For me, being Jewish has always come with an inherent sense of community and pride, but I learned only a few years ago that it also comes with a ten day round trip to Israel. With over 500,000 Birthright participants in the past fifteen years, all wearing brightly colored lanyards and name tags, doing loud count-offs in English, and blocking crowded alleyways in the old city of Jerusalem, passing Israelis would see our group, smile, and ask “Taglit?”
It’s practically an institution, with universities from across the United States and other organizations around the world sending out dozens of students at a time to experience Israel. My family has no connection to the country; nobody from my family had ever even been there before and we are not of Israeli descent, but I was still quite determined to understand the Israeli piece of this Jewish puzzle that I have come to define as my identity.
So on Thursday, May 28th, we flew from New York to Tel Aviv. We got off the plane, where our Israeli tour guide greeted us. We walked outside into the beautiful, Friday afternoon sun, we said the Shehecheyanu (a prayer that’s supposed to bless new experiences) and there was challah. It was Shabbat, after all, and in a country where the majority observes, there’s even a siren to bring it in at sundown every week.
I was already sold, I could get used to fantastic bread on every special occasion.
We got to visit the Western Wall, the room of the last supper, and King David’s tomb in Jerusalem. Fast forward two thousand years, and we got to see the square where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, and Independence Hall, where David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence in 1948. We visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Mt. Herzl, its national cemetery for leaders and fallen soldiers. We swam in the Mediterranean, went to Jerusalem’s biggest open air market, and saw Israeli short films at the Maale film school.
We drove south toward the desert where we learned about the lifestyle of Arab Bedouins living in the Negev. We got to ride camels, walk through the desert at 11:00PM and look at the stars, hike Ein Avdat and Masada, swim in the Dead Sea, and kayak in the Jordan River.
We ended our trip in the north with a brief visit to Tzfat, where Kabbalah has its roots, and then finished close to where we started, back in Tel Aviv for Taglit Tel Aviv Day. 1,000 participants spent the day enjoying free falafel and learning about modern day life and arts culture in Tel Aviv. Finally, the perfect ending to a perfect trip was a Hadag Nachash concert in Tel Aviv Port. They’re an Israeli hip hop group that performs mostly in Hebrew — I could die, their music was perfectly obscure so obviously right up my alley.
All of this was incredible, but you would never know just from an itinerary what the experience was like. You would never know that on our trip north from the Dead Sea, the air conditioning on our bus broke in the middle of the desert, and a handful of kids got out only to find that we were in the middle of the West Bank. You would never know that even on the Jordan River, rafts full of Israelis were still asking “Taglit? Taglit?” as we tried not to row directly into the brush. You would never know that they made us close our eyes on the walk to the Haas Promenade so that the view would be a surprise, but I think I tripped on the person in front of me maybe four times. You would also never know that one of the Israeli soldiers who joined us on our trip made it to the top 100 on Israeli Idol.
I’m not a small town girl, but I had been living on this microcosm of the east coast for my whole life up until this point. The world is huge, and spending about fifteen minutes in the Negev desert will show you that. For me, that was a huge part of finding my Jewish identity on the trip, and as corny as that sounds, I do think I understand more where I fit in as far as my Judaism goes. I’m one small person on a massive planet, in a massive solar system, in a massive galaxy, of which there are at least one hundred billion. At the end of the day, my being religious or secular will not impact anybody but myself. I choose not to be religious because I’m not sure if I believe in God, but that doesn’t make me any less Jewish.
The president of Birthright spoke to us on our first day and yelled at us, “Judaism is NOT a religion!” A lot of people seemed puzzled by this, but I understood it before he explained it. I identify culturally as Jewish. People ask me my nationality, and I respond that I’m Jewish. I don’t know yet if I want to be more in touch with my religion, but I did learn that I want to be more in touch with my culture. I’ll probably be at Hillel more, and I might go to some of the Shabbat services because I like the singing. I would love to join an activist group focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I’m looking in to taking Hebrew or Yiddish during my time at Hopkins. My religious view didn’t fundamentally change, but I think I know a little bit more about myself as a Jew.
Our tour guide said to us on the first day, “A tour guide that I know once said to a group of Americans, most of them like you who had never been to Israel, ‘Welcome home,’ and I couldn’t understand why he was saying that to people who had never been here. But on your next trip to Israel, I would like to be able to say to you, ‘Welcome home’”.
And he mostly certainly will, because I’ll be back soon.
Plus I get to say that I had my Bat Mitzvah in Israel. How cool is that?