I am a nervous traveler, but I never feared a trip as much as the Birthright trip I participated in earlier this summer. Not only was I worried about visiting Israel, a country much different from any I had been to before, but also how I would fit in among the other 40 young Jewish people on the trip. We departed for Israel from New York City on May 27 and at that point I still was completely unsure of what to expect.
Personally, I did not feel very culturally Jewish before my Birthright experience. My father was raised Jewish and my mother Catholic, however I was only brought up with a small taste of both. Aside from attending temple for my cousins’ bar mitzvahs and celebrating Passover and Hanukkah each year, I barely felt Jewish. Before the trip, I researched Israel, Hebrew, and the conflict with Palestine, but I had to assume my self-taught crash course on Google couldn’t compare to growing up with a strong Jewish upbringing that many others on the trip had. While this turned out to be true, many people were in the same situation as me, and those who did know a lot were understanding, patient, and enthusiastic to share their own information and experiences with us. Having other students like this on the trip was essential to my positive experience in Israel. Without the immediately open and safe environment within the group and all of the fast friends I made I can’t image I would have enjoyed this experience as much as I did.
Our group became even more diverse as soon as we touched down in Israel. Seven young Israelis joined our 10-day trip, all of whom were in the Israel Defense Force, a mandatory 2-3 year service for Israelis over the age of 18. Having these Israelis, as well as our tour guide, with us was imperative for learning about Israeli life and culture. Not only were they incredible sources for information about their country and language, but they were also helpful with telling us where to go, what to eat, and how to get immersed in the culture of our heritage then and now.
The trip itself was packed nearly every day with dozens of diverse activities and places to visit. Each day was exhausting and emotionally draining, but I knew I wouldn’t regret seeing important sights instead of sleeping in later. We started off in northern Israel in the Galilee and Golan Heights on the border of Syria. In this region, we stayed on a kibbutz, which is a community where people live and work together, and spent time hiking, river rafting, and getting to know each other. Before we headed south, we also visited Haifa, where we spoke to students at a high school in the area, and Safed, an ancient city.
Our next stop was Tel-Aviv Yaffo, Israel’s most metropolitan and liberal city, which sits on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. In the city, we visited Independence Hall to learn about how Israel became a country in 1948, and Rabin Square to hear about Yitzhak Rabin, a well-respected Israeli prime minister who was assassinated in 1995. Aside from the educational sites we visited, we also got to experience Tel-Aviv nightlife and spend time at the beach on the beautiful Mediterranean Sea.
While I might not describe any of our several accommodations on the trip luxurious, our night in the Negev Desert was certainly the farthest from it. After taking an interesting and regretful camel and donkey ride, we settled in for the night in a Bedouin Village. Our entire group, which consisted of 50 people, stayed the night on mats under a giant ten. It was not the best night of sleep I got on the trip, but I think I’d attribute that to the 5 am hike planned for the next morning. No one was thrilled to trek to the top of Masada, however everyone seemed ecstatic to be there by the time we reached the peak and watched the sun rise over the Dead Sea.
Though I had seen beautiful pictures of the ancient city, I did not think I would connect spiritually with Jerusalem since I had little background on the cultural importance of this place. We toured the old streets in the Jewish quarter, took in the amazing views, and visited the Western Wall, considered one of the holiest places on Earth, but two modern sights were what I felt most attached to. First was Yad Vashem, an incredible museum and research center for the Holocaust. The museum was beautiful, with genius architecture and organization that tells the devastating history of the genocide in which six million Jews were killed during World War II. Another incredibly powerful experience we had was our visit to Mount Herzl, a military cemetery in Jerusalem. We saw hundreds of graves, many of which were of people our age who were killed in combat. We were told several times throughout the trip we were told because we are Jewish, Israel is our homeland. While I thought that was a nice sentiment, I shrugged it off because it did not feel like that – until I visited Mount Herzl. After this experience I gained a huge sense of pride for Israel and enormous respect for the Israeli people.
After returning from my journey to Israel, I can’t say I know everything about it.
I couldn’t tell you I have a solid grasp on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I don’t know much Hebrew, and I’m still not a firm believer in Judaism. However, I’ve come out of this experience with a deep sense of pride and a new connection to my ancestors and my background. Even though I’m “half-Jewish”, I have gained respect and knowledge about that part of myself. Before, I felt confused and that I was only half of two things, but now I realize it’s still an important part of me, and one I am enthusiastic to continue exploring, both in language and culture.
Note: This piece is not an endorsement of Birthright or any of its providers. The views expressed here are those of the author and are not representative of the Student Language Exchange as an organization.