Birthright Israel Excel 2013 by participant Ben Gitles

Friday morning, we woke up, had breakfast at our hostel, and got right onto a bus, where our Israeli peers that we met Thursday night were waiting. We then drove to a nearby forest to do some ice breakers and team building activities. One highlight included a game where two people would have to continuously compliment each other, and the first one to stop or to repeat a compliment would lose. Another highlight was a game where four people would have to complete an obstacle course while walking in unison on two large wooden planks. It was fun and was a great way to get to know each other and our Israeli peers. Here's a photo of (left to right) Andrew, Dana, Ron, Daniel, and Yoni doing the wooden plank task.

After that, we got back on the bus and drove to Jerusalem. We stopped at an overlook in East Jerusalem where we saw the Judean desert. Our tour guides, Abigail and Ayal, first explained the importance of deserts to the Jewish people. Then, they explained how Jerusalem gets plenty of rainfall, while the neighboring Judean Desert is, well, a desert. It was an interesting combination of Jewish philosophy and meteorology.

Next, we drove just a few minutes to a small restaurant seemingly in the middle of nowhere for lunch. In Israel, unlike the US, lunch is the biggest meal of the day, so we had a lot of food here - bread, salad, Israeli salad, hummus, rice, and three kinds of stew: beef, chicken, and vegetable. It was absolutely delicious.

From there, we drove about an hour to the hostel that we were staying at for the weekend, which had this gorgeous view of the Dead Sea:

After a couple of hours of free time (i.e. nap time), we got ready for Shabbat and all gathered together in the hostel's main grassy area. We then all split into groups of four and read over a piece by Rabbi Heschel, an influential rabbi of the Conservative movement, about observing Shabbat. In my group, we discussed how each of us observes Shabbat and how we find its meaning. Afterwards, we sang some songs for Kabbalat Shabbat, the welcoming of the Sabbath. After lighting the candles and making kiddush, we had our Shabbat dinner. Finally, we had an activity where the other American Excel Fellows and I got to meet more of our Israeli peers through a speed-dating game.

For the rest of the night, we had free time. I played a card game called "Prez" for over two hours, which was a lot of fun. Others played poker, volleyball, guitars, or Taki (an Israeli card game), or just went to sleep because (clearly) we had such a busy day!

The next morning, we got to sleep in for Shabbat because, well, it is the day of rest after all. Our first activity was organized by a few of our Israeli peers and included American trivia for the Israelis and Israeli trivia for the Americans. It was really cool to see how each group had its own collective knowledge that was part of its unique culture.

Next, we put on hiking boots, slapped on some sunscreen, and set off for our hike to Ein Gedi. After a quick stop along the way to talk about Jews and the desert again, we made it to one of the oasis's waterfalls. Cooling off in the water was a much needed relief from the day's punishingly hot sun.

When we returned to the hostel from our hike, we got lunch, then quickly headed back out, this time for the Dead Sea. We walked all the way down to the sea, which is receding very rapidly, so much so that the entire Dead Sea will be gone within 50 years, if not earlier. Anyway, we still got to enjoy floating around and putting mud on our skin, just as tourists always do. It was a lot of fun, and some people got some great pictures of us that I'll hopefully be able to share later.

After getting back to the hostel and taking much needed showers, we had one final activity. It involved a "menu" of topics, which included The State of Israel, Education, Society, Diaspora Jews, and Zionism. We split into groups of about 7 people each and "ordered" one of the questions. My group had some intriguing conversations about the role of Jews outside of Israel and their influence on the Jewish state, as well as about the meaning of Zionism. It was a very thought-provoking program, and I really liked it.

After our final dinner, we made Havdallah, the separation of Shabbat from the rest of the week. Looking back, this Shabbat was very meaningful and enjoyable. I feel so much closer to my other Excel Fellows and to the Israeli Peers (who we now call our "soulmates"), particularly to Omer, my soulmate. It was a great way to prepare us for spending the next two months together!