From the bus windows, Masada did not look so formidable, just a normal midsized rock fortress. But once on the path, all we could see was the side of this steep mountain fortress, looming ominously, forever upward.
We were all 10th-graders at Milken Community High School, spending four months of the school year studying in Israel with the Tiferet Israel Fellowship. Like many of our trips, this one up Masada allowed us to walk the paths of history we had studied in the classroom.
The climb was quite hard. We stopped several times to catch our breath, close the gaps between the fast hikers and the slower hikers and take in the view. From halfway up Masada, we looked down to see the Dead Sea, and surrounding it, the brown, barren mountains of Jordan. I did not talk much on the hike up; I took in the view in silence.
Seven-hundred stairs, several inclines and an hour and half later, we reached the summit. After climbing the last stair, a great wave of relief and accomplishment overcame me. I found myself yelling, along with many others, phrases of accomplishment. By this point, the sun was partially out, but blocked by the clouds. We then rested for about 20 minutes while taking pictures and catching glimpses of the sun peeking out from behind the clouds.
Then we headed over to the beit midrash, the study and prayer hall used by the people of Masada, and learned about the history of Masada.
After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, approximately 1,000 zealots, mostly teenagers and 20-year-olds, fled to the fortress Masada. The zealots hated the Romans and everything that had to do with Rome. About 100 years prior to the zealots' arrival, Herod, a governor of Jerusalem who had ties to Rome, had his summer home there. When the zealots arrived, they destroyed his palace, turned his bathhouses into mikvahs and built their own modest houses.
The Romans destroyed Jerusalem, then set their sights on Masada. After witnessing the Roman army killing approximately 1 million Jews, and destroying Jerusalem, the zealots believed themselves to be the last Jews alive. As such, they thought they could not lose to the Roman army.
For years, the zealots held off the Roman army -- the strongest army in the world. But three years later, the Romans broke down the gates of Masada, and found all the zealots dead by suicide.
We returned to the beit midrash and learned about a gnizah, a document burial site, found on Masada. Because documents that have God's name on them cannot be thrown away, they are buried in a gnizah. On top of all the papers in the Masada gnizah lay Ezekiel, chapter 37, a verse expressing hope that through God, one day, all of Israel will be reunited.
The person who left that verse there had an enormous amount of hope, something I have trouble trying to understand. That person thought himself to be among the last Jews in the world, and yet he had enough hope to leave that chapter there for future Jews to read.
Tuvia Aronson, a Milken teacher and dean of the Tiferet fellowship, then took on the role of Eleazar ben Ya'ir, the 19-year-old leader of the zealots. We became zealots and discussed our plans, on this the eve before the Roman onslaught. We decided to take our own lives and not give the Romans the satisfaction of killing us.
Aronson and Aubrey Isaacs, another teacher, led us to the south side of Masada. We were instructed to repeat this famous line: "Shenit Metzadah Lo Tipol! For a second time Masada will not fall!"
Isaacs said, "Shenit," and we shouted it in response, a bit hesitantly, not sure what to expect. For a few seconds, dead silence puzzled us. But then a thunderous echo repeated our calls. We shouted, "Metzadah!" and we heard another, thunderous echo. And "Lo!" Then we yelled, "Tipol!" Finally we bellowed all together, "Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel live!" "This is called the 'Echo of History,'" Tuvia told me.
At first I agreed. But then I realized that this was not a natural phenomenon; it was the zealots yelling back at us.
Daniel Ulman is a 10th-grader at Milken Community High School.