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Joseph Wolkin, second from right, during a visit to the Golan Winery in Golan Heights with his group, Israel 2.0, just before departing for Jerusalem. Photo from Joseph Wolkin

By Joseph Wolkin

The goose bumps were out and about among the 38 students traveling to the Holy Land at the end of June on Israel 2.0, a post-Birthright trip designed to give an additional learning experience throughout Israel.

Traveling to the only Jewish state in the world, our group was greeted by Rabbi Chaim Burg, a Mexican-born rabbi who now lives in Passaic, New Jersey, and leads the group. Throughout the 10-plus-hour flight, Rabbi Burg made sure to greet each individual. When he approached me, my first question was simple: How did you get this trip started?

The rabbi’s answer was quite intriguing. He teased about how he was not born in America but refused to delve into it until Shabbat — the holiest day of the week in Judaism, which includes not using electronic devices for those who strictly observe it. However, he spoke about how he used to lead Birthright trips and was inspired to start his own program.

Israel 2.0 is a 16-day trip run by Rabbi Burg. The program is quite different from Birthright, where the majority of that trip — one that is free — is spent on touring Israel. This one, however, had a mixture of touring, followed by approximately one week studying about Judaism at Aish HaTorah — a well-respected Yeshiva — in Jerusalem overlooking the Western Wall.

When we arrived in Israel, our first stop was Jaffa Port. The area is known as the location of Jonah’s battle with a whale, which swallowed the prophet for several days to save him from drowning after being thrown off a ship by sailors during a storm. Then, it was off to Tel Aviv.

Known as Startup City, Tel Aviv is home to some of the world’s most successful start-up companies. The area has blossomed over the years, featuring a plethora of high-tech companies throughout the city overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

In addition to Tel Aviv’s modern, secular culture, it is also known for its rather wild nightlife. Our group set out for a journey during our first evening in the area, a few hours after traveling to the beach to relax after a hectic day. We ended up at a bar in the midst of the city, being greeted by Israelis left and right, who welcomed us with open arms.

The next morning, it was time to volunteer at Save a Child’s Heart, an organization that provides heart surgery and follow-up care for children living in countries where having cardiac procedures is essentially unattainable. According to the foundation, a child is saved every 29 hours within Israeli facilities or on an Israeli medical mission in a partner country.

We spent a few hours at Save a Child’s Heart, learning about the process of how kids are selected to be flown to Israel and receive treatment. At the time we were visiting, the majority of the children were from Africa, but they also treat kids from the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Iraq, Morocco, Asia, Eastern Europe and the Americas.

I had the honor of spending time with a 13-year-old boy from Tanzania, who loves music. He took my iPhone and went straight to YouTube, searching for his favorite music. As his grin got larger, I realized just how fortunate we are to have such amazing doctors and how amazing these kids feel to know that their lives are being saved.

Later that day, we journeyed to the Center for the Deaf and Mute. The tour was quite intense, with no cell phones allowed and soundproof headphones covering everyone’s ears. Oh, and we weren’t allowed to talk because the tour guide was indeed deaf and wanted us to communicate only with our hands.

Our guide was all smiles throughout the dynamic, not once seeming upset about her disability. She showed us how she communicates with family and friends, providing an insight as to what it is like to be deaf, one that a non-hearing-impaired person can’t experience in everyday life. The experience was truly moving, especially in a question-and-answer session with the woman, who spoke through a sign language translator, elaborating on how she was born deaf and makes the most out of her life with no complaints.

Kayaking on the Jordan River the next day, my group was tossed into the river. The competitor in all of us truly came out, splashing each other and acting like 5-year-olds during our journey.

At night, we took at boat ride in Tiberius, otherwise known as the Sea of Galilee. The remarkable beauty of the mountains surrounding us, along with the crystal clear water, was outstanding, giving us a nice sense of calm while playing drums on the boat after quite the busy week.

Wrapping up the week, we spent Shabbat in the holy city of Tzfat. But before Shabbat began, we toured the area, learning about the roots of Kabbalah — the mystical part of Judaism.

Our group met an artist, Avraham Loewenthal, who spoke about how he went from living in Michigan to being a Kabbalist. His insight onto life was remarkable, seeing how thrilled he was to live in Tzfat and studying Kabbalah. As he put it, “the Kabbalah changed my life.”

Finally, the Sabbath arrived. The men were suited up and the women were dressed in traditional clothes as we walked down the road from our hotel to a Chabad in Tzfat. Singing Kabbalat Shabbat — the prayers to welcome in the Sabbath — in the melodies made famous by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in the 20th century, our group was just one of several within the synagogue.

As we kicked back and enjoyed a traditional meal on Friday night, Rabbi Burg spoke about a key term known in Hebrew as “Shamor V’Zachor,” translated into English as “keep and remember.” He elaborated on the importance of remembering the Sabbath day, but to make a true effort to keeping Shabbat as the sages of Judaism teach us.

Throughout Shabbat, we mingled and sang songs. It was the first time on the trip we united as one. That day, we learned about the rabbi’s heritage, never expecting to hear he grew up in a non-Jewish home, though his mother was Jewish. Post-Shabbat, we journeyed back to Tiberius, going on the boat once again. As we danced and sang, as one person put it, “It was like our own little club.” Finally, we set off for Jerusalem …

(See Part Two of Joe’s journey to the Holy Land in next week’s issue.) 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.