Not quite the journey I expected on my first trek up Masada

The wake-up call came at 4 a.m., but I was already dressed and ready to go. While Jerusalem slept, I prepared to board the bus to Masada.

I was in Israel last month co-leading a group of 18 brilliant, wily teens, the first Bay Area cohort of Write on For Israel. The program teaches high schoolers the basics of journalism, Jewish history and pro-Israel advocacy, then rewards them with a trip to the Holy Land.

It wasn’t my first visit to Israel, but I had never been to Masada before. That is, unless you count my dreams. As a child, I first heard the story of the Jews defending a mountaintop fortress in the first century B.C.E. while the Romans lay siege.

For years afterward, I dreamed about Jewish warriors holding out under a scorching sun, ultimately choosing suicide over slavery. I dreamed of the ruddy Judean hills, of the wastes around the Dead Sea, of cranes circling above. I dreamed of a blasted land shimmering in the heat.

Finally it was my day to make the pilgrimage.

With the kids dozing in the back of the bus, I noticed the ominously bright sky. Weren’t we supposed to arrive before dawn to avoid the heat of day? Barely out of Jerusalem, I saw through the bus window the sun rise, round and ochre, and I — like a bit player in a bad thriller — muttered aloud, “I got a bad feeling about this.”

We reached Masada around 7 a.m. The sun had already begun baking the landscape, but in the shade of palm trees we breakfasted on nuts, oranges and cookies. Our guide, an Israeli anthropologist sporting a jaunty Australian hat, explained we had three choices: take the tram, hike the snake path or walk the runner’s path.

The latter was the longest way up, named for the route Roman messengers took as they did their generals’ bidding. Naturally, the kids voted for the long route. I sighed, hoisted my backpack and off we went. What could go wrong?

Gazing straight up 1,000 feet to the top of Masada, I understood why the siege lasted two years. Nursing a one-liter water bottle, I marveled at the ruins of Roman base camps, now mere piles of stones. In a country where history inhabits every rock, this site was hard to beat.

Our group held together at first, but soon the strongest sped ahead, while several lagged behind, me among them. After 30 minutes, we could no longer see the leaders. Then we made a wrong turn, and suddenly we were stuck, unsure of the path and out of shouting range.

The next 10 minutes scared the hell out of me.

Half a dozen teens and I huddled on the side of Masada roasting in 100-degree heat. Soon we had guzzled the last muggy drops from our water bottles.

The thought entered my head: Could we be the next Jews to die at Masada?

Then another thought entered my head: Pick up your damn cell phone and call for help! I did, and within minutes we began our slow descent, the kids laughing off the whole misadventure. Though some appeared close to dehydration, we finally reached the Masada visitor’s center and drank our thirsty fill.

Then we took the tram to the top to join the others. Finally, I stood at the summit not only of a mountain, but of Jewish history. I barely had time to take it in, when several kids complained of heat and fatigue. With some fighting dehydration, others a wicked stomach flu, I escorted them to the clinic below.

My total time on top of Masada: 10 minutes.

It didn’t matter. Down below, in an air-conditioned infirmary lined with supply cabinets and I.V. stands, I watched the kids laughing and chatting, thrilled to have been sustained and brought together in this time. I watched the strong ones gently rub the backs of the sick ones.

That then became my Masada experience: sitting in a windowless room with a kehilla of seven beautiful Jewish teens, each of them heirs of Eleazar ben Ya’ir, the Jewish commander of Masada long ago.

As one of the kids said later: Hey, we’re still here. And the Romans? They’re making pizza

Dan Pine can be reached at [email protected]

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.