by Justin Zachary Spooner

Israel Experience Grant Recipient

Have you ever jumped into something without knowing what to expect? That is Birthright. You hear stories from friends who have gone on the trip and read testimonials from past participants. You hear the experience is amazing. Still, you cannot truly understand it until you actually dive in.

After 14 total hours of flight time and a five-hour layover in Brussels, we finally landed in Tel Aviv. How can I describe to you the feeling of the wheels touching down in a place that is as close to your heart as possible, but is thousands of miles from your home?

We all quickly got onto the tour bus, most of us still unknown to each other. It truly is amazing that in the beginning, no one knew anyone and everyone was very quiet and coy with each other, but by the end of the ten days, we were like family. After about an hour and a half of driving, we arrived in the north, in Tiberias. Tiberias is a beautiful city situated on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee. It is actually smaller than Lake Michigan and many Americans find it odd that they call the Galilee a sea.

When we arrived, the sun had already set and everyone was tired. After a quick icebreaker, everyone drowsily made their way to their beds for a long night of sleep. As I awoke the next morning and grabbed a cup of instant coffee, (for those not aware, Israel is truly in love with its instant coffee) I walked outside. I was unprepared for the beautiful scenery: the sun rising over the mountains across the sea. It was a picturesque moment that is forever engraved on my memory. As quickly as the sun rose, we were shuffled back on the tour bus and were off to the mystical town of Tzfat.

Tzfat is a very, very intriguing place. From the architecture being built right into the mountains to some of the most beautiful artwork I have ever seen, this town isn’t like anything you’ll find anywhere else. I had visited once before, in 2008, but I did not fully comprehend the history and meaning of Tzfat. We were immersed in the culture by spending the afternoon with a local rabbinical student. Hearing about the journey of this young man was a very enriching experience which culminated with the men of our group making a visit to the holy Ari Mikvah.

From Tzfat and Tiberias, we drove to Tel Aviv and Jaffa.  While on the way to Tel Aviv, we took a detour for a hike in the Golan Heights. We wandered our way along the path to the Banias Springs at the foot of Mount Hermon. The waters were a beautiful blue and the views from the Golan Heights were breathtaking. A light rain began to fall as we completed our hike, which made for a refreshing end.

Arriving in Tel Aviv after visiting the North is quite different. You feel like you’re back in a U.S. city — a very urban feel amidst an agrarian society. Tel Aviv is one of the most vibrant cities in the world. It’s large, always growing, and full of life. We were partnered with an amazing group of Israeli soldiers age 20-28. Israeli soldiers are given the opportunity to participate in the Birthright trip by joining an incoming group and becoming part of it. Getting to know these Israelis was one of the best parts of an amazing trip.

While in Tel Aviv, we saw people swimming in the sea, locals browsing the spices and fresh fruits at the market, and spent time shopping on the well-known Shenken Street, on one of the coolest streets in the city.

Arriving at Rabin Square was an overwhelming feeling for me. Less than 20 years ago Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shot and murdered here. After a brief memorial service, we went to Independence Hall. The history the building holds is the culmination of thousands of years of Diaspora Jews searching and fighting for their own homeland.

The next day our schedule included a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum. The group spent the night before discussing the thoughts and feelings that we all held about the Holocaust and what Yad Vashem would mean to us. A lot of people said how they would feel angry and upset when they were at the museum.

As I stood at Yad Vashem, I didn’t feel angry, I didn’t feel sad. I had been there before, in 2008, and felt the emotions.  I’ve studied the Holocaust for years. What I felt was confusion. I know why people didn’t help. I knew how some countries simply could not help. Still, why did six million Jews have to die? Why did 12 million people have to die?  Why were one and a half million Jewish children taken from their families and murdered? Why?

Since our tour started at the beautiful and powerful Children’s Memorial, I couldn’t help but feel distraught about what the Jewish world could, would, and should have been. So many people who could have started their own families and raised children – Nobel prize winners, statesmen, doctors, or scientists. It is difficult for me to fathom the amount of knowledge, love and family that was lost.

Why do people find the need to kill? Once again, it wasn’t anger that I felt. It is more of an undefined feeling. It is a feeling of loss, of sympathy, of empathy. However, it is the feeling of hope as well. We exist.

I just spent three weeks in the state of Israel — the culmination of thousands of years of Jewish persecution. Anti-Semitism isn’t gone, but we do have a place of our own. We have a force that protects and a people who know what it means to be resilient.

I believe that through the darkness did come light, and with that light comes hope. We won’t get the lives back of the six million gone, but we can live our lives in a way that perpetuates what those killed were not allowed — to live a Jewish life. Visiting Yad Vashem for the second time was one of the most meaningful experiences I have ever felt. There are other wonderful memorials and museums dedicated to the lives lost in the Holocaust, but there is nothing like Yad Vashem.

We spent time in the Negev visiting the Bedouins and learning about their lifestyle. We spent the night in their village over New Year’s Eve and they even threw us a party. There were about 12-15 other Birthright groups at the Bedouin village and it was great to interact and see who we knew on other trips. Waking up Jan. 1, I was able to watch the sun rise over the large sand dunes of the Negev. Our New Year’s day was quite eventful. We hiked through a canyon in the desert, and  enjoyed a camel ride.  Despite the steep inclines of climbing the canyon, the hike was worth it. The views we saw were awe-inspiring.

The final stop on the trip was Jerusalem. The holiest city for Christians, Muslims, and Jews — it, along with so much of Israel, is unlike anywhere else in the world. I was lucky enough to experience Shabbat at the Western Wall. This was also an experience I will never forget. There seemed to be thousands of Jewish men and woman at their respective sides of the Wall praying in his or her own way. Some were dancing, some chanting, and some deep in prayer.

I have experienced some remarkable Shabbat services in my life, but nothing compares to what you experience on a Friday night at the Kotel.

After a couple more days touring Jerusalem, Birthright came to an end. I traveled the country, met such remarkable people, rekindled my connection with Judaism, and learned so much about myself.  This land has taught me more about what it means to be a family, to have a safe home for Jews, and to love everyone. This is a country of great integrity and honor.

Our group was lucky enough to have two of the kindest and hard-working group leaders — Erin Moskowitz and Gal Koplewitz. Erin, a teacher from Ohio, was leading her eighth peer trip to Israel. Gal, an Israeli who studies at Harvard, was a great person with whom to have conversations. It didn’t hurt that he spoke both perfect English and Hebrew. Our tour guide, Meir Cohen, was one of the most knowledgeable people I have ever met. If it weren’t for these three, this trip would not have been nearly as amazing.

I cannot begin to express my appreciation for those responsible for allowing Birthright to be a reality. Those who fund the trip for all Jewish young adults who choose to go are doing a wonderful mitzvah for the Jewish community and it is truly appreciated. Thank you for this opportunity and for this life-changing experience.