The Jerusalem stone and glass terminals of Ben-Gurion Airport make for an almost cinematic experience. It was my first time in Israel, and the seemingly unrealistic quality of my journey was further compounded by running into Dr. Ruth Westheimer in the lobby of the Dan Tel Aviv.
Truth be told, I had never left North America before. I didn't know what to expect.
When I'd considered traveling abroad, I always envisioned destinations like Italy or Amsterdam -- countries featuring picture-postcard architecture and paintings from the masters. Israel always seemed like an ethereal destination, a place as much myth as fact.
But a trip to the Holy Land was an opportunity to bring to life places I had only read and heard about during my "Intro to Judaism" class at the University of Judaism. As a non-Jew considering conversion to Judaism, the trip was a chance for me to bring color to places that were simple black-and-white illustrations in my mind.
I traveled to the Land of Milk and Honey courtesy of El Al, which last year reintroduced nonstop service from LAX with flights on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
As other airlines struggle to maintain existing flights, El Al recently announced it will offer a fourth day of nonstop service from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv during the summer, with flights departing on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from June 25 to Aug. 27. And with carriers continuing to scale back on their perks, I reveled in the power ports for laptops in first and business class and the availability of wireless Internet throughout the Boeing 777's cabin -- as a graphic designer on the go, this was heaven.
After more than 14 hours in the air, I wanted to ground myself. Since I'm a Jersey native and a Venice Beach resident, I'm used to living on shorelines and I wanted to connect with the city on my own terms. I walked the promenade and traversed the beach to dip my toes in the warm, clear water of the Mediterranean.
The next day my group traveled to three national parks on our way to the Dead Sea. The ruins of Caesarea and Tel Megiddo were fascinating, but the excavations at Bet She'an truly captured my imagination. Wandering through nearly intact bathhouses decorated with beautiful mosaics, I felt a profound connection to the intricate artistry and engineering of the people who had abandoned the area nearly 1,300 years ago following an earthquake. Studying an ancient decorative bead, it seemed as if they'd only left yesterday.
As we approached Ein Bokek toward the end of the day, caves dotted the mountains at sunset and the smell of sulfur hung in the air.
In the morning we traveled to Masada, where I entered one of the oldest known synagogues still in use. The depth of connectedness I felt with the Jewish people in that moment was unlike anything I'd ever experienced. While the synagogue's stone seats now lie exposed to the harsh desert sun, it wasn't much of a stretch to imagine the room enclosed, with Jews engaged in prayer or debate, while the Roman forces struggled to take the fortress.
The solemnity of my synagogue experience was broken the next day when we entered the Bedouin marketplace in Be'er Sheva. The atmosphere was electric as proprietors called out to tourists, offering everything from herbs and spices to shoes and bras.
During our drive north, decaying jeeps and other military hardware sat by the roadside as a reminder of Israel's struggle for existence; hard-won victories that gave an ancient people unfettered access to their holiest sites.
Upon entering Jerusalem we were thrust into the Thursday night buzz of Ben Yehuda Street. We spent Friday night at the King David Hotel, where we enjoyed a four-course dinner as families sung Shabbat prayers around us.
Seeing the Old City's walls illuminated the night before, I was eager to pass through Zion's Gate, also known as David's Gate. Pockmarked with weapons fire, the gate is the same entrance used by the Israel Defense Forces in 1967.
Praying in the Kotel plaza on Shabbat was an experience I'll never forget. I admired the rainbow of messages and prayers sandwiched into crevices between the stones of the Western Wall. While I wanted to participate in this quintessentially Jewish experience, honoring Shabbat took precedence. I hadn't thought to write a little something to God beforehand, but I figured He knew what I thinking. After walking the length of the Western Wall tunnels, I was left in awe of the Temple's original size and its doubtless grandeur.
Later that night, while I lined up at Ben-Gurion to flash my passport and ticket at the Israeli customs official, I reflected on what a whirlwind week it had been. While I might have eventually visited Israel, it had never been high up on my list. But now I found myself wanting to go back and explore more of this vibrant nation, especially the streets of Jerusalem.
I'm well aware that my understanding of Judaism will continue to evolve with each new bit of knowledge and each new experience. Likewise, I fully expect that I'll return to Israel to explore and find inspiration in the places and artistry -- both ancient and modern -- I have yet to discover.
Dan Kacvinski is currently creative director at The Jewish Journal.
Click the BIG ARROW to see the Bedouin marketplace