It was so quiet I could hear the wind. I was alone with my thoughts in a vast lunarscape. The air was cold and dry and I could see my breath. I stood atop a rocky hill, far from civilization. From the peak, I saw millions of stars splattered across the midnight sky like a Jackson Pollock painting. The faint glow of city lights illuminated the horizon while the full moon blazed above me. I had travelled half-way around the world to be here.

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Pondering in the Negev Desert.

I now sat cross-legged on the stony ground. I focused on myself in the silent solitude. “Who am I?” I closed my eyes. I am a Jewish boy, born and raised in Florida, and I was sitting on a rock in the middle of nowhere. “Who am I? What am I doing here?” I wanted to know. I had to know. I had to be here for a reason. “What was the reason?”

I was not very religious. I went to Sunday school and hated it. I had a Bar Mitzvah. I can read Hebrew words but do not understand their meaning. What was my meaning? Upon asking these questions my memories came back to me. I was more than just an isolated traveler in a foreign land. I was home. I had travelled thousands of miles from my American birthplace only to find myself.

Moses and the Israelites must have felt the same way when they were expelled from Egypt, when they walked forty years in this forbidding wilderness. I opened my eyes. I was in the Negev Desert, the site of the biblical Exodus. This was Israel, the Land of Milk and Honey. Like my ancestors, I had embarked on an exodus of my own. However, my journey did not begin in the Negev.

On December 13, 2012, I boarded an El Al plane from Newark, New Jersey, bound for Tel Aviv, Israel. Because I had not previously been to Israel, I left the United States with few expectations. I did, however, have many questions. Chief among them was the age-old, two-fold question, “What is Israel and why does it matter?”

Israel is an 8,000-square-mile patch of land sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea and Dead Sea. It is the Jewish state where the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe meet. It is also the Cradle of Civilization, whose ownership—and legitimacy—is always contested.

Whenever one opens a newspaper in the U.S or checks out the internet, or watches the news, the headlines are all about Israel.  However for me these stories had only the faintest of connections.  In fact, before the trip, the state of Israel was just a vague idea.

From December 14, 2012, to December 24, 2012, I travelled around Israel with a group of 40 students, 8 Israeli soldiers, a rabbi, and a tour guide. It was more than just a vacation. Because of the Birthright Foundation, it was a possibility. It was an experience. It was a privilege. It was my birthright.

During those 10 days, we journeyed through a foreign land far away from the distractions that are common in our daily American lives. For many, it was just a free trip—a chance to schmooze with fellow Jews. To me, however, it was so much more.

While we were in Israel, I saw the sights and took in the scenery. The plant life was surprising. Among the deserts, beaches, and mountains, I found abundant cacti, palm trees, and pine trees living side-by-side. How could the cactus (the symbol of the desert), the palm tree (the symbol of the beach), and the pine tree (the symbol of the tundra) thrive in the same place? They are so radically different that coexistence should be impossible. Can the same thing be said for people?

Birthright took us to ancient ruins, to modern cities, and to everything in between. Our group went to Tzfat, Tiberius, Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. We swam in the Dead Sea and hiked up Masada. In doing so, I learned about my heritage and what it means to be Jewish. Israel is the heart and soul of Judaism. It is also a bastion of democracy and an important ally of the United States.

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“Birthright 2012: A Voyage into the Heart and Soul of Israel” by Andrew Blitman

Birthright 2012: A Voyage into the Heart and Soul of Israel chronicles the daily activities of my University of Miami Birthright trip to Israel. It is a coming-of-age piece that combines personal anecdotes with history, philosophy, poetry, and science, and reads like a journal. Each chapter highlights a single day’s events, activities, and sights. The book describes my personal journey to self-awareness. Please join me on that journey.