The war in Gaza overshadowed what should have been the recent headline-making arrival of Jewish-American Olympic gold medalist Ben Wildman-Tobriner to the Jewish state, as Taglit-Birthright Israel’s 200,000th participant.
The 24-year-old San Francisco native, who swam to glory at the Beijing Olympics, was tabbed to be the ultimate role model for the Birthright Israel program, which has successfully provided a face-to-face experience with Israel’s history and culture for young American Jews. However, coming face-to-face with Israeli society while dealing with the daily trials and tribulations of Operation Cast Lead provided the amiable athlete with an experience he’s unlikely to ever forget.
“You could say that this is an unexpected action-packed experience for me,” quipped Wildman-Tobriner in an exclusive interview with The Jewish Press. “Yes, there is an unavoidable fear factor of being in a country that’s in the midst of a war. The Israelis I’ve spoken with are more upset with the fact that they have to live through this situation every few years.”
Wildman-Tobriner admitted that having grown up in what he termed a religious Reform Jewish household in California, he was disconnected from the reality that exists in Israel.
His family has long established roots in Northern California, with Ben’s paternal grandfather, Matthew Tobriner, having served as a California Supreme Court justice for 20 years. “You have preconceived notions about Israel based on what we see on the news at home. We don’t see or understand anything else about Israel beyond those images,” he stated. “The Birthright Israel experience gives you the opportunity to sleep in the desert, climb Masada, float in the Dead Sea, and see parts of Israel that are unaffected by the conflict.”
Many non-religious and unaffiliated Taglit-Birthright Israel participants discover their religious Jewish roots during the course of the 10-day program. Wildman-Tobriner claimed that he feels “a lot more connected to the Jewish people” as a result of his trip to Israel. “I’ll admit that there was this huge disconnect between me and the State of Israel. Up until this trip, Israel was just a place on a map. And while Taglit-Birthright Israel stays away from creating a ‘religious experience,’ I definitely experienced a new- found appreciation for Judaism, the land of Israel and its people. I take back with me the names, faces and memories of my encounters with Israelis from all walks of life.”
The program also arranges encounters between young IDF soldiers and Birthright Israel participants. Wildman-Tobriner had the unique opportunity to provide therapeutic swimming tips to a group of injured IDF soldiers at a Tel Aviv swimming hall. “Bonding with the soldiers and exchanging stories has been an amazing experience for me,” he added.
While he doesn’t foresee making aliyah in the near future, Wildman-Tobriner wants to return to Israel with his family, which has yet to visit the Jewish state. Wildman-Tobriner was also non-committal about representing the U.S. in next summer’s Maccabiah Games in Israel or the 2012 Olympic Games in London. “Honestly, I don’t know what my plans are. I just started medical school at the University of California-San Francisco, which is a priority for me right now,” he said. “As for competitive swimming, I’m laying low and not competing for the moment. As we get closer to 2012 I will see how I feel, and if I can provide enough balance in my life to consider competing once more.”
Photo credit: Tal Rogovski