Written by David Bessel '15
Shalom to the wonderful friends and family of Mayanot-233! For those keeping track, our group has moved from the splendid Golan Heights down through Tel-Aviv into the spiritual heart and soul of Israel: Jerusalem. After Shabbat, the Jewish holy day of reflection and introspection, we were finally emotionally ready to tackle the sobering, pivotal Yad Vashem, a museum devoted to remembering the innocent Jews that perished in the Holocaust. The museum itself, situated on a hill overlooking the marvelous city of Jerusalem, is a glimmering architectural achievement, an imposing granite-gray edifice with natural lighting illuminating the path of hope for the Jewish people. This path, however, could not have been paved without the blood of our ancestors fighting to preserve our tradition in the face of its most heinous opponents. Proceeding from the Holocaust museum, we walked further up the hill to the Mount Herzel Military Cemetery (for those of you back in the States, think of it as the Israeli Arlington Memorial). An active burial site for the brave men and women that lost their lives in the name of protecting the Jewish people and state, Mount Herzel hit particularly close to home for the Israeli staff and IDF soldiers in our group. Lush gardens coat the cemetery, a physical representation of the gift of peace that the brave soldiers of Israel fought to the very end to preserve.
As somber as Yad Vashem and Mount Herzel were, the Jewish people believe very strongly in the concept of redemption, of life blooming from destruction and of hope serving as a guiding light. We exited the cemetery with the grueling personal accounts of children our age dying in the line of duty still very much on our minds as we became ready to bid our farewells to the soldiers on our trip, a group of wonderful young men and women that had made an indelible imprint on our experience in Israel. What more appropriate a time and place to say our goodbyes than after witnessing, first hand, the price of freedom in Israel. Never before had we so fully understood the implications of serving for your country in a region as hostile to the Jewish people as the Middle East. However, on an even more poignant level, we came to terms with the fact that these soldiers, our friends, were risking their lives for each and everyone one of us, for the sustainability of the Jews in Israel and as a people. These soldiers, our friends, undertook this responsibility of defending Israel at an age when most of us at Dartmouth are most concerned about not getting too sloppy at frat parties and what color of boat shoes to wear. Humbling, to say the least.
With as rambunctious a group as ours, however, we couldn't dwell too long in gloom. With the new perspective we gained from Mount Herzel in tow, we celebrated and cherished the soldiers in our final moments with them on this trip. In a circle of unadulterated love (a common refrain for Birthright trips apparently), the Dartmouth kids and soldiers of Mayanot-233 shared some final thoughts, gooey goodbyes, and reflections of the journey we went on together as a whole. I know that when I look back on my experience with the soldiers, I certainly won't remember the cohort as a bunch of killing machines. I've come to realize, as everyone in our group from Dartmouth seemingly has, that these soldiers are just people, with nuances and quirks and desires and dreams and hope for a better tomorrow. I know that I will think of my time spent dancing sweatily at disco disco with the soldiers and at how well they knew how to bust a groove (I'm looking at you, Vitaliy). I'll recall the laughs I shared with the soldiers and the innumerable serious discussions I had with each and every one of them. Above all else, I'll forever cherish the precious little time I spent learning and growing from them. Much like falafel without tahini sauce, Birthright without our awesome soldiers simply would not have been complete.
After an obscene amount of posing in front of cameras, a slew of firm handshakes, and enough emotion to put "The Notebook" to shame, the soldiers finally rode off into the sunset (literally), beginning a new chapter in their lives and ours. We can only hope that our paths cross again one day. Until next time,