Birthright journey
Scott Bender watches the sunrise at Masada with Michal, a boot camp instructor with the Israeli Defense Forces who was among an IDF group traveling with Bender's Birthright contingent.

It's 3:43 a.m. and my alarm is going off. I desperately hurry up and grab a cup of coffee and a piece of breakfast cake because the bus is leaving at 4 a.m. It's the seventh day of our Birthright trip and we are hiking Mt. Masada, a range of beautiful mountains overlooking Israel and Jordan, where we will watch the sun rise. 

It's early and everyone is exhausted from the before-dawn wake up, along with the previous six days of constant activity - but not one complaint is heard. As the sun begins to peek its head up from beyond the horizon, the sky mixes into a sherbet of colors with oranges, pinks and purples. The dark blue and black that hid the valleys of Masada before are now clearing up, overtaken by the breaking of daylight as one of the most beautiful places in Israel is revealed. We are instructed to have a moment of silence as the resonating morning light breaks open the levee to another newfound day.

I am not very religious and there are certain things in this world that have made me question God, but as I sat in silence on the mocha-colored sand and rock with a crowd of fellow Jews, I knew there was a reason we were here. It is as if the rising sun was not only spreading light and warmth, but this subconscious force of understanding and acceptance.

Birthright is a free trip for Jews under age 26. No other country does this for their people, yet Israel and the Jewish people have found a way to bring us to one of the most sacred places in all the world. Sitting on top of Masada and looking around this majestic land, I knew why Birthright does this - because every Jew should have the right to be here and witness this exact sunrise.

The subliminal forces all in sync served me a memory I will never forget. Once the sun was in full bloom, we hiked down Masada through the remains of a 2,000-year-old village and came across a small platform where those who had not had a bar/bat mitzvah before were not given a second chance.

The participants chose a Hebrew name and the Israeli Soldiers who had joined our group a few days ago (a customary tradition for Birthright groups as well as the Israeli Defense Forces) explained the meaning of each name and said a small prayer along with the participant.

We celebrated by going to the Dead Sea, where we all floated in the water like ducks, bobbing up and down. Imagine a floating water thermometer in a pool - you feel exactly how that looks. You can see the bottom but with the amount of salt in the water there is natural buoyancy. Wading in the water surrounded with this milieu of mountains and beautiful blue sky was one of the most amazing things I have ever done in my life. Unfortunately we had to say goodbye to our soldiers on the same day. Even though they were only with us for five days we all became very close.

I continue to talk with Michal (pronounced ‘Mee-chal,' a girl's name) a 20-year-old boot camp instructor who provided me with answers into a world I was so naïve about. We would often stay up until three or four in the morning talking about her life growing up in Israel and dealing with the wars and violence - as well as the fact of knowing you have to join the army for minimum of three years.

She was the cognoscente for my education of a person who grew up in Israel, and had a life vastly different from mine. She was OK with me asking questions that probably sounded ridiculous, like what is the rule with Judaism and tattoos (she had three) to more serious and pertinent things like have you known someone who was killed in battle (which she sadly had). I will always remember these memories along with a dogtag she gave me, something I deeply cherish as well. We made a promise to Facebook message each other every week and I truly hope it continues.

Birthright does not force religion upon you, they do not force their morality or retributions - in fact they don't force anything at all. What Birthright does is plant a seed of knowledge that blossoms into a world a respect and love for a country that is fighting so hard to remain the symbol of hope and acceptance that it has been for the past 60 years.

Scott Bender, of Chesterfield, graduated in December from the University of Colorado with a major in film studies. He participated in a December-January Birthright trip. Bender attended high school at Parkway West and his family belongs to United Hebrew.