How Birthright enriched my Jewish identity

My two week adventure in Israel, full of learning, joy and tradition.

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This summer, I was honored to go on a two-week trip in Israel through Birthright, which is a program that sends Jewish adults ages 18 to 32 on an all-paid trip throughout Israel to learn and experience the values and history of Jewish culture. I can only speak of positive experiences of culture, friendships and learning.

We arrived in the Northern District, where we had our fair share of outdoor activities from water hikes to visiting the Golan Heights area. The Golan Heights borders the countries of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. It also contains Mount Bental, a once-occupied army bunker in the Yom Kippur War facing Syria.

The hostel breakfast was always the same: a plate full of scrambled eggs, some cucumber, some sort of carbohydrate and a cup of tea.

Shabbat, a weekly holiday celebrating the day of rest, was the main event of our weekend. It was our first group experience that we had all grown up with. This Shabbat consisted, not of prayers, but of thoughts of how factors in our lives have shaped our Jewish identities. Before this moment, I couldn't gage the importance of Judaism in my peers’ lives. But after our talks about Shabbat dinners, summer camps and their home lives, I realized how much we all had in common.

Our time in the Northern District was hot and earthy and quickly came to an end leading to our next destination, which was completely the opposite. Tel Aviv’s skyline was filled with skyscrapers, luxury apartments and high-reaching cranes making way for new tech companies. Behind all these structures lay the soft sands and clear water of the Mediterranean Sea.

Tel Aviv is what I didn’t know I needed.

At the beach, my new friends and I sunbathed, splashed around and played matkot, Israeli smashball, up and down the shoreline.

Our bus then drove east toward the holy city of Jerusalem. We started the day at Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, which overlooks the hills of Jerusalem. I have been to many Holocaust Remembrance Museums in New York, Los Angeles, Paris and Boston, but those don’t amount to Yad Vashem. The actual museum is built as a gray triangular hallway with rooms to snake through and the exit alludes to “the light at the end of the tunnel.”

The site was beautiful, containing a university, synagogue, art museum, sculptors and amazing vantage points of Jerusalem. But my favorite part of the whole center was the Children’s Memorial.

I had left my group and our tour guide because for one, I could not stand to wait when there was so much to look at, and two, it's my perspective that museums should be experienced alone with one’s own thoughts. So I winded my way through each room, finding my friends who insisted we find the Children’s Memorial.

I expected a hall of old photographs extending to the ceiling with names and ages written underneath. Well, was I far off.

We finally found the entrance to the memorial: a downward walk into a stone tunnel. As we walked down, the light disappeared. I was shocked at the loss of my sight but quickly realized the importance of darkness. We entered a room full of mirrors reflecting one lit candle, making me feel like I was surrounded by a million stars. As I tried to comprehend the significance of the candle and not run into anyone, I heard names, ages and locations being recited. It was chilling, saddening and an experience I wish everyone could have.

That evening, we walked through the ‘Old City,’ ending at the Western Wall. I am not deeply religious, but one topic that was always discussed in Sunday School was the Western Wall. I have only ever fantasized about how it must feel to be there, to be in the presence of one of the holiest spots in Judaism.

I waited for my turn to have my time and secure my prayer in the Wall. A tradition is to put a prayer in the cracks of the wall, and I made sure that sucker was in there. As I stood touching the stones, I could feel the pull and emotion of what faith brings to people. The feeling was of nothing I had felt before, nothing I could describe other than hope and security.

Our next big adventure was the famed climb up Mount Masada and a dip at the Dead Sea. I imagined a fairly tiring hike, however, I misjudged the situation. Hiking at four in the morning was brutal but what felt like torture paid off. Two hours later, we stood at the top, overlooking the Dead Sea and ancient Roman military bases that glittered with a pink and orange sunrise.

Our adventures and craziness finally had to wind down. Our program’s last three days were the most memorable; we all had bonded and shared inside jokes. It felt as if we’d known each other for years. From meals to pool time, to experiencing the night life to deep conversations, the last weekend embodied the best bonding experience I could have hoped for.

Edited by Alexandra Sharp | asharp@themaneater.com

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