This past summer, Logan Castle, rising senior at Porter-Gaud, embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime journey to Israel. Through the Charleston Jewish Federation and its affiliation with Partnership2Gether, Logan engaged in an exchange program that brought him closer to Jewish teens from the Southeastern U.S., as well as Israeli teens that participated in the program as well. Through the program, Logan was given the opportunity to be home-hosted in our Partnership 2Gether region of Hadera-Elron, and he found joy in the little things--from inside jokes with his peers to a coerced shawarma meal. Read below his reflection on the trip.
The fact that I almost missed this trip amazes me. I remember sitting down in my school's library during our "Jewish Life" program, listening to my friend describe how much he loved it during a presentation, and thinking to myself, Yeah right, I don't care if it's "life changing," I'd never enjoy something like that. I left the room on that conclusion, and my life continued as normal.
That night, however, my parents sat me down, and asked me to really think hard about it. Sure, I had my birthright trip I could use at some point, but this was different: a trip to Israel with an itinerary planned by locals. My friend actually might be right: this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I changed my mind. Why not? At the very least I'd be able to check Jerusalem off of my historical places bucket list.
July 2nd comes with much anxiety and the beginning of my own little odyssey to the Holy Land. International flight is everything I feared -- our flight from JFK is set hours from now, and it's already midnight. But things could be worse; the check-in line is over four hours long, and at its end waits a man looking very much like Vladimir Putin, deciding I'm a threat to national security and isolating me from my group, the only familiarity I have in this colossal, dirty airport, to personally check my backpack and its 11 highly dangerous protein bars.
By the time the tortuous nine hour flight has ended and we've come to our hotel, I'm ready to roll into my bed and welcome sleep's silent embrace. What a silly idea. Our rooms are separated by gender, three per room. We arrive, get into our rooms at 9 pm. We sleep at 3 am (and wake up the "next morning" at 7). It turns out, spending over 5 hours in airport hell with random people apparently brings them closer together. We talk for almost the entire night, like we've known each other for years, cracking more jokes than I have with some long-time friends. The guy who said hardly a word, from the moment we met in Charleston to our arrival at the gate in JFK, is now somehow chattier than me. I go to sleep knowing this instant brotherhood will only get stronger.
Our days are jam-packed full of so many unique and varied hotspots, tourist traps, and hidden gems that I'd waste pages describing it all -- from splashing around in ancient underground waterways to reluctant "shawarma" dinner at the hands of one of the souk's aggressive salesmen, it's all stuff I've dreamed of doing or never knew I wanted to do; all of this, with the nicest, coolest, funniest, most chill, etc etc strangers I've ever had the pleasure of knowing in my life. The dynamic is fantastic: the guys all have "secret crushes" on each other, the girls enthusiastically point out "fascinating, hidden" details a blind toddler could've caught onto. We're faced with a variety of spoon situations (a term introduced to us by our Israeli tour guide as a slang phrase): times when we're faced with misery so awful delirium is the only option. Climbing down a mountain in 120 degree heat? Make a joke about how there's no railing. Treated to another not-so-incredible kosher
cheeseburger? Nonsense! Kosher makes everything taste better!
When we meet our Israelis, the group dynamic only gets better. After I finally get to Yoav's house, his family greets me with absurd amounts of hospitality. They ask me what I want for dinner, do my laundry, bring me blankets; wasn't I supposed to be the guest, the random dude you don't know? Shouldn't I have to show my worth? Obviously, in hindsight, it's a somewhat nice thing to do when your guest is in a place where nothing makes sense, barely anything's in his language and everything works differently, but those weren't my thoughts then. They took me to their family's kibbutz, essentially a rural commune. Thanks to them, I see a beautiful part of the country, geographical and cultural, that we totally skipped over on the main tour, and thanks to myself, I get a faint case of sunstroke.
Back onto the tour, our expanded group is even better; the Israelis' humor greatly compliments our own, and it helps that much of American pop culture is well-known in the country. We swim down the Jordan river, instantly breaking the one rule we were told: to not leave the raft. Eventually we reach the Negev desert in the south, hands-down the driest place I have been in my life. We camp in a conspicuously touristy "Bedouin Village," staying up outrageously late once more, and, after a nice nap (two hours doesn't seem like a night of sleep to me), we rise bright and early to climb the ancient fortress mountain of Masada.
We get to the base of the mountain at 5 am and climb to the top in less than 30 minutes, leaving us plenty of time to rest and appreciate that which we came here for: the most glorious sunrise I've ever seen. It was like the location was made just for that: there was a gap in the Abarim mountains that the sun just so happened to rise through. The scale of our view across the Dead Sea basin, the weight of what we'd done so far on our trip, and how close we were to its end -- these all combined for, in my opinion, the best moment of the trip.
I can't properly encapsulate nor express all of my feelings for this trip, and I worry that I've done a poor job so far. They just range so far, as far as I was from what I was used to. I'll just say this. When my friend said that this trip is life-changing, he really did hit the nail on the head.
Open to all rising 10th and 11th graders in the Charleston area, Tikkun Olam Summer Exchange Trip is a once-in-a-lifetime experience off the beaten tourism track. This incredible opportunity combines touring and community service, planned programs and free time with your Israeli family. Participating teens will:
- Be hosted and feel a part of the family of an Israeli teen;
- Travel through Israel with both American and Israeli friends from our ten Southeastern US Communities; and
- Make friendships that will last a lifetime!
To receive more information, contact Erin Boynton (843-614-6491.)