By Noah Rosenstein
I’ve been trying to get on to this blog for the entire trip and we only have two days left, so you can tell how insanely busy it’s been. I’m going to try to share as many thoughts as possible, but regrettably I can’t remember exactly all the thoughts and feelings I’ve had throughout this incredible trip. It’s like each new day brings so many new experiences that the old ones sort of already become distant memories, so I’ll start by working backwards a little bit, starting with today and coming back later to catch up on some of the earlier episodes.
Today was the last of our five amazing days with the Israelis, and there could not have been a more meaningful way to spend it than visiting Mount Herzl. I naturally was comparing this experience to when I visited Arlington Cemetery, and the first thing I thought was that this cemetery was far more beautiful. Rather than rows of depressing gray gravestones, each soldier is memorialized with body-length tombs of uniform size, individual gardens stretching from end to end, and multiple places for families to engrave prayers or quotes or otherwise honor their loved ones. It gave each tomb a level of personality that I really appreciated.
As with many of my experiences on this trip, I wasn’t sure how much emotion seeing this cemetery would elicit. At first I felt the way I expected, somber and slightly awe-struck but not moved in any major way. That was until Raz shared a story about an old friend of his, a buddy from the army reserves. In one moment they were joking around about who would get called back first; the next, Raz was doing a double-take after seeing his friend’s picture in the newspaper as a recently killed soldier. He told us this story while standing above his friend’s grave. While he had a definite hint of emotion in his voice, he was also remarkably composed, a testament not just to his strength but also to the feeling of normalcy that Israelis have developed to things like this. It was impossible for me not to tear up. Next to the grave of Raz’s friend was that of an American named Michael Levin. His grave was decked out with paraphernalia for Philadelphia sports, even a rally towel from a Phillies World Series game sitting at the feet. As a Philly sports fanatic, this really hit home hard. I have that same rally towel hanging in my apartment. This guy was me a very short time ago. Now he is lying in a grave in Israel, having given his life for a country in which he wasn’t even born. It’s taken me 15 minutes to write this sentence trying to describe how this made me feel; I can’t do it. All I can say is that it was another step on a journey that is redefining how I think about being a Jew.
Our very next stop in the tour of the cemetery was a memorial service led by our Israeli army friends. After five days of laughing and learning and smiling together, we saw them in a much different light, an unsurprisingly solemn one. Most were choked up, some teared up, one cried, as they took turns reciting prayers or poems about Israel. I am admittedly a bit of a crier myself, but generally more of the sappy, can’t-believe-I’m-crying-at-this-romantic-comedy type. But I generally feel pretty uncomfortable crying in front of my peers. Today was one of the first times I cried out of utter sadness. I didn’t try to fight it, and having my friends around me actually made it easier. So did Raz’s insistence that we not be sad, because it was a beautiful thing these departed had done, and that we should honor their deaths, not lament it. At the end of our little memorial ceremony we sang Hatikvah, a song I have chanted hundreds of times. But doing it there was not just an obligatory end-of-service ritual. It could not have been a more perfect moment to sing the Israeli national anthem. It was so special I could feel it on my skin.
Anyway, enough of the emotional expose. Afterwards we came back to the hotel to say our final goodbyes to the soldiers and discuss our experiences meeting each other. The Israelis mentioned that we didn’t really fit the American stereotype they expected. They appreciated our intellectual curiosity and the sincere personal connections we all formed. We all felt the exact same way, knowing we could have easily stayed very separate, intimidated, disconnected, whatever. My friend Jason Keene made the point that it was really great that we all really got as close as we did in just five days, because he had been talking to some Israelis from a different Birthright group at our hotel who said that they really didn’t feel connected to their American counterparts. We all felt it was really a relationship we would always remember and cherish. So we took our final photos and had our last hugs and bid them adieu. But it’s certainly not goodbye forever.