At four years old, my favorite computer game involved adventuring across Europe with a young girl and her dog. In the introduction, the words “brave Madeline was not afraid” rang out, even as a runaway thief stole a magical lamp right out of her hands. Madeline would continue from Paris on a train to Switzerland and Italy, collecting passport stamps and postcards along the way. She never feared, even when encountering the mysterious thief in Turkey. I played this game over and over, wishing that I’d get to travel the world someday, too.
The real world, however, is not as safe as Madeline’s. We don’t simply have runaway thieves; we have terrorists. Instead of stealing magic lamps, they steal lives. My grandparents, once avid globetrotters, constantly warned me of the dangers. They retired their passports before I was born, leaving me with a thirst for the exotic lands depicted in their stories. As I grew older, I’d eagerly flip through their faded Polaroid albums, only for my grandmother to remind me of my naivety. “You live in a bubble,” she’d sigh. “There’s always threat in the air, especially abroad.”
In 2007, when my cousin Michael went on Birthright, a free 10-day trip to Israel for Jewish college students, our grandmother beamed with pride at a photograph he had taken in front of the Western Wall. I was in fifth grade at the time, and knew nothing yet about college — except that I wanted to go on Birthright, too. Out of all of the places I wanted to explore, Israel topped my list. While other countries intrigued me as well (and I have many more I’d love to visit), the idea of connecting to my heritage in the land where it all began was incomparable.
When the time came, I chose to attend the University of Florida, partly because of its large Jewish presence. With thousands of Jewish students on campus, Birthright is always a hot topic. On winter and summer breaks, my social media feeds became flooded with pictures of Israel’s beautifully diverse landscapes, from the shores of Tel Aviv to the heights of Masada. I was excited to register, but at the same time, my grandmother’s words of caution held me back. They especially rang true when Elana, one of my good friends, told me about the three air raid warning sirens that went off during her trip in 2014. That summer, a war had broken out, and Elana had to rush to bomb shelters as rockets fell just blocks away. Despite this, she maintained her composure and was able to comfort others, earning her the title of the “calm award” at their final dinner banquet.
My answer of when to do Birthright eventually became “when it’s safe enough.” Toward the end of sophomore year, I’d be sitting on my laptop one afternoon, with hands shaking, an application half-filled with a terrible realization — it may never be “safe enough.”
I texted Michael.
“No one has ever died on Birthright,” he reminded me. (The program has sent over 500,000 and has never canceled a trip over safety concerns, even with situations as bad as the war of the Second Intifada in 2000 and the Gaza conflict in 2014.)
He continued. “There are attacks everywhere, even right here where I live in California. Unfortunately, none of us can control them, not even Grandma. But she can’t let that stop you from going. I’ll talk with her if she freaks out. I’ll even pay your deposit if I have to.”
I wanted to submit my app, but I didn’t own a passport. Grandma held the copy of my birth certificate I needed to apply for one like an elusive golden key. With bated breath, I picked up the phone. Until then, I didn’t know she had a tooth filled that day, and the dentist’s prescriptions left her more relaxed than usual. So, to my surprise, she agreed to send me the certificate, with no complaint.
Coincidence? Or a miracle?
I was all set to travel that May with Melissa, one of my best friends from high school. She and I had dreamed of visiting Israel together ever since we first met. It was the first time either of us was flying abroad, and we were nervous, yet excited. Certainly nervous. We almost had cold feet, almost withdrew from the trip just a week before we were slated to even depart.
Yet, excited. This was the opportunity of a lifetime, and we weren’t about to give up our dream due to fear.
I felt a little queasy in our hotel room the first evening there, after having explored the lofty Golan Heights. Maybe I wasn’t used to the altitude. Melissa sat next to me on a bed and reassured me that I’d be okay. I drank some water, and went to sleep. I felt fine over the next few days as we rafted down the Jordan River with our new friends, ventured through the mystical city of Tzfat, said l’chaim (a toast) over fruit liquors, and danced the night away in a Tel Aviv club. It was all an indescribable adventure. However, it was also exhausting.
Tel Aviv was a late night, and I wasn’t in bed until around 3 a.m. We were stationed in a motel in a rural area of the coastal city of Netayna, and I found it hard to rest. The unfamiliar voices coming from outside didn’t help. Men speaking in a language I couldn’t comprehend. What were they saying? I heard the slamming of a trunk. My gut feeling told me to rattle Melissa awake.
Then, we heard an alarm.
We scrambled to the room next door to check on some guy friends. “We’re fine. It’s probably nothing,” one of them grumbled in a half-asleep stupor. Why were we the only ones concerned? At a loss of what to do, we found ourselves in the main lobby, chatting with a security guard. He laughed. “No, it’s really nothing,” he explained. “The steam from one of our showers sometimes sets off the fire alarm. I fixed it, don’t worry.” He offered us pretzel sticks. At first, I was too shaken to eat, but something about the gleam in his eyes reassured me.
That night in Netanya wouldn’t be the only bump in the road, however. Our bus would break down on the side of a highway, and for an hour I’d wonder if it’d make us a vulnerable target. Later, I’d hear a loud noise while shopping along Ben Yehuda Street, and grab for my friend’s arm — only to be embarrassed once I realized it was just from a musical horn. We wandered into a store, and among its enchanting jewelry display sat a small sign, with an attached Ziploc bag filled with what appeared to be metal washers.
“These bolts are a few from hundreds,” it said, “that came from an attacker. They entered our store — nearly missing us by inches. Thankfully, no one was hurt.”
These were not words to rest easy on.
Jerusalem was incredible. Melissa and I sipped on frozen coffee as we stacked our wrists with colorful bracelets from the markets. We were moved by museums and the vivid history of the Old City. As I touched the Western Wall, a moment I had looked forward to for years, I experienced the most powerful connection — there are no words to do it justice. I thought of my loved ones as I tucked handwritten notes into its cracks, and hoped the high would carry on throughout the rest of my Israeli adventure. Unfortunately, there were deeper lows yet to come.
One night, we camped out in large tents in the middle of the Negev desert. Although the dinner offered by the Bedouin staff was delicious, it upset my stomach, and I spent over an hour in a bathroom stall. Luckily, I had friends there the entire time, stopping by in shifts so I wouldn’t have to bear the situation alone.
We were to climb up Mount Masada the following morning. Between my stomach troubles and the wild animals that scampered through our tent, I wasn’t thrilled about our 4 a.m. wake-up call. Within two more hours, our medic would be pushing me up an endless flight of stairs at the side of a mountain as Melissa cheered on. I knew we were about to see a beautiful sunrise, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep on the path, because every step felt closer to death. Everyone else in the group kept well ahead. Was something wrong with me? Eventually, I made it to the top, and the view was so breathtaking, the stories of ancient battles so inspiring, and the experience of yelling Gator chants across the canyons so exhilarating — it was worth it.
It nearly destroyed me. But in the end, it was worth it.
The bus ride to our next location gave me another bout of nausea. Melissa, who’s been known to get carsick back home, was totally fine as we snaked through sharp turns. Though she survived that ride, she tripped during the hike that followed. Small gashes ran up her arms and legs, leaving her unable to dip in the Dead Sea — which we were scheduled for immediately after. I sat out with her, and we treated ourselves to smoothies in a beachside café.
That evening, we were supposed to attend a special military ceremony in honor of Israel’s memorial day. However, I was so drained that I asked our trip leader if I could stay behind to rest in the hotel. I was told a staff member would be in a room down the hall if I needed anything. From there, I laid in a room by myself. Despite the rough night I had before, I couldn’t sleep. I tried to watch TV, but half of the channels didn’t work, and the other half featured Hebrew documentaries that I couldn’t follow. Winds outside gave the room an eerie feel. My nausea came back. I tried contacting the staff member, but he wasn’t answering his phone. I called my grandmother and my boyfriend, who were both an ocean away, as I dry heaved in a bathroom, alone.
And then, a siren went off. Not a measly fire alarm — a full-blown, screeching, siren.
The sound of an air raid warning.
I grabbed my backpack. Pounded on staff member’s door. No answer. Shouted through the halls. Our entire floor housed Birthright students, who were all away at the ceremony. My screams echoed back. Where was the shelter? I darted for the stairs, and ran down, down, down — until I heard the sound of chatter outside of a door.
I creaked it open. I had reached the dining hall. An assorted group of guests were feasting on their dinner like an ordinary day.
“Confusion” would be an understatement.
Shyly, I asked a young Israeli to explain. “It’s a memorial siren, and they sound it on this day each year. Everything is fine!” However, I now felt more shaken up than ever. Moments before, I legitimately thought I was going to die. Alone.
Suddenly, a mysterious man spotted my bright lanyard. “Why aren’t you at the ceremony?” he asked. He was a staff member from another Birthright group. As I explained my story, mental trauma and all, he dialed my trip leader’s phone number — they actually knew each other personally. At the end of the brief call, the man towered over me with a look of scorn. “Stop being such a baby. This is a trip for adults. You are an adult. Who are you to freak out like this?”
As he left the scene, I became visibly upset. A kind lady at the front desk brought me seltzer water and inquired softly about my life back home. I told her about my school studies and my friends back in the States. Despite her efforts to calm me down, my stomach turned. A small puddle of seltzer and hydrochloric acid now sat in the center of the lobby. I felt like a lost puppy, helpless and ashamed. Just as I thought I was going to faint, my group came back to the hotel. All of my friends appeared as zombies. Seeing my pale face as I slumped down in a chair, our rabbi’s wife managed to smuggle me an apple and a piece of bread, even though the hotel’s kitchen was closed. It didn’t hit me until then that I hadn’t eaten anything in hours. I was so out of it by that point that I nearly begged to be taken to a hospital. Instead, my friends took me back to our room upstairs, and by a miracle I finally got a good night’s sleep.
We had about two days left of our trip. I almost decided to go home at this point, but our trip leader convinced me that I could make it through the last few activities. He was right. Although I felt nervous as we passed numerous bomb shelters on our way to a farm settlement — just miles away from Gaza — I otherwise enjoyed the rest of my time in Israel. We wandered through the Salad Trail, picking fresh carrots and cherry tomatoes along our way. We held a barbeque picnic and reminisced about the prior week. We even had a final dinner banquet.
My title was “most likely to die of anxiety before the terrorist even strikes.”
I miss Israel. I think about it every day. When I was asked a few weeks ago of the most serene place I’d been in my life, I remembered my experience at the Western Wall. And believe it or not, despite everything, I’ll be back this summer. I’ll be spending two weeks in Jerusalem, and stacking my wrists with a new collection of colorful bracelets.
Brave Valerie is a little afraid. But why let that hold her back from another adventure?
All photos belong to the author, Valerie Berman