Two weeks ago, I packed a small suitcase and a purse, got on a plane, and flew halfway across the world with twenty-eight strangers.
Now, I write this from an airplane, watching a country I didn’t even realize I’d fallen in love with disappear under the clouds and into the distance as I fly back home.
Two weeks ago, I knew that I was doing something a little bit crazy. I knew that I didn’t know anyone, and that I was flying to a country where I’d never been, where I didn’t speak the language all that well, and where I was one of the youngest members of the group. I knew I was in for not a lot of sleep, and I knew that I was about to embark on some kind of adventure.
Two weeks ago, I had no idea what I was in for.
In the space of fifteen days, those twenty-five strangers have become a family. From that group, I have gained colleagues and peers, friends, a true community.
Israel has gone from a distant spot on the map, the center of decades of political rhetoric, to centuries of history whose remains and continuations I have seen and lived and breathed, to a place of beauty and wonder and a constant tug to one day come back.
I have been breathless with amazement, awestruck nearly every other second, and left with a catch in my throat and tears in my eyes more times than I can count.
I have climbed the mountain where an entire city chose death over slavery. I have slept under more stars than I’ve ever seen in my entire life. I have placed my hands in the dirt and helped uncover the history of a civilization long lost. I have climbed tels, stood on the stone walls of civilizations long gone. I have walked through an entire history of my people, and I have formed friendships and memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Falafel in the flea market at Jaffa, where we took our first group picture and learned each other’s names.
Tel Megiddo, where history became tangible, where we truly realized just how ancient and sacred the ground we stood on might be.
The sun over Bet She’An, as we walked a Roman road and stood in the center of an ancient theater.
Ein Zivan, where a dog stole one shoe but all of our hearts, where we ate at large tables all together, where we danced without self-consciousness, where we stopped being strangers and started turning into friends.
The Banyas, where our staff members started to become people, separate identities from the trip organizer logos on their shirts.
Khirbet Kaiyafeh, where we walked nearly a mile in order to hear the stories that so few know, where we could stand inside of the walls discussed in biblical words.
The City of David and the Temple Mount, the Kotel and the rooftops of Jerusalem, where history and reality blur together so closely that they can hardly be distinguished.
The halls of Hebrew University, where we sat in lectures and laughed and learned, where we drank university coffee and had our hands cramp up from too many notes just like any other student’s would.
Usha, where we brushed and dug and sieved, drank sage and hyssop tea, and found ourselves drenched and filthy but laughing all the way as a downpour seemed to target our group specifically.
Our bus, which we covered in mud, rode barefoot, grew territorial over our seats, had conversations about life, the universe, and everything, translated Hebrew into English, and slept more than any of us did in any of the hotels we were actually at.
Tzfat, where everything is tkhelet, and where my soul lit up like I’d never felt before.
A quiet cafe in Jerusalem, where we ate sweet potato fries and talked about dogs until 2018 came to an end.
Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl, where we remembered nearly a century of bravery and loss.
A campfire, where we sang and ate bamba and strange marshmallows, where we drank some of the best tea I’ve ever had, where we wore ponchos and blankets that made us colorful and bright and only a little bit less cold than we were before.
The path up Masada, where we shivered and shook in the dark until we found ourselves walking with arms around each other, walking in lockstep, through the darkness, wind whipping our faces and sand scratching into our skin, until we reached the top and found ourselves breathless, full of adrenaline, and dumbstruck with the tangible history of our roots and the beauty of the vast empty view.
A park designed for children, where we ran for the swings, laughing with abandon.
A cold, windy market street where we huddled together for warmth, shivering and smiling in equal measure.
Two shabbats, where I learned about others and myself, found answers to questions with which I’ve struggled for nearly two decades.
The tiny hotel basement where we began to say goodbye.
And finally an airport, where we played Words With Friends, in a massive, cross-group tournament, trying our hardest not to miss each other before we left the ground.
This trip has changed my life.
I feel like I’ve been dreaming, and I don’t know how much I want to wake up. Tomorrow, I go back to my life— to books and to classes, to a cold over-chlorinated pool, to the art department I love so dearly. I’ll be returning to grocery shopping and dollars, no more street food and shekels. Lights that turn on without a strange buzzing flicker, showers with curtains and doors that actually close, tea and coffee that isn’t instant or eighty percent milk. City lights and no mountains to speak of. My family. The friends back home who have become like family.
I want to go home, and it’s time.
But the life that I’ve lived feels so mundane.
I want the magic of these fourteen days to last forever.
But if I have learned anything over the past two weeks, it is this:
Listening to others and making actions count makes magic out of nothing.
So I’ll keep my eyes open for the mountains.
I’ll listen to new voices and try to broaden my worldview when and where I can.
I’ll refuse to say goodbye, because it isn’t— it’s a see you later, it’s a we’ll talk soon.
And most importantly, I’ll remember to say thank you as much and as often as I can.
Thank you to the friends who made these two weeks unforgettable.
Thank you to the world whose natural beauty never fails to stop my heart for just half a second every time.
Thank you to my history, which is steeped into my roots, good and bad, with its thoroughly tangled discourse.
Thank you to the country I grew up in, and thank you to the one where I’ve been told all my life I’d belong.
Thank you to the mountains. Thank you to the cities. Thank you to the people, the books, and the rain.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, shouted from rooftops and walltops and the bottoms of valleys.
I’m saying shalom, but I don’t think I mean goodbye.
Shalom, be at peace.