5:00 p.m. – meet at JFNA.

Board the bus, Newark bound.

United Flight 90 – small treats, small seats, 11 hours try to sleep.

Laughing, learning, sharing.

This is the Summer 2017 VIP360 cohort. A group of mostly strangers, come together to travel, learn, experience, and bridge Jewish community between Israel and the Mid-Atlantic.

For any group of like-minded travelers, spending 11 hours on a United flight can make or break lifelong bonds. Thankfully, by the time we landed in Israel, fast friends had been made. And this is where our journey really started.

Off the plane, making our weary and bleary-eyed way towards customs, only to be stopped by a sea of travelers shifting impatiently in the slowest customs line that ever existed. EVER. As if the Universe was telling us to delay gratification just one more hour. And so we did. And maybe for the better as we internalized where we were. We were HERE. In the Promised Land! What we’ve talked and sung about every Shabbat, every High Holiday, every day in our Jewish communities back home. And by the time it sunk in – Israel! Here! OMG! – we’d gotten through customs, regrouped, and headed out the airport doors, into the intense July heat, and onto the bus.

We’d left at 11:00 p.m. on Saturday and arrived at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday. We’d gelled as a group. We smelled. We were tired. And our fearless leader, Melanie Gerchberg, who had herded us like cats for the last 15 or so hours, gently broke the news that we would be going straight to dinner. And so as we wound our way from Ben-Gurion International Airport into the historic city of Jerusalem, Shai Goren, comedy-historian extraordinaire, entertained our muddled minds with humorous geopolitical, historical, and cultural commentary.

Jerusalem. Bustling even at 9:00 p.m. The smells of foods cooked with oil, salt, heat and citrus. Languages on every corner competing for sound space. Lights, some soft and some sharp, sprinkling streets lined with clay buildings. This desert, this city of over four thousand years old, this land of milk and honey – our 200 year old country across the ocean can’t compare with the energy and history held here.

Off the bus and into Jacko’s. Up the stairs into a lamp-lit room filled to the corners with tables. We sit, and are served one delicious course after the other. Warm-from-the-oven bread with a number of sweet and savory eggplant dips. Roasted goose on focaccia. Salted salad with oil and citrus – more delicious than you can imagine. Tuna tartare, mushroom gnocchi, herb roasted chicken with blanched asparagus, creamy couscous, roasted salmon, and more. We laughed, we ate, we talked with participants of sister programs happening in Israel – the possibilities for connections seemed limitless.

Ending with a plate the size of a four-top, scattered with pinafores, decadent brownies, marshmallow cream sauce, ice cream and other sweets.

Satiated beyond comprehension, full of food and ideas and new knowledge and experiences, we made our way to the David Citadel Hotel – a hotel so luxurious, this hob-knob group of weary travelers couldn’t imagine a more delightful way to sink into sleep after our journey.