Prayer, memories, fears and a first trip to Israel

Mia Kweskin

I never pray during silent prayer. 

At age 6 or 7, while sitting beside my parents in a sanctuary full of worshippers bowing their heads and swaying back and forth, I convinced myself that too many people were talking to G-d at once. I reserved my prayers for the quiet moments in my life, often at home alone or right before bedtime. 

Two decades later, I found myself standing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, once again surrounded by worshippers praying and swaying. The wall overflowed with paper prayers inserted into its cracks, many of which slipped out and floated to the ground each time someone pushed a new prayer in. I shimmied my way into an open spot, pressed my hand against the stone and concentrated hard. As much as I wanted to have the spiritual experience so many describe from their first pilgrimage to Israel, I stood there unable to pray.  

“There are too many people talking to G-d at once,” I thought to myself. 

I prayed a lot in the quiet moments leading up to my first trip to Israel, a trip I had pushed off for many years mostly out of fear. I feared the headlines that I saw splattered across the news and social media. I feared the violence that could break out at any time in a country constantly at war. 

Ever the indoorsy young lady, I feared that I might plotz on the hike up Masada. But I had to go. My first pilgrimage to Israel, and the Birthright program in particular, seemed like a rite of passage. At this moment in my life — despite being older than the typical Birthright participant — I finally felt ready for it.

My experience in Israel was soul-nourishing and exhausting, exhilarating and sobering, communal and deeply personal. I feel conflicted and informed, hopeless and hopeful. I didn’t have that religious, spiritual epiphany that many have upon their first visit to Israel. I didn’t gain crystal clarity on the region’s highly complex geopolitical situation. And although my friends joked that I shouldn’t return until I had a husband, I did not find my beshert in Israel. 

Instead, I found beauty, awe and peace in the street art of the Florentin neighborhood, in sweet sips of fruit smoothies on hot Tel Aviv days, and in the storied stone paths of the Old City in Jerusalem.  

Mia Kweskin and friends traveled to Israel this summer on a Birthright Israel trip.


I found confidence, courage and chutzpah as I stared down the snake path soaring up to Masada, as I hiked and at times climbed through the Golan Heights, and as I bravely didn’t shave my legs for 72 hours so that I could painlessly float on the Dead Sea. 

I found community and support as I cheered on new friends celebrating their bar- and bat mitzvahs at the Western Wall and as they cheered me on when I thought I couldn’t make it one step further in the desert heat. 

I found new perspectives as I engaged in deep discussion over drinks with the Israeli participants in our group about U.S. politics and media, the Israel-Palestine conflict, life as an Israeli Jew versus as an American Jew, even lessons learned as children that we’ve had to unlearn as adults. 

As we visited Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, one of our Israeli friends described through tears the reality of every young adult in Israel knowing someone killed in acts of war, violence and terrorism. Another described her fear riding on buses, even entering grocery stores. In a strange way, as American Jews who grew up and attended school in the post-Columbine era, we empathized with those everyday fears. 

I found a closer bond with my people, my homeland and my family. As I stood at the Wall unable to pray, I instead found myself talking to family members who I’ve lost over the past decade, but who I knew were looking down on me as I experienced Israel. 

I thought about the story told and retold in my family of my Granny Shirley wiping the tears away from a young Arab boy’s cheeks whom she encountered on her first visit to Jerusalem. 

My greatest connection to Judaism, to Israel and to our community, is my family. It’s the traditions, the memories and the stories I feel compelled and blessed to carry forward.

“We as Jewish people don’t have history, we have memories,” our tour guide said. “We’re all about remembering. Every time we’re attacked, we remember and rebuild.” 

I left Israel filled with a newfound commitment to remember. I’ve once again found myself praying, mostly during the quiet moments that follow such a grand adventure: for peace, for health, for my new friends across the U.S. and Israel, for my family and for the Jewish community.