Shanghai Rabie


August 2, 2010

It’s easy to say that Birthright is a once-in-a-lifetime-trip. Pack 40 20-somethings in a bus and travel any country and they will all have the time of their lives. What separates Birthright is the fact that the program is centered on the beauty, history and culture of Israel. It’s a thorough and brilliantly-designed program meant to establish a connection between young American Jews and Israel. The incredibly qualified guide’s manage to deftly capture the tenuous nature of the Israeli nation, with the inestimable fortitude and perseverance of the Jewish people. Birthright manages to at once educate, stimulate and motivate. It offers questions, not answers. Its aim is not to create Zionists or Chassidics, but to help participants find their personal place on the spectrum. Jews are shown as heroes and cowards; victims and aggressors; uniters and dividers. In short, if participants leave Birthright with a clear idea of their relationship to Israel and Judaism, they are the exception, not the rule. 

I went on the trip with 5 of my closest friends from college. We were the only people that came with people they knew in our entire group, so we were outcasts at the beginning, largely because we were having such a good time, while everyone else was trying hard just to make friends.

I have attempted to recap the highlights of each one of the ten days we spent in Israel. For those less ambitious in their reading, below are a few memories that I think really encapsulate what the trip meant to me.

One of the best aspects of Birthright is the integration of 6 off-duty soldiers with the group. Each group receives 3 men and 3 women, all drawn from different areas of the army, each with their own unique story to tell. The soldiers experience every aspect of the trip as though they were a participant. This really puts a face on what Israel embodies; shared sacrifice. These soldiers were all our age, give or take a few years, yet they, like their parents and grandparents, all spend the first 3 years of their post-high school lives in the army. To see it firsthand, and to understand that these soldiers have responsibilities that dwarf ours, yet have personalities and interests so similar to ours, really makes an impression.

This especially hit home for us, and the soldiers, when we visited Kinneret, a military cemetery. Our guide took us from one grave to another, stopping at each to tell us the story of how that soldier passed. For some of the soldiers, it was their first time at the cemetery, and hearing the stories of how fellow soldiers, often younger than them, died in battle, really hit home. These guys aren’t soldiers in name only. Often at the most unexpected of times, their names will be called to sacrifice for their country, as those before them had so ably done.

Our guide, Nim, told us the story of a 22-year-old commander leading a squadron of 35 on a surprise attack to a neighboring Arab nation. As they walked through the desert, they came across an aged Arab farmer. Nim paused in his storytelling, and turned towards us to ask what we would do in the position of the commander. Would we kill the Arab farmer, despite him not posing a direct threat? Would we take him with us and thus sacrifice some speed? Or would we do nothing and keep going? Opinions and ideas were thrown out, but clearly, the issue was not black and white. Nim reined us in and told us that the commander had made a fateful decision to ignore the farmer and keep moving. In turn, the farmer immediately alerted the nearby communities, and the 35 Israelis were slaughtered.

During my trip, I was reading a book called Start-up Nation, which argues that the Israeli army, with its anti-hierarchical nature, empowers young men with immense responsibilities. This in turn has helped foster a culture of entrepreneurship that has made Israel a hotbed for tech innovation. At 22, I was graduating college. In Israel, 22-year-old’s are often left to make life or death decisions, like the commander who tragically made the wrong one. This is an aspect of Israeli society that is really difficult to fully comprehend without seeing in person, but also the one part of the trip that made the most dramatic impression on me.


Day 1

My memories of our first day are somewhat blurry, as we landed at 5:30 AM Israel time and immediately hit the road to begin our adventures. We began our trip in Caesarea; the former capital of Israel. Be aware that Jews have been fighting for their survival for a long time, so references to the past can mean something in the last decade or the last millennium. The city, or the little that’s left of it, sits on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, offering views that Pebble Beach would be jealous of. Thankfully, capitalists have not seized the land and converted it to 18 holes. It’s still made up largely of ruins and a theatre that remains mostly intact. It’s a nice starting point, but far from the highlight of the trip. We went through some introductions, had our first delicious falafel and then, at night, were escorted as a group to a nearby bar. It would be our last night of “authorized fun” until our final night in Israel.


Day 2

The next day we awoke early to a cornucopia of Israeli delights at breakfast; eggs, fried eggplant, salads galore, hummus, tahina, fresh fruit, mystery cheeses and warm, fresh bread. I remember thinking I could get used to this. After breakfast, we made our way to the Jordan River and got on rafts fitting either 4 or 2 people. We were following in the footsteps of Mark Twain, who upon seeing the Jordan River remarked that it was woefully small compared to how he had dreamed it up. We rode leisurely down the river and enjoyed the bright sun and the cold water. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t engage in several water fights with the other rafts. 

Along the way on each side of the river, there were several locals who were picnicking and enjoying the water. At one point, our raft of 4 found itself lagging behind the group. Suddenly a group of young, teenage Israeli’s was swinging Tarzan-style into the river. They moseyed up to our raft and pleaded with us to let them on. Despite warnings from the guide not to allow more than 4 to a raft, we helped all 3 youngsters aboard. The kids joked with us, throwing out English slurs that they knew and attempting to make us laugh with their broken English. This was our first exposure to the “Chutzpah” that defines Israelis. These were 14-year-old kids and they had the gumption to jump aboard a raft with 4 23-year-old Americans. Would American kids ever have the courage to do something like that, and then plead with us to let them stay on for the entire ride? These kids are born entrepreneurs. They take matters into their own hands, refuse to take no for an answer, and are simply not afraid. We learned as much that day on the Jordan River.


Day 3

We might have thought we would experience our religious awakening at the Western Wall, but if we wanted real evidence of a higher being, we found it in the natural springs at Gan Hashlosha. We got there around noon, having each spent about 30 Shekels (about $7) on food for a massive picnic. As soon as we get there, we went straight for the pools. When I say pools, I mean something bordering on the size of a lake, except that these were natural springs, filled with miniscule fish that seized upon everyone’s listless feet and nibbled away at dead skin. The water could not have been more refreshing with the hot desert sun bearing down upon us. After swimming for awhile, we found the real hidden gem of the pools; the waterfalls. We stood under the waterfalls as the water pounded the knots out of our shoulders. The immense power of the water was at once deafening and tranquilizing. We milked every last minute of our time at the pools and then converged upon the feast of Israeli supermarket food; from honey-flavored peanut butter to warm pita and hummus to fresh grapes and watermelon.

One other hilarious tidbit from the natural springs. An Israeli woman tried to leave her baby (1-year-old tops) with me and Toobi on the most slippery and dangerous area of the entire place. We were crawling to ensure that we didn’t fall and break our heads, yet this complete stranger asks us to watch her baby while she walks out of the water to go get something. Absurd!! The level of trust, and plain audacity, of the people in Israel is remarkable. The baby started crying as soon as the mother attempted to leave, so she had to take him with her, but still, just the idea itself would be blasphemous in America.

I think it’s important to note that I am including the events that were the highlights of my trip. If we weren’t in the bus, we were out doing something, so even though my writing might make it seem like our days weren’t packed, they were. Nim, our guide, was immensely knowledgeable about Israel’s history, its geography, its culture, etc, and each day was littered with mini lectures on all things Israel. On day 3, I learned that the sole difference between green olives and black olives is the stage at which they are picked. Green being unripe, black being ripe. 

After our water adventures, we made our way to Jerusalem to meet our soldiers. We sat in groups of 5-6 as the soldiers rotated through each group introducing themselves and getting to know us. From there, we went to our hotel in Jerusalem, where we found several other birthright groups staying as well. It was an invasion of young American Jews!


Day 4

In the morning, one of the former directors of birthright gave a speech to all of us staying at the hotel. I wish I could do the speech justice, but it’s not possible, considering he spent 90 minutes telling us his story and what he believes it means to be a Jew. He drove home the point, which was incessantly repeated, that to be Jewish, it is not necessary to be religious. The speaker’s father, in fact, did not believe in God, yet still devoted his life to Judaism.

From there, we went to the old city. Again, another funny tidbit; I went to purchase water at a small grocery story. The man in front of me at the cashier was attempting to buy a handful of items, but the clerk was busy talking to a coworker. So instead of waiting patiently, the man started to ring up his own items, then turned the screen to see how much he owed. The cashier saw him doing this and couldn’t have cared less. The man in line had to get his attention just to give him the money he was owed! Unbelievable 

We went to see the Western Wall, as well. I won’t write at length about it simply because it did not have the majestic effect on me that it does on so many others. I don’t want to do it an injustice. All I willsay is that it is humbling to see how many people feel like that is the holiest place on earth. People everywhere were reduced to tears at just the sight of the wall. My friend, Cody, made a great point of saying that millions of people would give everything just to see the wall once. We were blessed to have such an opportunity, and even if it did not have quite the same impact on us, we should at least recognize it’s place in the annals of time.


Day 5

We spent the majority of our day at Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Israel. Like the speech we heard, it’s difficult to convey the power of a museum, but I will attempt to do so with two brief anecdotes.

We saw a short interview on film with a holocaust survivor. While the trip was filled with instances of immense hardship that the Jews experienced, this one film embodied it perfectly for me. In the concentration camps, people often slept 3 or 4 to a bed. One night, this man awoke to find his hat was gone. Someone had stolen it from him, and if he showed up the next day in line without a hat, the Nazis would kill him. They would murder him simply because he did not have a hat.

What was he to do? What would we do in the same position? Does he accept his fate and become one of 6 million to perish, his name lost forever, but his values held intact? Or does he adopt survival as the ultimate value, and take another man’s life? He chose the latter. He found a man who had left his hat in a compromising position while asleep, and he stole it. When they lined up the next day, he heard the Germans yelling at someone for not having a hat, and then he heard the gunshot. He purposely avoided looking at the man, knowing he would be haunted forever by his face if he saw it. He has to live with that guilt now, but had he not chosen to steal the hat, he’d be dead.

The second story was told to us by our amazing tour guide, who was a holocaust historian himself. It’s brief, yet tragic, and emblematic of the fickle nature of life during the holocaust. A mother and daughter that had been in hiding were caught by a Nazi soldier. The soldier was unforgiving and prepared to kill them both. The mother pleaded with him to kill her daughter first, so that her daughter would not have her dead mother be the last thing she saw. The soldier accepts her request and kills her daughter. When he goes to murder the mother, his gun jams. He’s unable to kill her and instead sends her to a labor camp. She survives, forever wondering if her daughter would have survived had she offered herself first to the soldier.


Day 6

At this point, the days and sights started to blend together. It became difficult to separate what we did yesterday from what we did three days ago. One of the downsides of our itinerary was the lack of time in Tel Aviv. We had one day there, and then at night we had to return to Jerusalem. Suffice it to say, it was a tease.

We began the day in Jaffa Port; like much of Israel, a place with immense historical significance. What that significance is, however, escapes me at the moment. Jaffa Port also held immense personal significance. It was the one place I had earmarked prior to leaving. The reason? Hummus. I was on a quest for the best hummus in the country, and had been told by some stateside Israeli friends that Jaffa Port was the place to find it. The place? Abu Khasan. Rumor had it that all they served was hummus, and once they ran out, they closed for the day. I knew we would be in Tel Aviv on our trip, but I didn’t know for sure that we would be in Jaffa Port. As luck would have it, we stopped there for lunch.

We were given an hour and a half, and offered pre-packaged sandwiches so that we could eat quickly and check out the flea market. No thank you. I had recruited some of our soldiers to join us on our quest for the grail. They had all heard tales of Abu Khasan, yet none of them had ever been. Getting them to skip the flea market was an easy endeavor. In any case, we couldn’t have found it without them. After asking directions from a few locals, we wandered a good 15 minutes (14 minutes farther from the flea market than we were supposed to) and finally came upon the place. I still can’t believe we actually made it.

We finagled a seat and our soldiers ordered for us. They did actually have things other than hummus-raw onion, pita, and one other chickpea-based spread. So, did it live up to the hype? Let’s just say I didn’t need to eat dinner. Can you imagine just having pita and hummus in America? Do you know of a single type of hummus that you would not get sick of for an entire meal? Me neither. I talked to the owner about franchising in America, but he wasn’t having it (just kidding). This was clearly the culinary highlight of my trip.

From Jaffa Port, we went to Tel Aviv, where we took a bus tour of the city. We stopped and spent some time at Independence Hall. It’s remarkably nondescript and small, yet its place in modern Israeli history is second to none. They set up the room the same way it was set up when Israel declared its independence, with placards stating where everyone was sitting. Then they played a recording, in Hebrew, of Ben-Gurion declaring the state of Israel. It’s touching and hits home, especially when they played the Hatikva afterwards and the guide told us that Golda Meir was so emotional that day that the tears streamed down her cheek as the anthem played.

We had to say goodbye to our soldiers that night. It was a surreal moment in the sense that they had left their real lives for 6 days to hang out with a bunch of young Americans and get a tour of their country. We got to forge ahead with the good times, while they were forced to go back to base. Not go back to their desk jobs, but back to base. They had grown attached to us and us to them. Neither one of us knew what to expect from the other, but there had been no hiccups the entire time, and everyone got along great. Some of the Americans worried that the soldiers would be bitter toward us because as American Jews we reap the benefits of having Israel as a safe haven, without having to make the great sacrifice that Israelis must make. Nothing could have been further from the truth, though. They welcomed us with open arms and were intrigued to learn of our lives in America, and for 6 days at least, pretend to be one of us. To me it seemed like they were far sadder to leave us than we were to say goodbye to them.


Day 7

This was arguably our busiest day. We went to the Dead Sea in the morning, which was quite a long drive from where we were staying in Jerusalem. The Dead Sea is one of those places that you “have to see before you die.” There’s nothing like it in the world.

The sea has receded over a mile since the original hotels and resorts were built along its shores, so now they have “shuttles” (which are really tractors with carts attached to them) to take you from the hotel to the sea. You can also walk, but consider that on average, there are clouds in the sky 40 days out of the entire year there. And it’s easily over 100 degrees. So the cart took us to the sea and we hurried into the water before the sand could give us 3rd degree burns on the soles of our feet. Unfortunately, the water was equally hot. The first 15-20 steps in the water were incredibly painful, almost like glass shards being pierced into your skin. Somehow, miraculously, the water instantly cooled down once it reached knee-level.

The water itself is thick with salt and oil. You can feel it when you rub your fingers together, and you can see the gleam of the oil when you look at the surface of the water. The instant you allow your feet to leave the floor, you lose control, almost as if you were in space. Depending on which way you lean, your body will naturally begin to float on its back or stomach. It’s such a peculiar and unique sensation that everyone has to try it once. The first time you try to stand again after floating is somewhat frightening because the water is so thick that it’s actually difficult to bring your feet to the ground. Once the novelty wore off, we proceeded on to the next apparent miracle of the Dead Sea-the mud. We took the mud off the seafloor and rubbed it all over ourselves. It’s supposed to be great for the skin, but really it just made us all look like monsters from a low-budget horror movie. After 30 minutes of fooling around in the water, we’d had our fix and we headed back.

From there, we went to the Bedouin camps, near Arad, where we would be spending the night. The first thing we did upon arrival was load up on some camels and trudge around the campsite. There weren’t enough camels, so some people rode mules as well. It’s a funny thing, riding a mule. Camels are interesting creatures too. I think that’s where George Lucas got his inspiration for some characters in Star Wars.

Spending the night in the camps was fun. We had some time to ourselves out in the desert. It’s unlike other deserts I’ve been to since it’s filled with more stones than sand, but it’s still endless and manages to play tricks with your eyes, especially at night. Shadows are magnified and lights look magical. Sleeping in a massive tent with our entire group wasn’t the most pleasant experience, but we had to be up early to hike Masada, so it didn’t matter too much.


Day 8

I think I lost a day or 2 somewhere in my recap, but this was our last full day as a group in Israel. In the morning we “hiked” up Masada. I use quotes because we went up the easy route, which only took 15 minutes. That was pretty disappointing for me, especially when I found out afterward that other groups went up the same way as the Romans, which takes 3 hours.

What is most amazing about Masada is how they constructed that fortress at the top of the mountain, and more importantly, why? It’s unbearably hot. If you stand uncovered for more than a few minutes, you start sweating uncontrollably. Everyone visits early in the morning, because it’s dangerous to be there in the afternoon. Yet people managed to live there. Unbelievable.

We had a group discussion that incited some passionate arguments on both sides. When the Jews found out that the Romans were coming to invade Masada and they were exponentially outnumbered, the Jewish leaders convinced the 1000-odd people to commit mass suicide. We spent a solid hour debating the implications of that decision- was it heroic or cowardly? How would it be interpreted had 2 Jews not decided to flee and hide, enabling them to tell the story of the rest of the group? The heroes v. cowards arguments came up time and again throughout our trip.

From Masada, we went to a farm by the Gaza Strip. At this point, we were all dreading the fact that the trip was coming to a close, but this was still easily one of the coolest parts of the trip. First we went to a strawberry farm, where the owner of the farm spoke to us about how Israelis managed to develop such a strong agricultural industry in the middle of the desert. To say he was a proud Israeli would not be doing his patriotism justice.

From there we took our bus another mile or so to an area 2 kilometers from the Gaza Strip. When Israel declared its independence in 1948, and the Egyptians attacked the very spot where we were standing, the biggest factor in Israel holding down that border was a few carrier pigeons. The farmer’s aunt had trained several carrier pigeons to take messages to Tel Aviv, so when war broke out, they sent pigeons to Tel Aviv asking for supplies and backup. The pigeons admirably performed their duty, and the Israelis managed to hold down the border for an entire year with just 40 people.

We sampled more fruits and vegetables after that. All delicious. All unbelievably fresh. They made us pesto from basil they were growing, and then we made our own pita on a Bedouin oven. Unbelievable!

We spent our last night in Ashkelon. By now the group had bonded, so everyone was sad to say goodbye. Still, we managed to have a memorable last night out.


I meant to write a brief summary of my trip, but I guess that’s just not possible in a trip that is as action-packed as this one. And to think that I left out so much of my trip. The entire experience really has been perfected over time. It seems like the majority of people leave Israel having experienced some sort of revelation or epiphany. The trip does an amazing job of exposing participants to different views and ideas, without pushing one agenda on us. I am lucky that I was able to go with 5 of my closest friends and simply have the time of my life. I think birthright was a resounding success for us, as the 6 of us all feel a much stronger connection to the country, and we share a desire to return.


Goodbye China

December 17, 2009
I have been waiting for a seemingly inevitable epiphany on my time in China, for some stroke of brilliance to help me encapsulate three months of escapades under one general theme. But after a week, I think my lack of sudden insight or general understanding suggests one thing-China can’t be pigeonholed or typecast or even stereotyped. It’s too crazy. It’s too interesting. My experiences were too diverse and far-reaching.

I have been recounting my adventures there to people since I lande...
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Paradise Found

December 10, 2009
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We were also told to minimize our time in Bangkok, because it is so atrociously dirty, crowded and overrun with sleazy tourists. We spent one morning there, touring the city in a taxi and spendi...
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A City Confused

December 7, 2009
So we just returned from a whirlwind of a journey from Shanghai to Beijing to Thailand and back in just under three weeks. I am planning to write three more blogs-1 on Beijing, 1 on Thailand and 1 concluding my time in China. I've uploaded the pictures from Beijing already. Take a look-

After spending two extremely eventful and amazing weeks in Thailand, Beijing seems like ages ago. We took an overnight train to Beijing more for the experience than an...
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Long Time no Blog

November 16, 2009
I apologize to all the avid Shanghai Rabie followers for a lack of regular updates. Things stop being so unique when they occur on a regular basis. Still, I try to cull together the events that stand out over the course of the week so that I can keep everyone posted on the madness that is China. Many blogs are filled with mindless minutiae, and, while I am sure most bloggers lead numbingly interesting lives, I prefer to fill my blog with quality and insight, rather than a monotonous recap of ...
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China’s Answer to the Recession

November 9, 2009
I was walking to my favorite Japanese ramen restaurant-a massive chain called Ajisen Ramen (there’s actually one in LA…it’s delicious)-when I saw one of the more hilarious examples of people in China taking their jobs way too seriously. In America, we often see people hired to help children cross the street on their way to school. I think most people would agree that this is a respectable, and necessary, job. Either the government in China thinks its people behave like children, or it...
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The Canton Fair!

November 5, 2009
We took an early train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou so that we would have plenty of time to attend the Canton Fair. We didn’t know exactly what to expect, but owing to our experiences thus far in China, we were prepared for something on a scale we had never seen. We were not disappointed.

The second we stepped outside of the train station, it hit us. The pollution was appalling. The three of us had never seen or felt anything like it. Sure, Shanghai is bad. But you can’t see the smog 3 feet...
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The grass isn't always greener

November 3, 2009
Macao! The name elicits feelings of grandeur, wealth, excitement and modernity. It’s the Las Vegas of the East. Sheldon Adelson, the man who owns the Venetian, the Vegas convention center, and a lot more, said that we should call Vegas the “Macao of America”. So we were pretty excited to brave the rocky waters and take the one-hour boat ride to the Asian city of sin.

As we neared the port, we saw the familiar giant signs that line Vegas’ strip-MGM, Wynn, Sands. We got off the boat and...
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Hong Kong-China's very distant relative

November 2, 2009
    We set off early Wednesday morning for our first real foray outside of Shanghai in over 45 days. Our flight was relatively uneventful-everything went smoothly and we arrived in Guangzhou on time. We took a long bus ride from the airport to the train station and then took the next available train to Hong Kong. Unlike the flight, this train ride unfortunately was quite eventful. Out of the hundreds of seats on the train, Joe and I had to be placed next to the loudest and most inconsiderate ...
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Jew's Ear

October 27, 2009
Yesterday I had such an interesting day that I have to write about it, even though we have an early flight to catch in the morning. I have been seriously mulling over the idea of working part-time so that I can experience more of China. I work 9 hours per day, plus commuting time. Wages are low across the board here, so that's not really an incentive, and I often find myself with little to do at work after I have created my lesson plans. The teaching itself is great, but when I'm not teaching...
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David Rabie

I will be blogging about my adventures across Shanghai.
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