When I first began to look into Birthright, it was described to me as a “10-day adrenaline rush” through Israel. I assumed that was an exaggeration. If anything, it was an understatement.
Birthright – or Taglit, the Hebrew translation for Birthright that should really mean “silly American Jews” – is an exhausting and incredible experience. In 10 days, we immersed ourselves in Israeli culture, marveled at its natural beauty, ate more shawarma and falafel than humanly possible, and lost all sense of time and sleep.
Admittedly, I’ve never been the most observant Jew. After my Bar Mitzvah at 13, I stopped putting in the effort when it came to learning more about my Jewish identity. I even quit Hebrew school in eighth grade because it conflicted with soccer.
Birthright had been on my radar ever since it became depressingly obvious that I was one of the few Jews I knew who had never been to Israel. When two of my friends came back from a winter Birthright trip and raved about the experience, I decided it was time to get serious about experiencing Israel for myself.
I signed up with MJX, an organization dedicated to helping University of Maryland Jews connect with their religion. The incomparable Rabbi Ari Koretzky, aka Rabbi K, is the face of MJX. I say incomparable because I have never before come across a rabbi with his spirit, energy and ability to make up acronyms on the spot (HUJ= Huddle Up Jews). We were lucky to have him (and the rest of our staff) as our spiritual and literal tour guides.
The boys of Tagli at the Western Wall with Rabbi K doing his thing in the center.
I eventually found myself landing in Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv with no idea that my group of 40 University of Maryland terrapins and the others who accompanied us on our odyssey through the holy land would not stop moving for 10 days. It was a whirlwind, but one that I would not trade for anything.
We climbed Masada (woops, Mitz’ada), learned to hate salt in the Dead Sea, celebrated Shabbat at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, swam in the Mediterranean on a Tel Aviv beach, bartered in Israeli markets, kayaked along the Jordan River with a bamboo stick (well, that was just me), and almost got arrested by the Jerusalem police for singing too loudly at the Ben Yehuda hotel.
Me chilling on a chair in the middle of the Dead Sea. Casual.
We experienced a little Israeli nightlife, which is suitably crazy. Yell “TAGLITE!” in a crowded bar, and every Israeli immediately falls in love with you. They love the naïve Americans who will pay anything for drinks but could care less because they are in freaking Israel!
Speaking of the locals, we were joined by eight Israeli soldiers for five days. For the uninitiated, every Israeli is obligated to serve a few years in the Israeli Defense Force once they turn 18. So these were kids our age among us, though none of us could imagine going through the trials and tribulations they face in the IDF.
This was by far the most rewarding aspect of the trip. I almost immediately forgot these guys were in the IDF mostly because they were so…goofy. How could these awesome weirdoes possibly be soldiers?
When we finally had to say goodbye, they had become more than just our friends. They are our brothers and sisters. We’re currently doing everything in our power to get them to Maryland for a reunion, so wish us luck!
Anyway, back to the trip itself. Once in a while, we would stop for a second as our terrific and punny tour guide Joe Freedman helped us learn the historical and societal significance of the things we were seeing. For example, The Golan Heights has a history of intense violence and is still surrounded by Syrian minefields. It takes the wind out of the geographical splendor, but puts things into an important context.
Now I feel like everything about Israel, from its sights to the conflicts surrounding it, are in context. I had always seen Israel as more of a concept than a place before. Standing on its soil and taking in its immense beauty and spirituality, everything just seemed so real. So besides being the best free vacation ever, Birthright transformed the way I view not only Israel, but also the entire Middle East. Impressive, right?
Of course, it’s really all about the connections. I connected with some awesome terps, the most helpful staff in the world, my new Israeli friends, the land itself and, most importantly, my faith. I’ve never felt closer to my Jewish identity, and I hope that feeling sticks around. I could get used to it.
I love you silly terps.
Joe summed up the Birthright experience perfectly in our retrospective on the last night of the trip: “Israel trips are like a smorgasbord. You take your plates and fill them up with as much goodies as you can. [But] there’s only so much you can put on the plate.”
As much as we got to do and see, there is much more we didn’t get to in our limited time. It sounds to me like a return trip is in order. Who’s in?
Photo Credit: Raizel Bernstein, Michael Barnett, Josh Axelrod