Dec. 3, 2015
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - The pilgrim, Slippery Rock University undergraduate Alanna Leipold, stood at the Western Wall in Old City Jerusalem. She looked up at the huge, ancient stones - the last remnant of the second Jewish Temple - and marveled at the grandeur.
But it wasn't only the architecture that moved the exercise science and dance major from Sykesville, Maryland, during her recent trip to Israel. She sensed the presence of the untold numbers of people that for centuries have streamed to the wall, the most sacred place in the world for the Jewish people.
"It was very, very emotional, you just feel like everything kind of makes sense for a second, embedded in a piece of history," Leipold said. "It's really moving. There are thousands and thousands of years of peoples' prayers tucked in the wall."
Including a prayer from Leipold, who logged a week and a half in Israel as part of the country's birthright program. Every Jew between 18 and 26 has the right to return to Israel for 10 days, all expenses paid. Leipold and her sister Felicia, a student at George Mason University, took advantage of the opportunity, together.
They toured some of the holiest and historically significant sites in the world, including Masada, the ancient fortress of King Herod. She walked through markets, swam in the Dead Sea and befriended Israeli soldiers. She rode a camel, slept in Bedouin tents in the desert and had a run-in with a scorpion.
"I have never had an experience that meant so much to me," Leipold said. "It's one of those things where you don't think it will affect you as much as it does. "I had some of the most rich experiences of my life, and I was lucky enough to do that with my sister."
Leipold said the flight, from Newark, N.J., to Jerusalem, lasted 13 hours. She slept the entire way.
The trip was not a vacation in the traditional sense. Israel planned the activities and provided soldiers as escorts. Leipold said she took in five tourist activities per day, leaving her little down time.
"The only time we had time for, 'pool time,' was on the Jewish Sabbath, from Friday into Saturday," she said. "Friday night everybody got together, and we had a little service. On Saturday, you don't do any work. You don't turn on light switches. You don't cook anything. It's part of celebrating and relishing the fact that you have a day of rest."
The group's trip to the Western Wall unfolded in dramatic fashion.
"They gave us all bandanas, like handkerchiefs, blindfolded us and paired us with a partner who had already been to Israel at some point," Leipold said. "They did tell us where were going, but we were walking through these slippery, old stone steps and we had to trust someone to take us to something brand new. We took the blindfolds off and saw the Western Wall; everybody was tearing up. We went down through the security measures and walked to see the wall."
Leipold said she hiked up a Roman trail to reach Masada, King Herod's royal citadel where he executed his own family members.
"There are supposedly haunting screams that are all over the temple," she said. "We went at sunrise. We saw all three counties that border Israel."
Swimming in the Dead Sea was unlike anything else she had experienced. "You can stand and float," she said. "You don't even get six inches below the water. You're so buoyant."
Leipold said she made connections with Israeli soldiers. Israel requires military service, so the soldiers were her age.
"They have us been through so much but seemed so interested in learning from us," she said. "They wanted their English to be better. They wanted to know what we thought of them, were we scared. They wanted to know everything that was going on through our brains. They were extremely inquisitive, extremely intelligent."
The Israeli's they met were, "super, super liberal. Everyone is free; everybody loves everybody. You don't get the feeling of any kind of prejudice," Leipold said.
One distinct difference from living in America is the constant presence of armed soldiers.
"Because they're so used to getting attacked, they're used to being protected. They have protection everywhere," Leipold said. "We had a security guard travel with us who had a gun just in case. They're prepared for stuff to happen. You see all of the soldiers walking in packs with their guns. It would be terrifying to see that in our country."
The biggest fright of her trip, she said, was encountering a scorpion at 3 a.m. as students were getting up for the hike to Masada.
"We were just sitting around. Everyone was telling stories, we were excited and nobody wanted to go sleep because we had to wake up in 45 minutes," she said. "All of a sudden this little white thing just skittered out. I thought, what the heck is that? Our security guard was sitting close and he told me to walk out of the tent. Then it crawled out of someone sweat pants and he got it with the butt of his gun. It was terrifying."
Leipold said it was interesting to see the different customs in the Jewish, Arab, Christian and Armenian quarters in Jerusalem.
The language was distinctive too. A Hebrew word most Americans wouldn't be familiar with is the word that summarizes the experience; Mishbucha.
"This word means family," she said. "The 45 of us felt like a family after experiencing the country that meant so much to us."
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