This summer in Israel I completed what is considered a rite of passage for eighteen-year-old Jews. No, I didn’t join the army. I went on Birthright, a free trip instituted to strengthen the connection between Israel and the Jewish people. Or in the words of the Birthright Israel pamphlet – “A journey in Jewish making.”
The preparation was intense, but three trips to the Israeli Consulate later, I was all ready to board the plane with my suitcase in tow and my nails emblazoned with mini Israeli flags. As the pilot told us to fasten our seatbelts in Hebrew, I knew I was home. It didn’t matter that we hadn’t left the terminal yet or that I’d only been to Israel once before as an infant. I was home.
And that was the predominant message that was reinforced with every city, monument, and holy site that we visited. It is ours. It has always been ours. We can always return because it is a right that we have possessed since birth. Or to put it all more succinctly – it is our birthright.
The trip was filled with blasting Israeli music, ice breakers, shawarma, water bottles that were taller than me, many visits to Aroma, and about a million cats. The ground we were able to cover in ten days was astonishing. You name it, we went there.
Now, since I possess zero athletic prowess, the long hikes and water activities were fun and all, but they were not what defined my experience or what cemented my connection to the Holy Land. It was the following three encounters:
We went to the Kotel exactly twice on this trip, Friday morning and Shabbos night. The difference for me was literally and figuratively night and day. In the morning we faced long security lines and sweltering heat. I found myself trying to find a space to take the obligatory “kiss the Kotel” picture, and then being dragged away to the next activity.
Shabbos night was an entirely new story. Dressed in our best, we lit candles together and proceeded to the wall. The Kotel was a stunning sight. The wall was bathed in light, with men and women praying solemnly next to it. How do I put what happened next? Birthright took over. Wordlessly, we created a circle and began to dance and sing as fervently as we could with the song “Am Yisroel Chai” echoing in the wind. The song was aptly chosen, because it reminded me that they may have destroyed our Temple, but they have not destroyed the Jewish spirit that lives in all of us. We would continue to sing, dance, and pray next to the Wall we had left until the Beis HaMikdash would be rebuilt.
The Kotel was where I was able to whet my spiritual appetite, but Misgav Am was where I received some much-needed lessons in ideology. Misgav Am is a kibbutz located near the border of Lebanon in northern Israel. We were treated to a panoramic view of Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and the Mediterranean. The middle of the Middle East, if you will. Our speaker was Aryeh Ben Yaakov, a retired member of the kibbutz and a veteran of four wars. For thirty-four days in 2006 the kibbutz was targeted by Hezbollah. Did anybody leave? No.
Why? Because as Aryeh simply stated: “Nobody gets us off the mountain.”
The tone of the speech was unapologetic with sentences like: “Don’t mess with Israel, we are going to defend ourselves.”
“We got it, we developed it, we fight for it.”
“It’s the last time Jews are going to be victims and scapegoats.”
To me, this rhetoric was so different from anything I’d previously encountered. Everyday I would hear about another way Israel had been excoriated by the media and the rest of the world for preventing peace by refusing to “give back” land.
Aryeh’s reply? “You want peace, I’ll give you peace. What does land have to do with it?”
I believe this is the attitude that as Jews we should all embody. We have to stop apologizing and bending over backward for the rest of the world.
So far I’ve covered the religious and ideological aspects of the trip. The final facet I’d like to write about is the social side. Each birthright group has forty participants and together, as “foreigners” we got to experience all that Israel had to offer. But the organizers knew that the only way we could get a true feel for the country would be if we were accompanied by Israeli peers. So they created the mifgash, encounter, where eight Israelis would join our trip.
From the moment we picked them up from the bus station, it felt like they’d been with us the entire time. Most of them were either current soldiers, or ones that had completed their service. I was very inquisitive, but as most of them served in the Intelligence Unit, they were not permitted to give me much information. That didn’t stop me from asking, though.
I practiced my Hebrew on them, and they practiced their English on me. It’s safe to say they have a superior grasp on our language than we do on theirs. They really were just like us, except more mature, experienced, and accomplished.
It was when we went to Mount Herzl that I truly began to comprehend their responsibilities and sacrifice. As we walked through Israel’s national cemetery, our Israeli soldiers donned their full uniforms to walk with us. They shared heartbreaking stories of soldiers they knew who bravely died protecting our country, while we stood next to the decorated graves. Let’s just say it was the wrong day to put on mascara.
Before they departed, they gifted us with authentic military dog tags and a piece of their uniform. It was a sad day when they left.