Free Expressions of Faith

By Ariel Wexler

My trip to Israel was a life-changing experience that connected me to my sense of spirituality and Judaism, and also allowed me to form friendships that will last a lifetime. My trip was through BBYO, and it was called ILSI (International Leadership Seminar in Israel). One of my favorite things about the trip was that we went all over the country, and I got a real sense of what living in Israel would be like.

On the first day of the trip, we went to Jerusalem, where we toured the Old City and the Western Wall, and explored the ancient underground water tunnels dug by Hezekiah. We spent our first Shabbat in the mystical city of Tzfat, where we learned about the city’s Kabbalistic origins and attended a traditional Orthodox Shabbat service. Then we traveled north, all the way up to the Lebanese and Syrian borders. We picked crops for the needy, learned about the Druze in the village of Ussfiya, toured the stunning Baha’i gardens in Haifa, and camped out for a night on the Kineret (Sea of Galilee).

After exploring the Golan Heights and the rest of the North, we went to Tel Aviv, where we shopped and ate at the Carmel Market. We spent a relaxing Shabbat in our hotel and then traveled south. Our first stop in the south was Kibbutz Sde Boker, the kibbutz where David Ben Gurion lived for many years (he is also buried there). Next, we rode camels and camped out in a Bedouin tent. We also visited the Ramon Crater and learned about Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who tragically died during a space mission. At 3:30 A.M. the next morning, we traveled to the base of Masada, where we watched the sun rise and had a truly unique morning prayer service. Afterwards, we floated in the Dead Sea before returning to Jerusalem.

The last part of the trip was in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. We had a moving day at Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl, and a colorful evening at the Machane Yehuda marketplace (“the shuk”). The next day, we had an inspiring technology workshop at Tel Aviv University, and spent the evening on the beach eating falafel. Then we saw the more serious side of Tel Aviv, with visits to Independence Hall and Yitzhak Rabin Square. Afterwards, we traveled back to Jerusalem where we had Shabbat at the Kotel, which was one of the most meaningful experiences of the entire trip. Finally, we enjoyed our last night in Israel on the fabulous and fun Ben Yehuda Street.

Before going on this trip, I did not understand why some Jews felt a spiritual connection to Israel. To me, it was just a place. After going to Israel, I get it. There is something incredibly special about being able to express your faith so freely. Not only is it a beautiful country physically, but there is also a unique type of “tough love” that native Israelis have, which I find so endearing. Overall, my trip to Israel was an amazing experience that I would not trade for anything.

Ariel Wexler, the daughter of Molly and Jason Wexler, is a senior at Lausanne Collegiate School. Memphis Jewish Federation’s Lemsky Endowment Fund provided her with a Teen Israel Experience grant to help offset the costs of her BBYO ILSI program in Israel. All rising juniors and seniors in the Memphis Jewish community are eligible for grants of up to $2500 to attend a recognized teen summer program in Israel. Teen Israel Experience applications for summer 2017 are available here.

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