Sunday, April 04, 2010
Reflections on Birthright
This past Winter Break, 19 other Jewish Princeton students and I had the time of our lives—not relaxing on the beach, but spending 10 jam-packed days in the Land of Israel on a Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trip. For most of the participants, this trip was our first to Israel, and we took advantage of all of our time there, crisscrossing the country from North to South. Our trip began in Tiberius, near the Golan Heights, and ended in the old city of Jerusalem, stopping at Masada, the Dead Sea, Tzfat, and numerous other sites. Our sightseeing was supplemented by our Jewish learning, and the group had meaningful and frank discussions about religious and cultural Jewish issues, such as Jewish dating and relationships. Though I had a great time throughout, my favorite part of the trip was the service component, in which our group visited what is known as an absorption center in the city of Arad. The absorption center, funded by the Israeli government, was tasked with, as its name suggests, absorbing recent immigrants to Israel. The center provides immigrants help in finding housing, learning Hebrew, and understanding Israeli customs. The center is split in two parts, one for adults, and one for children, for which the center also serves as a daycare center/school. Though Israel receives immigrants from all over the world, the absorption center in Arad was almost entirely composed of recent Ethiopian immigrants, most of whom had never set foot on a plane before flying to Israel. In Arad, I was lucky enough to spend my afternoon and evening with the children.
First, I have to admit that, although I’ve never been very good at soccer, I need to take a close look at my athletic skills after being constantly outmaneuvered and outrun by 12 year olds on the soccer pitch. This was my experience playing soccer with recent Ethiopian immigrants. After losing to my new Israeli friends, I figured ‘if you can’t beat them, join them,’ and I subsequently spent the next quarter panting ‘regga!’, or wait, to my Israeli teammates as I ran back and forth on the field, trying to catch up. It was a blast. Still, I probably got the most out of, after the game was over, talking with my recent teammates in Hebrew about their former lives in Ethiopia and their new lives in Israel. Having noticed that almost all Israelis speak English, it was nice to finally utilize my year and half of Hebrew language skills to communicate with people who could only talk to me in the language I was studying.
Though I’ve always had an interest in Israel and Israeli culture, I feel like my Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trip this past December really set the stage for a lifetime relationship between the country and me. This summer, I along with another Birthright alum, are going on another, longer trip to Israel called Jewish Leadership Institute in which we will study Jewish texts and travel to more of the country. I also hope to, after I graduate, live in Israel for some time. The Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trip has laid the groundwork for these, along with subsequent adventures.
There are very few places in the United States where you will see a markedly Orthodox Jewish man dressed in a black suit with tzitzit sticking out, rollerblading down the street of a city at the height of the afternoon. There also aren’t any places in the United States where complete strangers will be told, “Welcome home” as soon as they step off of the plane and into a new country for the first time. However, in Israel neither of these occurrences are strange or unheard of. As someone who has never really lived in a highly Jewish populated area, just the concept of the state of Israel is something I find really cool, not to mention getting the chance to spend ten free days there.
When I sent a bunch of my friends an e-mail with the subject “Birthright?” last September there was no way that I could have foreseen the incredible experience I had this past December on Taglit-Birthright Israel. Although I had been to Israel before with my own family, it was a completely different experience going with nineteen other Princeton students plus twenty other college students from four different universities. Even though it’s virtually impossible to see an entire country in only ten days, Taglit-Birthright Israel tries very hard to do so - and personally I think they do a pretty great job. We traveled all over the country, doing things that ranged from purely fun, to meaningful, as well as to quite thought-provoking.
But despite all of the sites we saw, for me it wouldn’t have been the same experience for me without the people I went with. Putting a note in the Western wall alongside a friend, with whom I usually complain to about my classes while brushing our teeth before bed at Princeton, is an experience I will never forget. Or, the hours I spent listening to my classmates tirelessly debate Middle East foreign policy as we drove through the Middle East, seeing the boarders that were being discussed. Or even, just watching the sunset over Jerusalem and realizing how many American Jews would be turning east to face us this Shabbat.
Visiting Israel as an American college student on Taglit-Birthright Israel is certainly a distinct type of experience, but one that left me with many more questions than I started with and a desire to go back and experience the many things we simply did not have time to do. I tell many of my friends that Taglit-Birthright Israel is meant for people who 1) Don’t know very much about Judaism and 2) Don’t know very much about Israel. As an active member of the CJL community and someone with close relatives in Israel I like to think I don’t fit into either of those categories. Still, I learned so much on our trip, not just through the places we saw but also through the questions we asked, both to our tour guide and to each other. I signed up for the trip with a few of my closest friends, but still really got to know a lot of the other people on our trip quite well. And even though on campus we might still joke about our crazy tour guide, or our inability to “count-off”, it was the entire jam-packed ten days in a country marked by its delicious falafel, the saltiest of seas, and sites considered holy to so many people that made my winter break a really meaningful experience.
I am lucky to have had the opportunity to do a lot of travelling while growing up. I’ve been all over the world and I now attend school in another country. Yet in all my travels, no country I have ever been to was quite like Israel. This past December on Birthright was my first opportunity to visit Israel and it was a welcome I will never forget.
The one moment that stands out in particular for me was arriving in Jerusalem. We exited a tunnel and suddenly laid out before us was the entire city, with the setting sun behind us. Spontaneous dancing and singing broke out as we finally set foot in the city that we had all heard so much about. It was an indescribable moment of joy. It was an experience unlike any I had ever had before. I was welcomed with open arms into a foreign place exactly as if I was returning home from a long and weary journey, one that had lasted over a thousand years. That feeling of belonging stayed with me throughout my entire trip. Whether touring the city during the day or going out at night, it was exciting and thrilling but yet felt like home to be in Israel.
You would think this would be surprising considering how different Israel is from my home in North America. Well, while Israel is a very different place what’s so different is actually finding myself in a place where I feel similar, like I belong. Being Jewish always used to make me different. In high school I spent many years as the only Jewish student in my grade and it took everyone a while to figure out why I would miss school on days that no one else did. But in Israel, being Jewish was what bound me to everyone else; it was what made me a part of the community. For the first time in my life everyone else, just like me, seemed to almost forget the passing of December 24 and then 25, perhaps only stopping to muse, like me, how with so few santas or Christmas lights it was hard to tell the holiday had even passed. It was a strange feeling to feel similar, and yet a welcome one as I became fully immersed in a new community that seemed ready to welcome me.
While it has already been a couple of months since my trip to Israel the memories of those ten days are still so fresh in my mind. I find it difficult to describe all the amazing experiences I had in such a short period of time. I made great friends, saw interesting sites and ate some delicious food. But the thing that stood out the most to me was how welcome I was made to feel, and as a result how at home I felt in a country I had never been to before. That is the memory that will stick with me from my first journey to Israel.