Student shares journey to the Holy Land

Juan Gilces, junior international relations and political science major, was one of several FIU students who participated in Taglit-Birthright, a nonprofit that funds free, 10-day educational trips to Israel for young Jews. Hosted by Hillel Young Adult Division (YAD), part of FIU’s Multifaith Council, Juan and others were guided through the 4,000-year-old land by Hillel YAD Director Romina Naparstek and Or Kaidar, an Israeli Fellow who has been educating students about Israeli culture and the Jewish religion since she came to live in South Florida last fall.

Juan spoke to FIU News prior to his Taglit trip and noted his excitement to see many of the sights in the Holy Land. Below he shares his transformational 10-day experience that he calls “spectacular.”

To many of us, this is the very first time coming to Israel, and to others the very first time leaving the United States as a whole. Surprisingly, even though many of us have never stepped foot on this land, there was sense of homecoming.

Our phenomenal tour-guide who introduced Taglit-Birthright Israel welcomed us at the airport and explained its name, “taglit,” means discovery in Hebrew. After a short orientation at the airport, our discovery of Israel began!

Riding camels in the Negev desert before meeting the Bedouins.

Riding camels in the Negev desert before meeting the Bedouins.

We drove to the north region of Israel known as the Upper and Lower Galilee. On our first days of adventures we visited Safed, the birthplace of Kabbalah, Jewish Mysticism. We met a kabbalah artist whose works communicate his passion on topics such as life, peace and love. In this region, we hiked and rafted the Jordan River, visited ancient synagogues with beautiful mosaics and ancient roman houses, went to a local winery, tasted Israeli food such as shakshouka (poached-egg dish with tomato sauce and other spices), and reached the top of the Golan Heights to see a spectacular sunset.

We then drove down to the metropolis of Tel Aviv to visit the Independence Hall, where the State of Israel was born 66 years ago. Later that day in Tel Aviv, we started our migfash – our encounter with Israeli peers of our same age serving in the Israeli Army that would join us on this trip; we clicked with them instantly, and learned we have so many things in common. We spent some time at the beach and experienced nightlife in the city.

Wailing Wall

Located in the Old City of Jerusalem, the Western Wall is a remnant of the ancient wall of the Jewish Temple and is arguably the most holy site recognized by the Jewish faith. It is believed to have been constructed in 19 BCE.

On Friday, we drove to Jerusalem with emotion and enthusiasm. We walked through the streets of the city’s most famous markets filled with the smell of fresh cooked challah (braided egg bread) and the sound of people rushing through the streets to get home for the weekend. We swiftly reached the Western Wall to welcome Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

The next day we learned about the history of the land, deeply rooted in the Judaism and influenced by the great ancient empires of Ancient Greece. We visited the Israel Museum and learned that Israel has the highest number of museums per capita of any country in the world.

On Saturday evening, we celebrated the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer in the home of one of our Israeli peers; we had a BBQ, music, and a celebratory bonfire.

Sunday was the most emotional day of all. We visited Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery, where we learned the story of Michael Levin (a 22-year-old American-born Israeli soldier killed in action) and of many other young soldiers who died for the country. On that same day we came upon Yad Vashem, Israel’s memoria l to the Holocaust, where we deeply connected to the horrors of the Holocaust, the victims, the survivors, and the hope for a better tomorrow. I was very moved to see there thousands of people of different backgrounds, religions, and nationalities coming to visit almost every day to learn and remember this dark time in history.


Floating in the Dead Sea, the earth’s lowest elevation on land. With 34.2% salinity, it’s one of the saltiest bodies of water, 9.6 times as salty as the ocean.

Our second week in Israel started by heading south to the Neveg desert. First, we climbed Masada, the 2,000-year-old fortress built by Herod the Great where Jews made their last stance against the Roman legions. Afterward, we went to float in the Dead Sea and we had a quick bike ride in Yerucham, Miami’s sister city in Israel.

On Tuesday, our trip changed from comfy hotels to desert tents as we discovered the way of life of one of Israel’s proud minorities, the Bedouin Arabs. We rode camels, tasted Bedouin dishes, learned about desert life, and slept in Bedouin tents. It was a great experience!

Wednesday, we visited an Israeli farm, tasting vegetables and fruits that, incredibly, grow in the desert. We also made a stop for an archeological excavation in the hill country of Israel and learned that Israel is the most excavated place on the planet. We finally arrived back in Tel Aviv for our last night in Israel. It was in this place where we met our Israeli peers five days ago as complete strangers. Now, we had become close friends. We said farewell to them with the hope to see each other again.

On our final day, we went back to Jerusalem, where some of us had the magnificent opportunity to have their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the coming of age ceremony, at the holiest place in Judaism. We said goodbye, shed some tears, and most of us exchanged contacts right away. Our trip was completed. We had discovered the land of Israel and the Israel that lives inside each of us.

– by Juan A. Gilces

To view more photos of the Hillel YAD Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, please visit Hillel YAD on Facebook.

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