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Layers of History: Israel's rich past offers unique experience
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Melissa Weinman, political reporter for The Times

It was in Tzfat that it really sank in.

I was listening to Avraham, an American born painter who years earlier had left his home to study and paint in one of Israel's four holy cities.

He wore a long scraggly beard, faded blue jeans and sock cap, looking every bit the part of the artist.

His eyes lit up when he spoke about his work and about his religion. The cynic in me was initially off put by his overt sincerity.

But I was touched by something he said that put my trip to Israel in perspective: it wasn't really about me.

"For thousands of years, Jews have prayed to be able to return to Israel," he said. "And now you are here. For many of you, you are the first person in generations of your family to touch Israeli soil. Think about how awesome that is."

On Jan. 3, I left for a 10-day trip to Israel through an organization called Taglit Birthright Israel.

The trip is supported by private donations as well as funding from the Israeli government to give young Jews the opportunity to see Israel.

The name "birthright" pays homage to Israel's Law of Return, which grants Jews around the world the right to settle in Israel and gain Israeli citizenship.

Israel is central to Jewish identity, spiritually and geographically.

It is the biblical holy land, saturated with more than 4,000 years of history.

Since being exiled by the Romans thousands of years ago, there has been a connection and longing for Israel ingrained in Judaism.

Each year at Passover, the seder meal ends with the prayer, "Next year in Jerusalem."

For Jews, the modern state of Israel, founded in 1948 shortly after the end of the Holocaust, represents a harbor from persecution.

Personally, I had never felt an overwhelming connection to Israel. I lead a perfectly comfortable life in America.

But being in Israel made me realize that I am part of a much bigger picture.

A whirlwind journey

When I arrived in Ben Gurion airport at the start of the trip after nearly 24 hours of travel, it was like being blindfolded, spun three times and released into a different universe.

In our short time there, we traveled from end to end of the tiny country, which is roughly the size of New Jersey.

But its size is deceptive. It is jam-packed with history and culture and more geographical diversity than anywhere I've ever seen.

I walked through the ancient cities of Jerusalem and Tzfat as well as the modern metropolis of Tel Aviv. I explored sparse deserts, lush mountains and swam in a sea that was so salty I could float without even trying.

Each day had an arsenal of activities from start to finish. I often awoke before dawn and went to sleep well after midnight.

I never quite recovered from the delirium, but it was a treat to take a break from reality to travel and experience something new.

The ancient city

It's safe to say Jerusalem is unlike any other city in the world. Faced with the spiritual home of three major religions, it's hard not to be humbled by your place in the world.

Approaching the walls of the old city, it's difficult to think about just how old it is. As a Georgia girl, my concept of age is quite shallow. Relics from the Civil War seem ancient to me.

But 150 years barely makes a notch on the belt of a city that was a well-established town when Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago. For thousands of years, Jerusalem has been conquered and reconquered by ancient empires like the Babylonians, Persians and Romans.

Each culture left its mark in the many layers of the scrappy city.

The ancient gates erected for the city's protection also bear the bullet holes of Jerusalem's modern fight for independence.

Mount Moriah, the site where Abraham is said to have brought Isaac as a sacrifice in the book of Genesis, is also the site of the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims believe Muhammad ascended into heaven.

But nothing was quite as profound as the Western Wall.

Solitude in a crowded place

The wall is the last remaining piece of the temple that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.

From a distance, it looks like nothing special. A short segment of stone wall stuck in the middle of the city.

But as you get closer, the wall looks much more imposing. The sight of it hits you like one of the 600 ton stones in its foundation that seem to carry the spirit of the thousands who have come to the wall to find peace with God.

The area around the wall is split into two by a "metchiza," a partition that separates men from women.

There are crevices between the patchwork of stones of the wall, some of which are home to vines, others hollow.

It is tradition to bring a note with a prayer to put into the wall.

Not being a very religious person myself, I was surprised to feel my chest tighten as I approached it.

It was quiet all around me as I slid my way through the women gathered there to find my own place by the wall.

I found a nook for my own small note and then placed my palms on the cold, smooth stones.

Though I was surrounded on all sides, I felt a moment of peace and solitude.

The faces of Israel

While in Jerusalem, our group of 40 was joined by eight Israeli soldiers. They stayed with us for five days and their presence gave the trip a whole new dimension.

These are the people who live the headlines.

For years, I've read about the conflicts in Israel with the kind of disconnect that comes from being thousands of miles away.

But to them, it is an everyday reality.

They are all personally invested in Israel's constant defense. They've lost friends and family in wars over the years. One had lost a classmate that week to fighting in Gaza.

Military service is mandatory for Israelis after high school, with most serving two to four years, depending upon their unit.

It's considered the great melting pot for the state, because people from all backgrounds enter together and come out wearing the same uniform.

Though the majority of Israel's population is Jewish, it is diverse, religiously and ethnically.

"One thing the army taught you is you can't judge anyone until you talk to them," said Shir, one of the female soldiers I met on the trip.

Not only were they a window into Israeli life, but they were all incredible people that I feel lucky I had the chance to meet.

Voices in the desert

I had the chance to explore not just cobblestoned streets but also the wilderness of Israel. After leaving Jerusalem, we boarded a bus and drove south through the night.

When the bus stopped, I woke up to feel that the air was warmer and the land around me was an open, rocky desert.

The days I spent in the desert were some of the most fun and meaningful times during my stay in Israel.

For me, being outdoors is good for the soul. Most days, I have one ear glued to the telephone and eyes trained to the computer screen while I furiously type.

Our tour guide Michal put it best: God speaks to people in the desert.

It's no coincidence, she pointed out, that three major religions were born in these deserts.

The canyons and hills are stunning against the backdrop of a brilliantly blue sky.

It's quiet, and the abundance of space makes it easy to listen.

End of the road

I did so much over my 10 days in Israel that it's difficult to give everything the justice it deserves in words.

But the variety of my experiences reflects on Israel itself, which is at once, ancient and modern, urban and wild.

One of the Hebrew slang phrases I learned while I was there was "Sof ha derech," which is used to describe something really cool.

Directly translated, it means "end of the road."

I think it pretty adequately sums up my adventures in Israel.

I drove, hiked, danced and ate my way up and down the road of Israel, and when I came to the end, I couldn't have asked for more.

Melissa Weinman is a political reporter at The Times. She participated in a 10-day trip to Israel throught the group Taglit Birthright Israel.

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