Our bus driver Boris had been navigating the roads of the Negev for at least an hour when the whole bus suddenly shook, rattled and rolled. As we gazed out the window, we saw that Boris had left the road. All we saw was rock, dust and a little more rock. It took about two more hours of off-road driving for us to reach our destination for the night.
I stepped off the bus and asked our counselor, "Where is the bathroom?" "Follow me and I will demonstrate," she said. "Girls to those rocks on the left, boys to the right." Enough said.
I had just arrived in Israel that week for a four-week tour with 34 other California teens in Group Three of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) summer Israel program. And we were about to spend three nights in the middle of the Negev Desert with nothing but food and sleeping bags -- definitely a sight to see.
Not only did we do it, but so did 12 other NFTY groups in Israel this summer, and we would soon find out that the experience of sleeping on our ancestors' land would set the tone for our whole trip.
We unloaded the materials from the bus including dishes, food supplies, sleeping bags and our own personal bags. Once dinner was made and served, our group began to gather for Maariv, the evening prayer service.
This was by far the most spiritual moment in my life. I gazed up at the stars as I chanted the V'Ahavta prayer with amazing new friends, standing around the same rocks that our people had wandered past thousands of years before. My eyes couldn't help but tear up as we moved on to the Mi Chamocha, the song of freedom. At that moment I felt as though God truly was with us.
We ended the night with our usual closing circle, where we sang Hashkiveinu and the Shema, with the words: "Keep us safe throughout the night, until we wake with morning's light." But that night, I felt as though we didn't even need to ask for safety, that this ground and these mountains would keep us safe.
As morning woke us with its light, we found ourselves at the beginning of a long day of hiking in the Negev and then swimming in Eilat.
On our last day camping out, Boris took us to a Bedouin tent. We were warmly welcomed and introduced to the interesting Bedouin culture. We experienced their music, cultural food and hospitality -- especially when they invited us to use the tent's bathrooms, equipped with actual showers. I would have to say that the next task might have been even harder then the previous day's four-hour hike. This was the situation: four showers, 20 girls, 30 minutes.
That night I was in a Bedouin tent celebrating Shabbat like I never had done before. This was our third and final night sleeping on the ground of the Negev, so we were both excited and upset.
The next day we arrived at Kibbutz Yahel near Eilat. Our tour guide, Sivan, took us on a very short hike on the outskirts of the Kibbutz. As we all sat in a circle in the middle of two mountains -- a lot like our accommodations for the past three nights -- Ellie Klein, our madrich, shared some words that I will never forget. She told us that by successfully making it through this Negev experience, whether we knew it our not, we had already changed and grown.
This campout was our chance to be with the land of Israel, nothing else. Just the land with all of its components. Through the tasks that we had completed and the experiences we had, we had assured ourselves that we could do it again.
Ellie asked us to grab a rock and gather them all in a pile in the center of our circle. I found a rock and felt the firmness of it and dropped it in the center, feeling as though I had just left a piece of myself in the desert. Not only a piece of myself, but a newly grown, solid and firm me. The words she said about us and the natural land still echoes in my mind because I really felt that for those few days, I was at my true quintessential state -- and so was the Land of Israel.
We left the rocks in a clump on the ground as we made our way back to Kibbutz Yahel. This experience was the start of a treasured summer traveling with the most incredible people. I was finding my true Jewish identity not only among the historical sights, but among the millions of rocks that make up Eretz Yisrael.
Daniella Kaufman is an 11th grader at New Community Jewish High School.
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