Mysticism of Safed

Day 4:
Today we traveled to the old and historic town of Safed in Northern, Higher Galilee. Already before reaching the city winding through the rising hills surrounded by the fading mist of morning one is struck by the aura of the Israeli frontier and the idea of mysticism that was to be the defining point of the day. Upon reaching Safed I was struck by the remote beauty and the sheer vastness of the valley spreading beneath the town, a beautiful rainbow spreading across it as if to herald the rest of the unfolding day. We went to two ancient synagogues and perused the art section of the city, browsing through the shops and developing a sense of the essence and spirit of the old town. We discussed the idea of mysticism pervading throughout our Jewish history and heritage which truly struck home while sitting inside the beautifully sculpted and designed synagogues. On the way through the town’s art shops and stores I was drawn into one small room by a religious man named Avram and he showed me how to put on the tefillin and say the appropriate prayer. After doing it I was struck with both sadness and nostalgia, a sadness when I realized how long it had been since I had put tefillin on as well as a nostalgia for my days back in Hebrew school where I had learned and first taken part in this custom. I realized that what I was feeling was something I hadn’t felt in a long time, a complete comfort and satisfaction with being Jewish that I haven’t felt since before high school and certainly not in college. I don’t know if it was the atmosphere or the kindness of the man that affected me most but for the first time in such a long time I felt like I had completely reconnected with my Jewish roots. I sent a picture of myself in the tefillin to my father, and as the rain came down walked back to the bus through the quiet streets I think I understood the message of the mysticism of Israel and our heritage.
Guy Topaz
- Also I was constantly informed by all that I have a very Israeli name…go figure

Shabbat by the Sea

Day 3:
The view here at Ohalo is amazing. I started the day with group yoga on the lawn. The sun was shining and the breeze was perfect. We meditated while staring at the beautiful mountains lining the Kinneret. I was excited to hear Ma-tov-vu, my favorite prayer since I was in Hebrew school many many years ago. After a fruitful lunch, everyone put on their summer clothes and played throughout Ohalo. There was an ultimate Frisbee game in the field next to a group of boys passing a football. Everyone was smiling and laughing and taking pictures. My close friend had family visit: her Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, and little cousins. It was heartwarming to see how happy their family was to be reunited after such a long time apart. After lunch, we went on a nature walk to a cemetery close to the Kibbutz. Although it is unlike Jews to visit a cemetery on Shabbot, it was ok because we were celebrating the life of well known Zionists who were buried there. After deciding the walk we took was not full of as much nature as we expected, a couple of friends and I ventured away from the group and walked along the beach. The view along the shore was positively surreal. My friends seemed annoyed at the fact that every other sentence out of my mouth was “Oh my God, we’re in ISRAEL! Do you see what I see? Oh my God…” We stood at the end of a pier in the middle of the Kinneret. I was surrounded by beautiful water, tree covered mountains, millions of birds, and a couple close friends. It was all I needed. This was honestly the most peaceful, restful, and BEAUTIFUL Sabbath I have ever experienced. No Shabbot will ever be the same.
By the way, hearing “Shabbot Shalom” as you pass by every single person you see is a beautiful thing.
Shabbot Shalom everyone,
Jordan [Jackson]
p.s. Uncle Wayne, I did this for you. And don’t get mad at my grammar. I love you!

Shabbat Begins

Virginia Tech represented as we volunteered to lead the Birthright trips in prayers over lighting the Shabbat candles as well as the blessing over the wine and ha-motzey. Everyone had the chance to light their own Shabbat candles, and for many it was their very first time. We chose from two service options and a discussion about what Shabbat means to you. I chose to go to the conservative Kabalat Shabbat services because it had been a very long time since I had attended one. It was special to me to have shared it with a lifelong friend and the new ones I have made on our journey. The room filled with our voices as we all came together and sang aloud, and those familiar sounds helped to sink in that I was celebrating the Shabbat with my peers (something I don’t do very often anymore). I was reminded how good it felt to sing those psalms and mentally prepare yourself for receiving Shabbat. Dinner was an amazing feast of a vast arrangement of Mediterranean cuisine and everyone ate to their hearts’ content. After dinner it was a sight to see all the different schools sing together different Shabbat and Jewish songs. It was a good feeling to know that no matter where we came from or what different Jewish experiences we have had in our lives that we are able to come together as a Jewish community and embrace the holiday of Shabbat in solidarity and happiness. I would definitely say that this erev Shabbat was one experience that I will never forget for the rest of my life. It was almost too surreal to believe that we had finally arrived and received this holiday in our home land. I felt empowered as a Jew to know that we were doing something that our ancestors prayed for and we were able to live out their dreams.
Shalom and I’ll be home too soon,
(just a quick hello to my family- I love and miss you!)

Shabbat Shalom from the Sea of Galilee

Day 1:
At long last, we have arrived in Israel after months of anticipation and excitement. When we all gathered in New York you could feel the enthusiasm in the air. Finally, our Birthright experience was beginning, and we could not will the plane to arrive in Tel Aviv any faster. Despite our obvious exhaustion after having travelled overnight, the sights and sounds that greeted us in Israel were electrifying. It seemed surreal that we were standing in the place of our history, the home of our people. From Tel Aviv, we boarded our new mobile “home” for the next ten days and journeyed north to our first stop, the Ohalo Kibbutz on the southern coast of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret). On our bus, we met Mike, our Israeli educator or rather, our walking encyclopedia on all things Israel who brought us all eight belated Hanukkah presents to help us on our journey through the Holy Land. We were all on the edge of our seats waiting to see what was in store for us tomorrow, but now was time for sleep!

Day 2:
And now the adventure begins! Today we drove an hour north through the town of Tiberius to the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights. The Sea is beautiful and the beach looked stunning (too bad it’s too cold for a beach day). Once we reached our destination, we boarded jeeps and took an off-road tour of the Golan Heights. As we made our way down the bumpy, sliding, muddy roads, the breathtaking sites of the Six Day War were all around us. Syrian bunkers from the front and second lines of defense stand eerily abandoned amongst deserted land mines (no worries, guys, we were safely secure behind the wired fence!) to remind us the extent to which our people have defended this land to preserve it for us and our future. Our next stop was a short fifteen minute drive northeast to the Syrian border. We looked out from the hills and could see Syria on the horizon!

After returning to the Kibbutz, sundown was approaching and it was time to celebrate Shabbos! We are all having an amazing time and it seems impossible that we have only just begun! I for one cannot wait until tomorrow!

With love from Israel,
Randi Lieberman
(p.s. Hi and big hugs to Mom, Dad, Pamela, Eric and Greg!)

2 Days until we leave for Israel

As the conflict in Israel continues, I think about all the students and parents of Taglit-Birthright Israel trips that told us how grateful they are that they or their child had the opportunity to experience Israel firsthand and make personal connections with Israeli soldiers and citizens.

Watching the news each night, we know that this special relationship now takes on a new, important meaning at this time. There are currently thousands of Taglit-Birthright Israel participants in Israel having a wonderful time.

Safety is our number one priority. Our groups are going nowhere near Gaza, Be’er Sheva, Ashkelon or Ashdod. No trips have been cancelled and our agenda is staying as is at this time.

Well, we leave in 2 days! Get psyched!
May 2009 be a year of peace for the world and all Israel.

Sue Kurtz

Student Reflections


After a very long, 14-hour drive on Saturday, we were all anxious to arrive in New Orleans. However, we had no idea what to expect. Katrina hit about three years ago, and for those of us who had never been here, the devastation that still lingers left us all in complete shock. We began our work at a building that used to be a school and has now been transformed into a center for fine arts. The artists pay the rent by teaching classes, as it is slowly renovated back to what it used to look like before Katrina struck. Just by doing simple things like painting and laying carpet, we made such a difference by the end of the week, and it felt so great to know how much we helped these artists.

We also took a tour of the lower ninth ward where the levies broke, and watched a documentary on the disaster, which really brought everything home. This town still needs so much more help, and with what we learned and experienced on this trip, I know I will be back to help, as well as share my knowledge with others and encourage them to do the same.


Being such a culturally diverse city, New Orleans has had a lot to teach all of us. We have been so fortunate to be able to experience all that the city has to offer from the great Cajun and Creole food to the arts to the nightlife.
During the day, we have been busy helping to paint and lay carpet at a school, which has been converted to a community arts center and community center in the Lower 9th Ward district. Though we aren’t rebuilding houses, I feel so good about supporting the arts and helping to restore public buildings. On New Year’s Eve day, we went to the New Orleans Children’s Museum to volunteer with kids for their New Year’s celebration. We were also able to watch an Imax documentary about hurricanes in this area.
Before this trip, I had no idea about all the devastation and tragic circumstances that had come from Hurricane Katrina. This city needs not only our hands-on help, but the knowledge we can spread and bring back home to new people is so important. I have spoken with local people in the area about their personal experiences and have had a much more personal connection to the city than I would have expected. This has been an eye-opening experience for me and I hope to carry it with me for a long time.

See Photos From New Orleans

We are always learning

We’re always learning.
New Orleans is such a unique place. It doesn’t feel like a part of the U.S. It has such a unique culture. The music is always playing. Songs of a love that is so strong the people can’t stop this passion for this place. A pride exists that unites the community.
The internet won’t connect even though I was promised free access. There are only 2 thin, small towels in the room. The water is not running with a strong force. People are living on the streets on every block. Buildings are being renovated everywhere. The music plays on. The hearts of the people beat hard. And they welcome us with a warmth and gratitude. “Thanks for coming to visit, to work”.
I only stopped at New Orleans to be able to share a small part of the trip with the 24 students who went there to help rebuild. On my way to Taglit-Birthright Israel I wanted to spend New Years with my husband who was staffing the trip. As always, the students taught me so much. They told their stories of their first 4 ½ days. Through their words I heard how they stepped out of their comfort zone to rip up floor boards, strip floors, paint walls. Their pride and effort showed through the spoken word. They spoke to the people; whispering first, voices getting louder and louder……………Were you here when Katrina came? What have you seen?
Tonight the students saved their leftover food and gave it to the homeless. They didn’t do that the first day. Today they grew and stretched and embraced their experience. We all shared something that will forever change us for the better.
The Garden district contrasts the distraught buildings we are working on. Slick and clean with new paint, crisp lines with sculptured gardens…. In contrast to chipped and fragile walls, wires revealing the guts of the buildings, bleeding with pain, and containing stories never told.
Life is fragile. Time goes fast. We are all part of precious communities. I hold close the incredible sacrifice and decision the students made to come here and work during their break. Thank you, Julianna, for all your work and organizing.
We are always learning.
With appreciation and love, Sue