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My First Trip to Israel

Aug 28 2019
Photo by
Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire
Photo by
Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire
Nate Ebner
New England Patriots
Aug 28 2019

One major takeaway from my first trip to Israel this past June: There’s a certain art to wearing a yarmulke on top of an Afro. 

For real, an art.

Having been raised Jewish, I still remembered the snug feel of a kippah on the crown of my head, even though it had been a few years since I’d worn one. So when we went into buildings and areas that observed the custom of covering your head, it wasn’t a big deal. 

But for quite a few of my Patriots teammates on the trip with me who had not been raised Jewish, the yarmulke thing was a bit more complicated.

During one of our dinners, Isaiah Wynn accidentally had his yarmulke fall off his head and into his meal. Got it absolutely covered in food. Hummus everywhere. He made a solid effort to clean it off — A+ for effort to him — but, yeah, it wasn’t pretty.

There’s a certain art to wearing a yarmulke on top of an Afro.

You can also take my guy Brandon King for example. Great person. Huge hair. Could not keep that thing on his head. B-King was struggling with hair clips to no avail for the entire trip. It was one of the great subplots of the entire six-day trip.

For all of us, this was a journey about firsts. It’s not often you get the opportunity to take a first-class trip to an exotic and historic place. It’s even rarer that you get to do it with the guys who you just won a Super Bowl with. 

Of course, with the new season on the horizon all of us are now focused on what’s ahead. But before we get into the swing of the regular season, I wanted to take a little time to talk about my first trip to Israel and why the experience meant so much to me. 

Courtesy of the New England Patriots/Eric J. Adler

When I was a kid, my dad always told me that one day — somehow, some way — I had to go to Israel. 

Part of it was a religious thing. My dad was Jewish and he made sure that I was raised Jewish. And when I say “raised Jewish,” I mean the whole deal: going to temple, Sunday school every weekend and many attempts at reading the Torah (the key word being “attempts” — it’s pretty hard to read when there aren’t any vowels). Basically, from a young age, my dad had definitely made a point to instill in me the importance of my Jewish heritage. 

But if I’m being honest, the biggest reason the idea of traveling to Israel appealed to me was because I remember my dad telling me when I was a kid that it was just a really, really cool place. He had traveled there in the late ’80s to represent the United States as a rugby player at the Maccabiah Games, which are sort of like the Jewish Olympics. He talked about the amazing beaches and how cool the cities were. That was a really special time in his life, and it was something he always wanted me to be able to experience, as well. 

Courtey of Nate Ebner

My dad passed away a few years back. I still think about him every day because he was my best friend. We did everything together. Since losing him, one of the things that I have discovered that makes me feel connected to him is doing things that we used to enjoy doing together when he was alive. My passions for working out and for playing rugby are directly tied to him. Whenever I’m doing either activity I can feel him there with me, and that’s special. 

And along those same lines, even though I don’t consider myself a very spiritual person these days, I’ve always thought of Israel as a place that connects me to my dad. 

Our owner, Mr. Kraft, arranges an annual trip to Israel for members of the organization. He’d asked me to go a few times before, but for one reason or the other the timing was never right. One year, I was at the Olympics playing rugby for Team USA. Another year I was rehabbing an injury. 

After we won the Super Bowl last February, Mr. Kraft asked me once again if I’d be interested in going to Israel. For me, the timing was right. And the best part was that I got to bring a guest. It didn’t take me too long to think about it before I came up with the perfect person: my Aunt Annie — my dad’s little sister.

Annie had always shared a really close relationship with my dad. And like me she would also be making her first trip to Israel. I knew having her there would truly complete the experience, but it would also be something that would have made my dad really happy. 

Courtesy of the New England Patriots/Eric J. Adler

One of the things about Israel is that it’s a place with a lot of different meanings to different people. 

To many, it’s the holy land. As simple as that. To some, they think about technology and nightlife. And to others, they might hear “Israel” and immediately think about all the turmoil and controversy related to the geopolitics of the region. Basically, if you bring the country up it’ll elicit some kind of reaction.

What’s kind of interesting is that, despite this kind of larger-than-life significance, Israel is actually a pretty small place — about 33 times smaller than Texas. Still, packed into that tiny space is so much to take in from a spiritual, cultural and, more significantly, a historical perspective. 

One of the most surreal things about the trip was that there were so many places and things I’d been taught about as a kid in Ohio that all came to life in front of my eyes. 

One of my favorite moments from the entire trip was when we visited the Western Wall. It’s this ancient structure that was originally constructed by Herod the Great in 19 B.C. as part of a retaining wall around the Holy Mount in Jerusalem. The land it stands on serves as a nexus of so much culture — Muslims, Christians and Jews alike consider it to be one of the holiest places on earth.

From a young age, my dad had definitely made a point to instill in me the importance of my Jewish heritage.

But what I didn’t know was that only a fraction of the existing wall — about 200 feet — is visible to the public. The other 1,600 feet can only be viewed below the surface, via a series of tunnels. 

Walking through the Western Wall tunnels was like being taken into this historical portal. For centuries, different civilizations constructed buildings on top of one another, using the same limestone wall for support. When you walk on the same ground as people who lived centuries ago, and took pilgrimages to the exact same spot you are standing on, it’s humbling.

The entire trip we were surrounded by so much history, whether it was the Dead Sea, Masada or the Sea of Galilee, the site where Jesus performed miracles. 

It was pretty easy to see why my dad loved the country so much.

Visiting all of these sites was legitimately breathtaking, but when I look back on the trip as a whole, the part of Israel that left the biggest impact on me was the people. Israelis are such a proud and deeply patriotic people. The attachment they feel to their homeland was inspiring, and as a visitor it made the trip feel that much more special. 

Back home, I’m not really outspoken when it comes to having been raised Jewish. Because I’m no longer practicing, it’s not necessarily something a lot of people know about me. And for that reason, being around so many people who were not only open, but who were also so proud of their Jewish heritage was a pretty amazing experience.

During our trip, we visited the Kraft Family Sports Campus, a sports complex which was constructed in Jerusalem featuring multiple athletic fields, including the only regulation length American football field in all of Israel. 

At one point we were playing a game with some kids when a couple of them ran up to me and asked if I was Jewish. 

It wasn’t a question I was expecting — it’s honestly not one I get too often — but when I told them I was, I was kind of surprised by their reaction: They lit up. Like it was genuinely exciting for them. 

At first I wasn’t sure why they were so excited. Then it kind of dawned on me that, for them, I’m from across the ocean, where I speak a different language and play this foreign sport that’s considered cool and popular in the United States. 

But despite our differences, we shared this one thing, our heritage, that brought us together.

That was a really cool thing for me. I was grateful to have made that connection.

Courtesy of the New England Patriots/Eric J. Adler

I miss my dad all the time, and while I was in Israel, it was no different. I wish he could have visited all those incredible sites with me and shown me a few of his favorite places. 

What I’m grateful for, though, was that I got to go on this trip with his sister, who loved him so much. Being around her in this place that was very special to my dad made me feel closer to him, which is the best feeling there is. 

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect out of my first trip to Israel, but I ended up having an experience that I’ll never forget.

I’m pretty sure my teammates did too … although I’m not sure many of them will be seen in a yarmulke again anytime soon.

Nate Ebner
New England Patriots