Editor’s note: Voice-Tribune intern Samantha Stratton just returned from a 10-day trip to Israel with the Birthright organization, www.BirthrightIsrael.org. This is her story.
When I told my non-Jewish friends about the trip to Israel I was about to take, they were baffled. They couldn’t fathom that someone would just give me a free 10-day trip to Israel.
No, I didn’t win some kind of contest, I told them. No, you can’t just say you’re Jewish and they’ll let you go too. The questions were endless. After I explained that Birthright Israel is designed to connect Jewish young adults to the heritage and history of their religion, my friends didn’t understand why that connection would be important.
Even for some of my fellow Jews, the concept of Birthright seems a little over the top.
Why do young people actually have to go to Israel to learn about it? Books, movies and lectures could probably suffice. Birthright Israel’s mission is to help Jews ages 18 to 26 find some kind of connection to the place that is at the center of their religion by showing them the land, providing an Israeli guide to explain each area visited and letting them decide the next step for themselves.
On July 10, 2011, my journey to find some kind of “connection” began …
I’ve just spent more than 10 hours on a plane, flanked by complete strangers, unable to sleep and unaware of what I’m getting myself into. My group and I gather at baggage claim to retrieve the luggage we’ll carry for the next 10 days. I’m hot and eager to get out of my airplane clothes. It’s only 7:30 a.m. in Israel, and I’m already exhausted.
Our Israeli guide tells us to quickly open our checked luggage and pack a daypack. Our next destination: Mount Arbel, which means we’ll be hiking. Then, we’ll have breakfast – after the airplane meal and lots of snacking, this will be my third “breakfast” of the day – and raft on the Jordan River. We won’t arrive at our hotel until around 6 p.m. Sounds like a sick joke, right? Well, this joke would soon become a sobering reality and possibly the best experience of my life.
During my second semester at American University, I decided on a whim to register for Birthright with two friends from my dorm. Here’s the gist of the program: If you’re Jewish and between the ages of 18 and 26, you’re eligible for a free trip to Israel. I figured, why not? I didn’t have much else going on this summer (I hadn’t yet scored my job at The Voice) and my mom had been practically begging me to sign up since I turned 18. If I had two friends joining me, it would be a lot less scary.
After I signed up and received an acceptance to the trip, I didn’t give it much thought. I saw the trip as filler for my summer boredom. I didn’t understand what Birthright was about except a free vacation with people my age. I’m now much more aware of Birthright’s mission.
Not many people actually know who started the program; all we know is that Birthright was founded by wealthy philanthropists who sought to send young Jewish people to Israel in order to bridge the gap between Israel and Jewish communities around the world. During our orientation, one of the Birthright staff members explained that this trip was a “gift” and that, in Israel, the program is called “Taglit,” which means “discovery” in Hebrew.
During that first meeting, I didn’t really connect with what this staff member was saying. However, after just a few days, I discovered more about my religion, the Middle East and myself than I could have imagined. Though referring to Birthright as a gift seemed cliché initially, I won’t hesitate to say that this trip was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.
I’m so grateful for my experience that it is difficult to put into words.
In fact, as the trip progressed, I became more and more apprehensive of even writing this article. How was I supposed to explain the highlights of my experience when almost everything we did and saw was a highlight?
We visited places I’d only heard of in Sunday School as a child. We floated in the Dead Sea, rode camels in a Bedouin village, experienced Shabbat at the Western Wall, learned about Kabbalah in Tzfat, ascended Masada by way of the Roman Ramp and so much more.
Looking over our trip itinerary, I’m still blown away by how much we fit into 10 days and how much I enjoyed each aspect.
We also built relationships with eight Israeli soldiers who traveled and stayed with us for a portion of our journey. Hearing about their lifestyles gave me a huge amount of respect for them. But, at the same time, I realized that they were all just like me. We were the same age and liked the same TV shows and places to shop. Just one thing separated us: When I turned 18, I was preparing for college; when my Israeli friends turned 18, they were reporting for duty in the Israeli Defense Force.
Now, I realize I might be starting to sound a little brainwashed by Israel’s charm. But don’t be mistaken. I’ve heard plenty of arguments opposing my experience.
During the early stages of our trip, friends and I discussed some of the negative views circulating the media about Birthright. Opponents of the program criticize it for being a tool to lure young Jews into becoming ultra Zionists and encouraging them to make “Aliyah,” immigration to Israel, which many Zionists consider one of the highest forms of worship.
I’ve heard several defenses against Birthright in the past month – before, during and after my trip. Some suggest that the Israeli tour guides assigned to each group preach Zionism and don’t give the full story of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Others even suggest that Birthright specifically selects good-looking Israeli soldiers to persuade young girls and guys that everyone in Israel is beautiful.
I won’t use this article to defend Zionism, Judaism or even Birthright. My only goal is to describe my wonderful experience as best I can.
I sat down on a plane to Israel with a group of 39 other Jewish college students a few weeks ago. I knew two people going in. I feared I’d be surrounded by a bunch of – excuse the term – Jewish American Princesses. I worried that I’d hate the food. I dreaded having talks about Judaism.
A few days ago, I exited a plane at John F. Kennedy airport. I had to say goodbye to 47 new friends, eight of whom are Israeli soldiers.
Instead of ultra-Jewish young adults, I met mostly secular and reform people like me, who’d never truly felt a connection to their religion.
I stepped on American soil and found myself craving falafel (although we’d had it every single day for 10 days straight).
I got on a plane to Louisville missing Israeli accents, debates about the Israel/Palestine conflict and the sweltering desert weather.
I tried to think of the moment I really felt something emotional for Israel, the Holy Land I’ve always been told I should have a connection with.
I remembered the Western Wall. We visited on one of the hottest days of our trip. Everyone had to cover his or her knees and shoulders out of respect for the holy place, which made us all even more uncomfortable. I wrote down a simple prayer on a piece of paper – nothing too emotional or soul bearing. I approached the wall to place my written prayer in one of the cracks. For some reason, I began to cry. These weren’t just a few tears, they were almost sobs.
I rejoined my friends and realized they’d been crying too. We agreed that there was this palpable feeling of sadness at the wall – hundreds of years of pain, suffering and struggle. It was something none of us had ever felt before. It showed me that I could feel something for my religion and its history.
Birthright changed me.
I won’t say it made me a better person. I’m not a staunch Zionist. I won’t even claim to be a more religious Jew. But I am more connected to my heritage, more educated about my religion and more respectful of the conflict currently affecting my homeland.
Contact writer Samantha Stratton firstname.lastname@example.org.
Category: Cover Stories