(photo credit: David Karp)
We reached the top of the rocky incline that was the last leg of our hike, and gazed at the valley below us and the landscape that had become our home over the past few days. Catching our breath, we took a few moments to look down at the steep path and encourage others who were completing the climb. The feeling in the group was one of exhaustion mixed with excitement.
Although we had each pushed ourselves to finish the hike, there was a sense that this had not been a purely individual accomplishment - we had faced this challenge as a group.
Our adventure that day was one of several hikes that we had completed as part of the Livnot U'Lehibanot Galilee Fellowship. The Galilee Fellowship was created in response to the war with Lebanon last summer, in an attempt to bring young Americans to the north of Israel to hike, learn and do community service. The majority of us on the trip, 19 out of 29 participants, had been a part of a birthright israel trip either this summer, or in previous years.
We all had different backgrounds - Russians, Texans and native New Yorkers - and came from a range of Jewish experience, knowledge and observance. But the one thing we had in common was a desire to dig deeper into the soil of Israel and come away with a better understanding of our history, culture and faith.
Birthright had given us a glance of what Israel has to offer, but afterwards we found ourselves asking, "What now?" How do we continue to explore Israel and Judaism in a deeper way?
For me, and the other participants on the trip, the answer lay with Livnot.
AFTER THE hectic pace of a birthright trip, the Galilee Fellowship was a chance to get off the tour bus and experience Israel not just by looking but by doing, by challenging ourselves physically and spiritually to meet the tasks set before us. The trip was an opportunity to get to know the north of Israel in a deeper way, and to take the time to absorb our surroundings by living at the Livnot campuses in Safed and Kiryat Shmona, spending time with local families, and learning about the history of the area.
During our trip we visited the ruins of the ancient Jewish city of Katzrin in the Golan Heights. We learned that in the past, synagogues were all built in the round so that the emphasis was not only on prayer, but on the people themselves.
Over the course of our two weeks we were able to form our own small community, and together were able to see how we can make a difference for those in another community - Kiryat Shmona.
Most mornings of the trip we painted and cleaned public bomb shelters that had been neglected over time and allowed to fall into disrepair. The work of the Galilee Fellowships, as part of a larger project spearheaded by Livnot, has helped to make the shelters usable once again for the neighborhoods they serve. Because of this project, the bomb shelters are not only a place of refuge in case of an attack, they now also function as community centers and classrooms. As we worked each day, we were greeted by neighbors who brought us cold water to drink, and told us their stories, especially of the war last summer. Traveling with birthright, we had seen how Israel can leave its mark on the hearts and minds of those who visit; now it was our turn to leave our own small mark, by helping to rebuild the country we love.
THE FINAL Shabbat of the trip was spent singing and dancing and enjoying a meal we had prepared together. We sat in a circle and reflected on the two weeks that had passed, and on all we had learned from the time spent working, living, hiking and celebrating together.
The "What now?" question first sparked by birthright hadn't disappeared, but somehow over the past two weeks we had gotten closer to reaching an answer.
As I looked around the circle, I felt sure that during our short time we had built a community on the foundations of that ancient synagogue, one that will continue to grow and strengthen over time.
The writer is based in Brooklyn, New York.
Galilee fellowship is sponsored by the UJA Federation New York and the Palm Beach Jewish Federation.