This summer I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend two weeks in Israel for my birthright trip and extension. This was my third trip to Israel, and I was excited to visit both familiar and new places and to meet my fellow birthright attendees.
I lucked out and ended up with an incredible group of friends to spend my birthright trip with, and I hope to see many of them in the future when I travel. Being that each individual had a unique background and connection with Judaism, after learning the history of a relevant sight I would question the people around me on their opinion of what we had just experienced. I noticed a drastic change throughout the course of the trip, from participants feeling uncomfortable and overwhelmed by so much Judaism being thrown at them, to by the end of the trip understanding the importance of the State of Israel and feeling a strong sense of pride in being Jewish.
Throughout the duration of my trip, I traveled to a variety of places. Some stood out more significantly than others. One of the first locations visited were the Golan Heights, which is well known for where the Six Day War that began on Yom Kippur broke out. As we were taking in the view we heard multiple gun shots being fired in Syria. We were safe at our location, but it did make the televised news we hear about Syria much more real.
The Dead Sea is, of course, a must see for birthright trips in Israel. I had been there twice before so I was a reliable source in confirming to my friends that, yes, the rumors are true: you really do float. Going to the Dead Sea this time was a different experience; the evidence of the sea significantly shrinking was right in front of us. We had to take detours to get there because the original roads had caved in from the many sink holes due to the minerals being removed from the Dead Sea, which makes the land unstable. We drove past a resort that decades ago had been built near the shoreline, yet now would be a hike to get to the sea from the resort. It’s well known that skin care companies are removing minerals from the Dead Sea for their products. The bigger issue is that Israel is removing minerals for gunpowder; and when Jordan discovered this, they began to remove minerals from their side as well. This makes a solution seem impossible, if one side ceases, the other will have plentiful access.
We visited the Arab village, Jizar al Zarqa, with the intention of getting to know the members of the community to prove the negative stereotypes wrong that, as Jewish-Americans, we may be used to hearing about Arabs. The village buildings were colorful and by the sea and very beautiful on those terms, but it was also filthy; I could not imagine living there. We were invited into the home of an Arab family and they generously made us all homemade pita in their outdoor stone oven. I decided to snoop around their home to see what it looked like. They clearly lived comfortably, but not luxuriously. One of the family members, I noticed, slept on a hospital bed, not because they needed it, but I imagine they did so because it’s what was available. The family did not have clean drinking water; yet any other place I went to in Israel did.
There were surprisingly a significant number of people on my trip who had never had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah before, and six of the women decided they wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah at the top of Masada. It was a very touching experience, listening to their emotional stories of why they chose to have their Bat Mitzvah now, why they may have not before, and learning about their family background. During that moment, it became clear to me why Birthright is such an important trip for individuals my age to have.
When I extended my trip, the Duitch family, Jonathan Duitch being an Omaha native who grew up with Dad and my uncles, were kind enough to have me at their home for Shabbos which led into Tish Ba’av. After preparing for the fast and attending services at the Duitch’s local orthodox synagogue, I walked with a couple friends to the Western Wall. Even though the hundreds or thousands of people around me were strangers, it felt like we were all a part of a community event. We were all there for the same reason.
Many of the locations we traveled to had other birthright groups from different countries and I had the opportunity to meet birthright participants from France. Through the media, I have been hearing about the attacks going on recently in France and I asked some of the girls what it was like to be Jewish in France. They responded saying it is very difficult, they are fearful of identifying themselves as Jewish, they would never go out in public wearing anything that would identify them as Jewish and men do not wear kippahs. The synagogues and Jewish day schools have police outside for protection. What worried me most is when they told me that they know something very bad is coming and they will leave France, by their own will, within the next few years, with the desire to come to the United States.
Midway through my trip we were joined by active Israeli soldiers. I initially was unsure how things would go with them, if we wouldn’t be able to get along due to the language barriers, but that was far from the case. The soldiers added significantly to my trip experience. They were mostly secular, but as they explained, being secular in Israel is nothing like being secular in the U.S. You are aware of all of the Jewish holidays, you of course, are fluent in Hebrew, and it would be very strange to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish. One of the soldiers whom I became friends with, Ophir, was so welcoming that when I extended my trip she had a few of us over to her family’s home to go swimming and have a barbeque.
Before I left, many of my non-Jewish friends asked me if I was afraid of going to what is portrayed in the media as a dangerous country; and I, of course, had no reservations in going to Israel, and I do intend to go on a fourth trip and, hopefully, many more in the future. What made the trip most memorable for me was the great friends I made along the way with both the soldiers and the other participants on the trip. I’m glad I am able to keep in contact with many of them and I look forward to seeing them when I can.