jerusalem. With quiet hours now underway, I know that everyone is going to sleep well after this very long, very packed and very meaningful day!
Layla tov from Jerusalem,