Ready to celebrate, Joseph Wolkin (center in white shirt) and his group, Israel 2.0, went to the Western Wall for Shabbat services on Friday evening, dancing and singing before the Sabbath even began. Photo from Joseph Wolkin
By Joseph Wolkin
Embarking on our second week in what we call Eretz Yisrael, Israel 2.0 had a relaxing day in the Golan Heights before setting off for Jerusalem.
We started the day with a beautiful, calm hike in the Golan. Next, we journeyed to the Golan Heights Winery, where we went wine tasting and experienced the joy of the sweet grape flavors. While in the winery, we were able to get a tour of how the wine is made, processed and eventually sent out for shipping.
The highlight of that day was driving ATVs in the northern part of Israel. Our group split up between three and four people per ATV, roaring through the dirt roads. Some people were spontaneous enough to even jump inside a shallow river just off the path during one of our three stops, while others enjoyed some fresh watermelon from the ATV staff. But the craziest part of that journey might have been going full throttle into mud, destroying our clothes and needing a shower immediately after we got off the ATVs.
Once we arrived in what is considered to be Judaism’s holiest area, our group’s first task was to take a tour of the Western Wall – the Kotel in Hebrew. Walking to the Kotel, my heart paced rapidly, visiting one of the holiest sites in Judaism for the first time in a year.
Eventually, it was time to start learning at Aish HaTorah. With a series of four lectures throughout the day, our group learned about different levels of pleasure, understanding how much knowledge you truly have and the most intriguing part of the day’s classes, a presentation from ZAKA, a non-profit international rescue unit.
Yossi Fraenkel, an operation’s officer at ZAKA, gave an emotional hour-plus presentation about the unit’s rescue efforts. As he showed us crime scenes of terror attacks not only in Israel but also throughout the world, his voice cracked, showing how horrific things have been throughout his career.
The next day was full of lectures, discussing the difference between knowledge and faith, “The Seven Wonders of Jewish History,” hidden codes within the Torah and the belief of G-d’s role in the history of the universe.
During the evening, we set out for Ben Yehuda Street, one of the premier nightlife areas in all of Israel. It was the first time our group went to Ben Yehuda during the trip, and we made the most of it, going to different restaurants and exploring the bar scene.
The following day was quite the busy one. We had one-on-one learning in the yeshiva, followed by a discussion led by Stand with Us, an Israeli advocacy organization that works to help educate people in order to create peace in Israel. The discussion went on for quite awhile, with some heated debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as we learned about the heavy propaganda use by the Palestinian government, history of the land and other key facts.
Later that afternoon, we went to Sderot, one of the scarier areas of Israel. Seemingly always under the radar of being attacked by rockets from Gaza, there is a bomb shelter in a park in the shape of a snake where children can hide, along with each bus stop in the area being a bomb shelter. We went to a police station, in that park, and saw the types of missiles that are sent into the area, but fortunately seldom cause any major damage.
Finally, we got to ride camels at Kfar Hanokdim, a bedouin tent in the midst of the Judean desert. The camels might smell horrific, but hopping on top of them as the sun was setting was indeed on point. We spent the evening in the area, where we were able to see the Milky Way, full of shooting stars and the dim white light of the sky.
The next morning, we went straight to Yam HaMelach — the Dead Sea. Ouch. Don’t go in there if you have any cuts, especially open ones. It hurts just as much as people say it will. However, the beauty of the area is remarkable. And if you use TMobile like I do, you’ll probably receive a text saying, “Welcome to Jordan.”
That evening, Israel 2.0 was one of numerous groups from around the world to attend the Olami Mega Event, featuring Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of education. Dancing and singing with random people from around the world, I was astonished by how welcoming everyone was, from the soldiers to the rabbis and all of my peers.
Leading up to Shabbat, our Friday was spent at Yad Vashem — the Holocaust museum — and shopping at Machane Yehuda, an open market area within Jerusalem.
Come sunset, we journeyed back to the Kotel, singing and dancing for over an hour with two other groups from Olami to welcome in the Sabbath. After jumping around for Lecha Dodi, one of the main songs to begin Shabbat, I stopped to take a minute to embrace the beauty of everyone coming together. We didn’t care who had germs, where we were from or anything like that. All that mattered was we were Jewish and were becoming bigger believers by the second.
Oh, and that Saturday was my 21st birthday. The amount of kindness from my group on that day was absolutely astonishing. One of our staff members, Julia, organized an unbelievable night for me once Shabbat concluded.
We went to a beautiful restaurant in Jerusalem, where I was greeted with ice cream and had whipped cream thrown at me by my friends after we finished eating. The rest of the night is kind of a blur, but we went to a great bar, with plenty of my friends treating me to drinks because they were quite awesome.
The rest of the trip was spent doing some more one-on-one learning, along with a few group sessions. During this time, I studied Pirkei Avot, known as the Ethics of the Fathers. Delving into this new level of learning, something my rabbi has pushed me to do for quite some time, I began to realize something about myself: It takes true patience to learn about the major concepts of Judaism, and for me, this is just the start of something beautiful.
Sadly, our time with Israel 2.0 came to an end on July 13. As the plane launched off the ground at Ben Gurion Airport, one could not help but wonder when we will be back in the Holy Land.
Joseph Wolkin is a journalism major at Stony Brook University, a regular NASCAR reporter for multiple publications and an intern for Times Beacon Record Newspapers.