I love shwarma. That mouth-watering mixture of salat, hummus, charif, chips, chatzilim, and meat, embraced by a succulent lafa is unbeatable. And the truth is much of my hopes for this summer revolved around the frequency at which I would be able to eat said shwarma. Maybe I was obsessing over shwarma because I knew what to expect. My previous trips to Israel taught me to love shwarma, and I was sure that this trip with Ramah Poland-Israel Seminar would be no different. Though I came in craving the familiar, I fell in love with something I didn’t expect.
Eli Grossman, third from left in the back row, is pictured with Ramah classmates during the Ramah Poland-Israel Seminar.
So why was my summer so formative? What catalyzed my metamorphosis? I offer an anecdote: It was appropriately dreary the day we visited Aushwitz-Birkenau. Dense clouds covered the sky and it seemed to me that blue skies never appeared there. We spent the afternoon revisiting the darkest times in Jewish history in the most evil place on earth. I remember feeling for the first time a distinct absence of God. After walking the length and breadth of the camp, viewing barracks, gas chambers, latrines, and various monuments, we ended up on the ruins of what was an efficient gas chamber/crematoria hybrid. After a closing ceremony we stood in silence. Some people had their arms around their neighbors, but I had my hands buried in my pockets. I was looking down at the mossy ground, trying to figure out all the feelings that were stirring inside me when, from somewhere, someone began humming Am Yisrael Chai. Slowly others caught on. Am Yisrael Chai. I put my arms around my neighbor. Am Yisrael Chai. We were proclaiming the survival of the Jewish people in the place where our annihilation seemed most possible and the most imminent.
Let’s fast forward. My counselors woke me in the Negev desert at dawn. After a night of sleeping under the stars with nothing but a sleeping bag and a flimsy mat, I slowly rose and looked around. I was on a five-day desert survival trip. This five-day etgar, or challenge, is only a highlight of the six-week, comprehensive Ramah Israel Seminar, which took me all over the country: from the Syrian border to the mall in Eilat, and from the Dead Sea to the beach at Tel Aviv. But on that particular morning, dozens of other sleepy Ramahniks on the desert survival trip packed up their sleeping bags and prepared for a long day. I strapped on my backpack, filled up my camel pack and an empty Prigat bottle with exactly four liters of water, and started my early morning trek through the desert.
It gets hot in the desert. If you think it was hot in your sukkah on the first two days of Sukkot, you haven’t experienced heat. And so we would get in a good seven hours of hiking in the morning before it got too hot to move. So for the hours between noon and four, we would have our little siesta, as we called it, where we made our own lunches and endeavored to pass the time. So we joked around, told funny stories, and sang. And on one of those occasions, as we mowed our way through our Ramah-song repertoire, we ended up at the familiar tune of Am Yisrael Chai. There I was, once again, surrounded by my friends singing Am Yisrael Chai this time with a very different kind of survival on my mind.
Survival. It is the common denominator between the two situations. In the Negev I was on what was called "desert survival," and in Poland, weeks before, I had proclaimed the survival of the Jewish people. I cannot express how fortunate I feel that my survival was the survival in the desert, not the unimaginable survival of those during the Holocaust. And though I offer them up for comparison, I in no way suggest that they are equal.
That stirring dichotomy between survival in a Jewish land as opposed to survival in the anti-Jewish land fundamentally shaped my Israel experience. I found a new reason to love Israel. Shwarma had been replaced. The desert spoke to me because it embodied the triumph of the Jewish people. There we were, a group of Jewish teenagers hiking through the Jewish land. Our being there was the ultimate vindication of Jewish survival. And the desert spoke to me in ways that even shwarma couldn’t.
I learned that I love hiking the challenge and the reward of a grueling uphill climb.
I gained an understanding of how small I really am. As tall as I feel standing next to my mother, I was completely humbled by the incomprehensible vastness of the desert. I stood atop mountains and could see for miles through the clear skies of the Negev, but I was only seeing a small portion of the desert.
I was taken by the multi-dimensional personality of the desert. I hiked rocky, dry trails and rolled down soft sand dunes. I trekked where the earth was cracking from thirst, and dipped my head into a frigid pool at an unexpected oasis.
I learned I love the physical beauty of the Negev. I had never seen so many stars at night. I remember lying on my back and trying to count as many stars as I could. It seemed to me that the sky was more white than black.
I discovered a new branch of my own personal spirituality. To lay tefillin in the desert where my forefathers wandered, and daven shacharit as the sun rose over the hills of the Negev was an extremely powerful experience.
I want to thank the Shulman family for showing me a part of Israel beyond shwarma. Likewise, I’d like to thank the Temple Beth Sholom committee and Rabbi Kenneth Berger for their vote of confidence. And, of course, I would like to thank Ramah for six amazing summers and an incredible Israel Program.
This trip not only changed my views towards Israel, but also inspired me to open negotiations with my parent over returning for the gap year between high school and college a negotiation, it is pretty clear, I am going to win.
So what’s my wish for all of you? My wish is for you to find an opportunity to redefine Israel for yourselves, just like I did: To leave your preconceived shwarma-like notions at the door, and step into a new way to experience Israel. Here are a few ideas:
If you love food and wine, get in touch with Kerem Tours for a private tour of Israel’s wineries and vineyards that covers a span from Jerusalem all the way up into the Galil.
If hot stone massages are your thing, spend a weekend at the Carmel Forest Spa Resort, Israel’s largest and most luxurious spa.
Sadly, our Ramah itinerary did not include either of these two stops.
Call Jewish National Fund or talk to Bob Levine, JNF’s national vice president of education (he lives in Teaneck) about going on a JNF trip to Israel to see the many ways in which JNF is rebuilding our land. It’s not just about planting trees anymore.
And if you want to take a family vacation, countless water parks, fun-filled hikes, kayaking down the Jordan River, and the Biblical Zoo all make for the perfect family trip.
And, for me, have a shwarma somewhere along the way.
Eli Grossman was the co-recipient of the Cong. ’3′;Beth Sholom Shulman Family Scholarship, a merit scholarship that supports ’3′;participation in summer programs in Israel. A 17-year-old Teaneck resident, he used his award to travel to ’3′;Israel in June with Ramah Poland-Israel Seminar and came back to share his ’3′;reflections with the congregation over the holidays.