This past weekend, our program took a trip to Ein Gedi and the dead sea for some hiking, swimming, and two days of dialoguing with Israeli peers.
After waking up at an ungodly hour (7am) and driving for two hours, our first stop was the Ein Gedi reserve, where we met up with the Israelis. We split into four smaller groups, did an awkward introductory game involving throwing a ball to each other, and then entered the reserve.
At the midpoint of the hike, we stopped for another session where everyone marked a spot on a map of the world and explained why that place was meaningful to them. I chose Southeast Asia because it was that trip that sparked my desire to keep moving and traveling and experiencing.
And then the Aarons were volunteered for a demonstration of the mating rituals of the local ibex population.
After the hike, we took advantage of our free time to swim in the sea. (We weren’t allowed to, so don’t tell our program.)
The Dead Sea has been shrinking for years, thanks to a drop-off in the amount of water running reaching the sea due to a dam that was built up-river. As such, while we entered a ‘beach’ area near the reserve, it was actually 20+ feet above the sea level, and getting to the water required a significant bit of rock scrambling and sliding down loose scree to get to the bottom. Fortunately, I was wearing shoes. Unfortunately, I was wearing shoes – which meant I had no protection against the super sharp salt crystals that formed on the rocks. I cut open the bottom of my foot pretty good.
And my hand.
After swimming, I showered and then it was time for kabbalat shabbat. I opted to do the yoga option, as much as I hate yoga, because it seemed more appropriate than anything involving prayers.
After kabbalat shabbat and dinner, we had our first dialogue session. We talked about a lot of things in small groups, like what it’s like to be a Jew in the diaspora, with the Israelis. Once that ended at 10.30pm, most people split up to play games or hang out, but a few friends and I went down toward the water to look for the stars.
Apparently you have to be careful where you walk around the Sea, because the shrinking water level means a shrinking water table, which means the porous sandstone that was once full of water is now pocked by empty caverns susceptible to collapsing into sinkholes. (So yes, we were careful, Nanny.) That part of the country is pretty empty, so there was almost no light pollution. We saw a huge number of stars, but somehow were unable to locate the big dipper.
Then I rapped Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle” for everyone.
The next day, after more discussions, I went on another hike in Ein Gedi.
This time we got to swim. It was a bit cold for swimming, but I really shouldn’t be complaining because after 5 years in Boston there’s no reason why I should’ve been walking around in shorts and a t-shirt on November 29th – let alone swimming outside.
On the way back I tried on Noa’s sunglasses. She says they looked better on me than her. I agree.
And we saw ibex! Ibexes? Ibexi? Many ibex!
The males had huge horns! So big that they had to angle their heads when looking up while foraging so as not to spear their own backs. It was cool to be able to get so close to them.
If you look closely in the last picture, you can see a hyrax hiding in the tree, too.
Overall, I enjoyed the weekend. The dialogues raised some interesting questions with healthy debates. Iran’s nuclear program, the legalization of marijuana, the most pressing challenges facing the global Jewish community, whether Jews outside of Israel should be allowed to vote for Prime Minister, the blockade on Gaza – it was some pretty significant stuff. And as is to be expected, I fell on the far left of the spectrum for most answers. But I also played up the part a bit in order to encourage dialogue and get people thinking, while also challenging myself to try to defend positions I didn’t necessarily 100% believe.
Israelis pull no punches when sharing their opinions, but what I also continue to find is that they both a) tend to not understand when you ask a purely factual question during a debate (instead they try to ‘argue’ with you, when you’re not even sharing an opinion but just asking for information, which gets amazingly frustrating), and b) have a tendency to take any statement as an attack or criticism, whether you mean for it to be or not, and attempt to argue a point whether or not they have any real footing to stand on.
It’s part of the charm of being here, I suppose. People are passionate and willing to fight for what they believe in. But it’s also indicative of what I see as a larger global-image problem – they seem to be so conditioned to expect criticism that they have gone beyond being defensive to instead almost being on the offensive. They’re so expecting of attacks that they’re nearly unable to recognize when you are on their side.
I can’t say I made a whole lot of friends out of the seminar, but I found it refreshing to be an environment where my views were challenged and where people were engaged in honest and earnest discussions of important issues. It was a nice change from the daily routine I’ve settled into here.
And of course seeing cute animals and floating in the Dead Sea were pretty fucking sweet, too.