What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen? It’s a hard question to answer isn’t it? It could be one magical sunset, or the time your kayak paddle broke through the crystal clear glass-like water of an Alaskan lake, or maybe the birth of a child. Chances are, you’ve got a pile of beautiful moments stashed away in your brain, ready to deliver to a friend at the bar or the group around a campfire. It can be hard to put your finger on one when asked, but they are always there, those images that play on repeat when you need them the most. I have several. This story is just one of many.
The events of September 11, 2001 changed the world forever. Here we are, twenty years later, and it’s still hard to shake those images of the towers falling, that black smoke rising into oblivion, the office papers fluttering around throughout the city, or worse. It happened in a time before smartphones, and social media, and yet those images, often framed within a CNN scrolling headline, figure out a way to present themselves in our minds, playing on repeat, whenever they want.
I didn’t really understand what was going on at the time. I was twenty-five, living on my own for the first time, and working my first real job at a semi-mysterious nuclear research lab at the University of Rochester. I remember getting to work early that day with the idea of catching up on things. I recall making copies at a large machine in the hallway near my desk. Nobody else had arrived yet. It was just me, drinking my coffee and doing my thing.
Eventually people started to show up, and back at my desk an image of smoke billowing from one of the twin towers in lower Manhattan appeared at the top of Yahoo! News.
It took some time for everyone to realize what had happened. It’s wasn’t like how you see it depicted in movies and on TV where you happen by a TV in a store window and everyone quickly gathers to get a peak at the news. We were all at work, at our desks, not doom-scrolling. When someone did realize, and then another, and then everyone, someone wheeled an old CRT out into the lobby of the building so we could all watch together. It sat atop one of those carts you’d have in school, strapped to the thing with a seatbelt, VCR on the shelf below. A few of us dragged over our desk chairs, while others found a sofa and pushed it in front the the TV—about fifty of us together, watching in silence, jaws to the floor.
We missed the impact of the two planes, but then the first tower began to fall to the ground and I could hear our collective gasp. Someone was crying, and another ran out of the room in a huff, hitting the wall on the way back to his office. Nobody knew what was happening, but we all knew it was bad.
A few months later, on the day after Christmas, my grandfather passed away. I drove down to Silver Spring to say goodbye and attend his funeral. I remember it was raining, but then again, it’s raining in many of my sad memories.
When I returned to Rochester, and to my job, I found myself distracted, obsessed with the aftermath of 911. I followed the news as if it were the only thing that mattered anymore, flipping through the pages of TIME and Newsweek, noticing the photo credits hidden away in the margins. I devoured Deborah Copaken’s Shutterbabe, and thought she was talking directly to me, telling me to live my life on my own terms, and that if I really wanted to, I could pick up a camera, move to a new country and become a photojournalist. Ideas began to materialize—I knew I at least needed to get out of Rochester.
By February I made the decision to go on a Birthright Israel trip. I guess I figured I could go on a free trip, visit with friends and family, see the country, and get a sense of what my life there could be like. It was like a test run.
The trip, which took place in late June of 2002, was a whirlwind tour of a country the size of New Jersey. We hit all the highlights and were constantly on the move, shuttling ourselves around the country in a caravan of two charter busses, each with a couple of armed Israeli soldiers sitting in the back row—I was older than all of them. In fact, I was older than most of the people on the trip. Back then, to do Birthright, you had to be between 18 and 26, so I was just under the limit when I applied, along with a handful of others who I quickly attached myself to. Most of the rest were closer to 18 and seemingly more religious than I was. I wondered if they were there for some kind of test run as well.
There was one part of the trip that I think most of the group might have thought of as one of those beautiful moments in life. Our busses had left from Tel Aviv around an hour before sunset and headed up into the mountains. It was all very planed out by the program director from Birthright. We climbed the twisty road up to Jerusalem just as the sun was setting. At the peak, we pulled over at a spot along the road that overlooked an entire valley of rolling hills and villages just outside the city. The temperature dropped dramatically to sweatshirt and jeans temps, and after we adjusted our clothing, we all climbed down from the busses to take a look.
Off in the distance you could hear it—Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer. It echoed through the valley and with a little help from the wind, and landed just where we stood, grabbing everyone’s attention—the absolute beauty of it. The sun had fallen behind the mountains, and this combined with the repeating sounds of the Adhan, is when the Jerusalemitis began to set in. I could see it happening in near real time with some of my fellow Birthrighters. Once again, fifty of us gathered to watch something spectacular. Some people cried, one person walked off in a huff.
A truly beautiful moment, for everyone. But my beautiful moment came a few days later.
After spending a few days in The Holy City, we worked our way down to a Bedouin camp just north of the Negev desert. I remember approaching the camp and thinking it looked very staged, like one of those fake ghost towns you might find outside of the Grand Canyon. But, when we got closer, it all seemed very comfortable and welcoming. There were a number of giant open air tents filled with small mattresses, pillows and blankets, and a stable of camels nearby, which I figured we’d certainly be riding before our departure the next morning.
The camp experience was very nice after all. We drank sugary tea and ate a big delicious dinner all while sitting on pillows together. Eventually we rode those camels around, and by dusk we were relaxing under the tent with each other, telling stories and laughing.
Once it was truly night, our small group within the group decided to go on a journey into the darkness of the desert. We gathered together, about six of us, and pointed ourselves toward what we thought was the area we had previously been camel riding. One of us had a small flashlight to light our way.
We walked, and walked. Our plan was to walk as far as we could before we lost sight of the floodlights from the camp. The lights became tiny, and barely perceptible and so we decided to sit down in the dirt and stare off into the darkness. I could barely see my own hands in front of me.
After a little while my eyes adjusted to the night, illuminated by the sea of stars above us, and I could just barely make out that there was a ridge of mountains way off in the distance. I could occasionally see the headlights of a car driving along the ridge. It must have been a mile away. The cool temperatures meant we had to huddle together--me and my new small group of friends who I had met less than ten days prior. Our trip was coming to an end and we felt close to one another and knew this would be our final moment together.
We sat there for what seemed like an hour. Small talking, short stories, little laughs. And then I saw something. Up on the ridge, a mile away. I first thought it was another car, but this time the headlight was on its own, singular, and slowly growing. We all noticed it, discussing what it might be as the light grew larger and larger. A motorcycle, or maybe a plane. It continued to grow.
The moon. There it was, rising above the ridge, off in the distance, three hundred thousand miles away. It slowly revealed itself to us, and once we all understood what it was, I once again heard that collective gasp, jaws to the floor. It sucked the voices from our mouths, and pushed us all into a silence I’ll never forget. Someone wept, this time, tears of joy. As it rose, the ground before us began to fill in with detail. I could see everything now, illuminated by the full moon as it rose and rose above us and into the sky.
Our group watched it for another half hour before someone suggested we walk back to the camp, not in a huff. I didn’t want to turn my back on the moon, but I knew it was time to go and that it would light my way back to the camp. I said my goodbyes to the moon, buried the image deep in my brain—saved for later, until next time.
After Birthright was over, I spent another week in Israel visiting with friends and family before I returned to the states and to Rochester and made the decision to move to Israel long term. In 2003 I landed in Tel Aviv, ready to start a new life. I lasted about a year.
That moonrise at the Bedouin camp still sticks out as one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I’ve told variations of this story to friends at bars, and one day I’ll tell it to my family while we sit around a campfire. It wasn’t so much the picturesque nature of the moon rising above the ridge, but that shared moment with friends—a moment of true shared beauty, and a little peace within a world that felt like it was quickly falling apart. Twenty years later, and I still long for desert moonrises all the time.