Birthright is this magical little program that brings Jews to Israel to make sure every Jew between the ages of 18-26 can cultivate a relationship with the homeland, Israel. You might be asking, “What’s the catch?” Many people told me it was a propaganda program that would attempt to brainwash me to make Aliyah (move to Israel) or marry a Jew or defend Israel against the naysayers or join the IDF. Well, I can’t speak for all birthright organizers, tour guides or participants but I had a surprisingly wonderful experience with Shorashim Birthright under the guide of Elaun Rave with the staff of Laura Tatar and Gabe Wienberg.
Now there’s a lot of different organizations that conduct birthright trips. I made sure to choose a trip that was non-denominational but what caught my eye with Shorashim is that Israeli soldiers get to travel with us the whole time. I wanted to see Israel from their eyes and get their opinions on not just the country but Judaism. All 46 of us had one thing in common, we are all Jewish but there are a million ways to be Jewish and coming together to talk about the million ways each of us approach our Judaism was amazing.
Now, I’m not sure if it was divine intervention or the chemical reaction between personalities but I had an amazing trip with people I can say know me in a different light than most of my friends. I truly questioned everything I believed about Judaism and Israel without feeling like I was choking on other’s ideology.
Elaun, our tour guide, was a character if I ever met one. He’s like a Rafiki from the Lion King. Every other day I felt like the scene where Rafiki hits Simba over the head, Simba says, “Ow!”
“It doesn’t matter it is in the past,” he responds.
“But it still hurts, “Simba responds.
“Yes the past can hurt but the way I see it you can run from it or learn.”
From Elaun’s mannerisms to the mind-blowing journey he led us on, this analogy works on a multitude of levels. But every day I learned more about my culture, my homeland and myself. This isn’t my first time traveling on an organized trip, traveling in Israel or with a tour guide, but it was the first time where I came out of the experience feeling more confident in my identity.
What Did We Do?
Sadly, I went on Birthright on literally the hottest week, some days were up to 106 Fahrenheit (41 Celsius). Rumors of many people fainting from heat stroke, one man even dying, circulated the Israeli media this week. So we missed seeing Masada, the Golan Heights and more. While I was very disappointed that we couldn’t hike Masada, our leaders managed to fill our days with plenty to do.
We went to so many places in so many day. Some places we went to were Tsefat (heard artists speak about Kabbalah), Kibbutz Shomrat (learning how kibbutz life has evolved), Tel Aviv (beach time), the Bedouin tents (camel ride), Jerusalem (the old city), Ein Gedi, Sderot (saw the wall that separates the Gaza Strip from Israel), and the Dead Sea (had a spa day). We talked about history of Israel, Jewish-ness and just loving one another every day.
It was kind of a whirlwind of things happening so fast from 7AM-1AM. We started with being greeted by our IDF soldiers with a song and dance and jumping in a circle. Then we went to a Kibbutz in the north of Israel, past Haifa. I think these crucial first nights were incredibly important. We all hung out in the courtyard until the wee hours of the morning. We just talked about everything and everyone was so hungry to get to know anything and everything about each other. I believe the third night, we all went to the bar on the Kibbutz and partied. We danced on tables, sang, drummed on the tables and even the bar staff joined. Despite what anyone says, it was the bartender that broke the table. In that moment, I realized I was so blessed to have such amazing group of outgoing, fun, compassionate people just looking for a good time.
In Jerusalem, we all went to Yad Veshem. And while I’d been there before, going with people that were so trusting made it much more meaningful. I cried, which I don’t do in public often. It was so much more moving with the amazing guide (who wasn’t Elaun) and having us come together hold hands and weep.
There’s so many more amazing moments that happened on this trip but this post would be far too long if I wrote about them all. Perhaps other posts for other days will talk about it more.
My Two Cents
My only critique is to be expected from Birthright. The program glosses over some of the serious issues in Israel that many American Jews are met with. For example, we went to a Bedouin camp, literally named Camp Taglit that simulates a Bedouin village. It was really fun with good food, a camel ride and a glamping-esque setup with chargers for phones and clean bathrooms. We heard from a Bedouin and he made it sound like Israel is so wonderful to Bedouins and their unconventional culture. The reality is Israel isn’t very supportive of nomadic people that want to live in random areas of the desert. They have to fill out paperwork or risk their tents being taken down.
We touched on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. We had a group discussion that didn’t really go anywhere. Then we went to a town by the Gaza Border, Sderot. The entire town of Sderot is a series of bomb shelters.
I also appreciated seeing the darker side of Israel because no country is perfect and it’s important to try and grasp the Israelis’ struggle. If you want to donate please check out this link. This town needs all the help it can get to persevere.
Despite showing us some parts of the conflict, it was a very cookie cutter way of discussing such a large issue that is the main reason people are boycotting Israel. But again, discussing the conflict could take up and probably does, a semester long class in college. So I can’t be too bitter. I did appreciate the open conversation with Israelis because all too often we don’t hear about how real Israelis feel about it. And despite what Bibi (Prime Minister Netenyahu) says, he does not speak for all Israelis or all Jews. I’m sure I’ll have a whole other post about this issue later on.
What I will say is I wish these issues were discussed more because as an American Jew, I’m expected to be more educated and able to defend Israel. I want to be able to advocate for Israel but all too often it’s hard to get the tools to be that voice without sounding like a propaganda machine.
In the End
There’s so much more I could say about this trip but personally I felt moved like I’d never felt before by Israel. This wasn’t my first time in Israel, or at these places but it was my first time learning so much with such an amazing group of people. Shorashim was amazing. Perhaps it was just my group or perhaps it was the great programs and itinerary or just the mix of cultures that made this perfect but whatever it was I hope, if you are reading this because you are researching programs, sign up for Shorashim and write me as a reference, Thelma Greenfield. It would mean a lot to me, guys!