This summer Israel spent a great deal of time in the news and not in a good way. I wanted to buck that trend and recognize Israel for something amazing it has been doing since 1999 that I was lucky enough to experience myself, just as Operation Protective Edge began.
I’m talking about Birthright Israel. In Israel, the trip is known as “Taglit,” which is the Hebrew word for “discovery.” This is very fitting as Birthright is exactly that. It’s an incredible and unique opportunity open to young Jewish people from all over the world to discover Israel. On my trip in particular, organized by Amazing Israel, there were young adults from all across America with varying levels of experience with their Jewish roots. The best part about Birthright? It’s a gift. Funds allocated through various sources, including the Government of Israel and Jewish communities around the world, all combine to provide each participant with a completely free trip to experience, discover, and better understand this important country in the middle of an incredibly complicated situation.
I could write paragraphs about what the traditional Birthright experience involves, but that’s not why I want to recognize Birthright. I want to recognize Birthright for my particular trip experience because I am certain it was nonstandard, and I must tell you… I wouldn’t change a single thing about it.
I left my home in Indianapolis on July 2nd and arrived in Tel Aviv on July 3rd, bleary-eyed and exhausted. Tensions between Israel and Gaza were certainly on the rise at this point, but none of the plans for my trip had changed. I got on the bus with 40 people I had just met, and we headed straight to the north for a few nights in a kibbutz. Kibbutzim are collective communities in Israel traditionally based on agriculture that also offer housing to travelers.
One of our first destinations on this trip was a viewing point of Syria in northern Israel. I will never forget the moment our tour educator, the phenomenal and incomparable Barak Berkovich, was in the middle of explaining what we were looking at across the border and suddenly stopped. He was interrupted by the sound of bombs. I was not a politically aware person when I went on this trip, and I knew nothing about Syria or its violent state of unrest. It took me a minute to understand the fact that the bombs we were hearing were the reality of civil war. A country I could see and hear myself was bombing itself. It broke my heart, and what was even more striking for me was that some of the Israeli staff with us at the time seemed unaffected, not because they were cold or unattached but because this was a reality to which they were accustomed.
Then we got back on the bus and drove away. Just like that. Perhaps it was set up that way intentionally to give us time to digest what we had just experienced. Or maybe it was designed to give a more authentic experience of Israel in encountering something intense and emotional and then being forced to pick up and move on with what’s next. Either way, I was grateful for that entire experience, including the bus ride and the time to think. I had never before considered war a reality, at least, not in my life. I learned about it in history classes, but it never came off the pages of my textbooks. But this – this was real, and this was life, and this was normal. Suddenly, I felt as though I’ve taken everything for granted in life. I was humbled like never before, and I was heartsick. And our trip had only just begun.
Over the next few days, we made our way south and had countless wonderful experiences. We visited the ancient city of Tsfat, had some beach time in Tel Aviv, and explored the nightlife of Tel Aviv. Everyone seemed to have succumbed to the Birthright glow we were warned about, falling in love with Israel after visiting for just a few short days. We made our way to the Negev Desert, a major highlight of a Birthright trip, for an overnight in the Bedouin tents complete with camel rides. By this time, eight Israeli soldiers had joined our group for the “Mifgash” (meaning “encounter” in Hebrew) part of our trip. They had already started teaching us so much about life in Israel, both as active soldiers and as 20-year-olds with goals and aspirations. We spent the night around a campfire in the middle of the desert, with a guitar, songs, swelling hearts, and more stars than imaginable. And as our group bonded over music and memories we’ll have for the rest of our lives that warm night in early July, the State of Israel entered another war.
Even though I was in a country that was in an active war on its own soil, I still felt safe and protected. Birthright is a top priority in Israel, especially in precarious times, and our schedules were modified daily based on the current state of affairs. Barak was sure to update us every morning on how things were progressing and did so in an unbiased manner, despite the fact that he is one of the most passionate human beings I have ever met. I learned more from Barak in those ten days than I did in any history class in my entire career as a student.
After the desert, we made our way to Jerusalem. Our first day there was spent at Mount Herzl and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum. After an emotional day, it was time to go back to the hotel and reflect. We were standing outside waiting for our bus when we heard our first siren sound, indicating that a rocket was on its way to Jerusalem. We had just 90 seconds to get to safety. Barak had briefed us multiple times on how to react in this situation, so our group remained calm and followed him back inside Yad Vashem, where we were lead to their underground shelter.
This was a moment in my life I will never forget, and I will be forever changed for having experienced it. I’ve never felt any amount of pain in my life that could ever compare to the hurt I felt over the fact that this was happening. I knew I was in no immediate danger. Israel’s defense systems are precise, and the soldiers who operate them and spend their lives protecting Israel are highly trained and well prepared. But it was happening. Israel is a country in constant struggle. It breaks my heart that Israel has to arm itself with the superior defense forces that it has. I can’t bear the thought of my friends in Israel hearing sirens regularly and having to seek shelter often. And then my mind races to the terror that must exist for the people of Gaza, with no shelter to seek. More than ever before, I understood the reality that the world is not peaceful. And I experienced firsthand how desperately things need to change. Surely, this moment is not typical for your average Birthright trip, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I learned more about myself and about the world in that afternoon than I have in 26 years.
When it was time to leave, I knew in my heart that I wasn’t ready. They say how so many people feel like they are “finally home” from the moment they arrive in Israel. I can’t relate to that, but I am certain that I left a huge piece of my heart there. Most people I’ve spoken to since I returned from Israel said how lucky I was that I got out when I did, and how they couldn’t imagine going over there, especially now. This mindset makes me want to scream from the rooftops about how wrong it is.
Truthfully, now is the time to go to Israel. A Birthright trip is an extremely fast paced and relatively sheltered experience of Israel, as you are guided and protected by trained professionals, and every minute of your 10 days there is scheduled for you. It is fantastic. But during war times? War changes things. War makes even a protected Birthright trip more exposed to a real Israel experience. Birthright isn’t exempt from hiding in bomb shelters when sirens sound, just like an Israeli must drop everything and seek shelter regularly. Birthright changes schedules and itineraries based on safety and threat levels daily, just as an Israeli would alter his or her plans as needed. But that shouldn’t stop you from going. If anything, it should solidify your plans to go on a Birthright trip that will change your life and the way you see the world forever.
So thank you, Birthright Israel and Amazing Israel. Thank you for not cancelling my trip. Thank you for having Barak Berkovich lead our group. Thank you for all of the once in a lifetime experiences you gave me. Thank you for reuniting me with a part of myself that I haven’t connected with in thirteen years. Thank you for teaching me about the culture of Judaism. Thank you for inspiring me to be further involved in my own Jewish community. Thank you for your inspiration every day. Thank you for changing the way I see the world. Really, I can’t thank you enough.
Interested in Birthright? Have other questions about Israel? Please feel free to e-mail me. Don’t forget to register for your Birthright Winter Trip! Registration closes November 3rd!