Bonding as a group had a profound effect on the Birthright experience. Many people on the trip were like me - coming alone and on the assumption that I would meet people. But this doesn't happen automatically, and I will admit that I had my doubts in the early days of the trip about the group as a whole. Today, I can't believe I'm writing that sentence, because I can't get enough of the post-trip emails and the plans for more reunions and get-togethers like the one we had this past Saturday night.
How did it happen? Foremost, our guide, Ran, gave us an identity. We couldn't be Israel Experts Discover Israel 22+ Bus 2 because that doesn't fit on a t-shirt. And we couldn't be Bus 2, because that implies that there's some group that's better than we are. And so, we are "Double One." How Double One grew into its new identity was the result of a very carefully constructed chemical reaction that went something like this:
First, we Drum.
Night 2 at Kibbutz Gonen featured a lesson in Darbouka playing. The Darbouka is a traditional Arab drum played to perfection by our instructor for us, as well as for the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. He also does Jewish summer camps and, of course, Bar Mitzvahs.
Sitting in a circle, each with our own drum, I watched as our group gave this man its undivided attention, getting more and more enthusiastic about the music we were making together. It began with a simple beat in the center of the drum, the Doom! Then the Tak, a higher-pitched rap on the rim. And finally the Hass, a quiet muted thud on the upper rim of the Darbouka. The actual musicians among us took an immediate liking and found they had a knack for this drum. But they had nothing on our instructor, who took the time to show off.
At the beginning of the lesson, we were told that CDs were available, and many of us scoffed at the idea. At the end of the lesson, we bought everything he had. One of us even took home an actual Darbouka (I got one for my brother, Adam, later in the trip) What I saw here was that we were becoming comfortable with each other. There was no longer a concern that this was too cheesy, or that someone among us might think we're not cool or something.
Next, we Drink.
Yes, there was some alcohol involved in the process of becoming a group. But it wasn't just the mere act of drinking or getting drunk that brought the men and women of bus Double One together.
On night 2 at Kibbutz Gonen a group of three guys took advantage of the well-equipped accommodations and threw a "house party." Instead of being slave to the music, beer, and mixed company of the Kibbutz disco for a second night, we gathered cups, vodka, tapuzim (orange drink) and Israeli wine (a step above Manischevitz - a small step) from a mini-mart in the Golan Heights and brought it back to Cabin 109 for a Double One-only fiesta.
Putting 40 Jews in a room with alcohol was a start, but it was the game of Kings-turned-never have I ever that destroyed whatever ice was left among us as a group. The game wore on, and we got more and more comfortable and revealed more and more about each other.
It turned out that the game was just the beginning. Once the game dissolved and we were through learning about the physics of dance-floor sex and exactly what type of disorderly conduct will get you arrested, the floodgates were opened. We were free to share anything with anyone at anytime, and I don't believe there is a truer definition of friendship than that.
But the process wasn't quite complete.
Then, we Dance!
Naturally, the events of the party in Cabin 109 were pieced together and re-examined the next day - a day that included a return to Zefat and a visit to an Israeli Arab village that was, for me, an unexpected highlight of the trip. (I'll come back to this, I promise)
By nightfall, we were in Tel Aviv and our trip was half over, amazingly. Candle lighting for night five of Chanukah was followed by a surprise Israeli dance lesson from Dani, one of our American staff.
There are two ways this dance lesson could have gone:
1. We all could have thought it was cheesy, that Dani was a total dork, and that we were too old, too cool, too whatever, to have any fun with a silly Israeli dance. You mean, we're in Tel Aviv and instead of going out, we're in the basement of a hotel doing this??
2. We could learn the dance, get really into it and have a lot of fun.
I think earlier in the trip the possibility of #1 was much greater. But by Tel Aviv, after the Darbouka and the Never Have I Ever, nobody was too cool for a little Israeli dancing.
So we got into it, big time. The spirit in that room was awesome. And I don't think I ever thought I could have so much fun Israeli dancing, and I think everyone would agree.
Ran, our guide, was most impressed with our enthusiasm, and I think it set a tone with everyone for the rest of the trip. We'll dance in the Bedouin tent, we'll dance on the bus in the middle of the desert, we'll all massage each other in a giant hot tub, we'll put together a giant map of Israel with the energy of a group of third graders at recess. And we won't be embarrassed about any of it. Why should we be embarrassed? We're among friends.
Finally, add Israelis. Mix.
The timing was perfect. By Wednesday morning in Tel Aviv, the newly minted friends of Bus Double One were about to meet 7 of the nicest people on the face of the earth - our Israeli soldiers.
Every Birthright trip is supplemented with a group of young Israelis who board the bus about halfway through and stay a while. Our soldiers joined us in Tel Aviv and immediately fit into the comradery we developed over the previous five days. And they joined us in time for all the things you wouldn't want to do with strangers, like sleep in a giant tent or hike at sunrise, or dance up and down the aisles of a bus.
So the trip really wasn't half over. More like we still had 5 whole days left. And there I was, on a hill in a park looking out at the Mediterranean Sea, having lunch with all my new friends.