Ten days after graduation I moved out of my college house, said goodbye to my family and my roommates of the past five years, packed my bags, and got on a plane heading to a country I had never been before — Israel, the Holy Land, the Promised Land, the disputed land, the land of war, and the land of milk and honey. I wouldn’t return home for 92 days. When I left, I wasn’t alone. Waiting at the airport were 39 other Americans, 22 to 27 years old, bags packed, looking nervous and reserved — but all of us had that excited grin peeking out from the corners of our mouths.
You could see it in our eyes. We were pumped to start off our summer with a ten-day trip of a lifetime. Quickly getting shuffled onto the plane, we didn’t really get to meet until we touched down in Ben Gurion airport. My taglit — “discovery” in Hebrew — Birthright Israel trip was full of SoCal participants, kids from San Diego and Los Angeles, so the blazing sun that welcomed us as we landed made us feel right at home.
We were hurried onto our bus, met our limited-English speaking bus driver Jimmy, and immediately embarked on our ten-day excursion. A ten-day taste test of Israel, a sampling tour up and down the country, a peek at what the nation has to offer. We experienced the land drenched in cultural and religious history with a unique modern society living on top of it. We walked under the arches of the Roman aqueduct in Caesarea, stayed at a kibbutz in the Galilee, rafted the Jordan river, lounged in the Dead Sea, prayed at the Western Wall, sloshed our way through the ancient underground water tunnels of the City of David, played matkot (a paddle ball game) on the beaches of Tel Aviv, visited hipster bars, and sipped drinks at clubs that shook from the vibrations of bass notes. Life was great, life was happy, Israel was sweet and savory.
But that wasn’t the entire taste we got of Israel — some parts of Israel were bitter. We visited towns on the periphery, literally bordering the Gaza Strip where preschool playgrounds doubled as army bases and community centers doubled as shelters. Our hike to the top of Mount Bental with a view of the Golan Heights was interrupted by a series of distant explosions, smoke wafting up from where the Syrian Civil War dragged on only 15 miles away. Our campfire songs at the Bedouin tents in the desert were accompanied by the sounds of fighter jets headed into Gaza in response to recent shots fired at Israel. We went to the military cemetery at Mt. Herzl, where families mourned over lost loved ones. We heard stories of lost best friends from the Israelis in our group, all who had once served. We saw grave after grave of 18, 19, 20 year old souls.
It was more of an adventure than I ever could have expected. While my Taglit trip ended after ten days, my personal taglit in Israel — my discovery of Israel — had only just begun. I spent the next 25 days on my own, going back for a second helping of the tastes I didn’t get enough of. A few days in Haifa staying with an amazing family, four days in Tzfat studying Kabbalah and art, five days in Jerusalem with yeshiva boys, and I experienced my first Orthodox Shabbat coupled with the beginning of Ramadan.
I start my two-month Onward Israel LA internship at Tel Aviv University (TAU) tomorrow morning. I will be a research assistant for Dr. Dov Shmotkin at the Herczeg Institute and will be researching the psychology of evil. I couldn’t be more excited and intellectually geeked out. My academic passion and professional aspirations extend beyond this internship. In May I earned my Bachelor’s degree from CSUN, double majoring in Psychology and Religious Studies with a minor in Jewish Studies, and I intend to study religious and cultural identity in graduate school. While I will be working on the 7th floor at TAU, I will also be studying, observing, and analyzing every day with the people I encounter. The Israeli people and culture, a melting pot of identity unlike anywhere else in the world, is the perfect environment for my intellectual fascination.
My academic and life pursuits mirror one another. While investigating what makes up the Israeli persona, I will be searching for and defining my own Jewish and cultural identity.
My summer journey, my discovery, Taglit sheli, is already one third of the way through. If my first four weeks were any indication, I am overwhelmingly thrilled to dive deeper into what it means to be Israeli through the amazing opportunity provided by Onward Israel LA and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Jackson Trager is a recent graduate of California State University-Northridge with degrees in Psychology and Religious Studies. He will be blogging weekly for the Federation about his experience in the inaugural cohort of Onward Israel LA.