Hillel Jewish University Center participated in a December 2013 Birthright trip with students. One of the participants, Leah Kaufman, a University of Pittsburgh student and intern at Hillel JUC, captured her thoughts along with those of others. The photo was taken at Ein Avdat Nature Reserve, a narrow canyon in the Negev.
It’s kind of funny. I was born in Mizgav Ladach, a hospital that once operated in Jerusalem. I lived the first nine years of my life in Givaat Zeev, a suburb of the holy city. I once attended an Israeli elementary school, took swimming lessons at an Israeli pool, and arranged play dates with my little Israeli friends. A great number of my relatives live in the Netanya and Cholon
areas, which I have visited on countless occasions since my family’s move to the Unites States. In December, I traveled to Israel on a Hillel JUC organized Birthright trip; amazingly, it felt as though I was seeing the country for the very first time.
Perhaps it is because on this trip, I was seeing things from an entirely new perspective; and to be honest, this was kind of a frightening concept for me at the beginning. You see, nothing scared me more than the idea of driving around my homeland in a big old bus, taking pictures at every landmark, and buying cheesy souvenirs. I was scared to be perceived as a tourist in the very place where I was born. But, I soon realized that it wasn’t really about appearances. My fear was rooted in a much deeper place. It was an issue of identity, a topic that the entire group of us grappled with as we explored the Holy Land. My own qualms with assuming the role of “tourist” stemmed from my sense of a fading Israeli identity. Who am I? An American in Israel? An Israeli with a limited Hebrew vocabulary? These were the types of introspective questions I found myself asking. That’s my story; but I’m certain that each individual in our group confronted issues unique to his or her perspective.
And that’s another interesting thing. Here I was, with this overarching fear of being perceived as an (cough, cough) ignorant American tourist, when in fact, it would be completely inaccurate to assign such a broad label to the group of people with whom I was traveling. There were as many unique perspectives in our group as there were people. Isaac, a Carnegie Mellon student, expressed this sentiment: In some ways, this trip was largely about disprovingmisconceptions. Frany, a Pitt student, described her own epiphany.
“I had always imagined Israel as a sandy desert, somewhere far from where my life took place. However, as Dec. 15 approached, and I began looking up pictures of our itinerary, I began to realize that Israel wasn’t just the sandy desert I had imagined my whole life. But no photograph could have prepared me for what Israel actually was,” explained Frany.
On the fifth day of our trip, we had a “mifgash” (meeting) in which we were acquainted with seven Israeli soldiers who would be joining our group for the remainder of the trip. When we first met, the soldiers were dressed in uniform. I think many of us were almost intimidated by their official appearance initially. Soon after a series of icebreakers, however, it was time for lunch, during which the soldiers were free to change out of their uniforms. At that point it became clear that regardless of the roles we assume in life, whether it be soldier, student, tour guide, medic, whatever, despite all of our differences, there is something in us that is overwhelmingly the same. We are all people, and we are all experiencing life and trying to somehow make sense of its mysteries.
Our group and the seven soldiers combined quickly and seamlessly. Together, we explored the beautiful land of Israel and shared experiences that none of us will ever forget. Rakefet, one of the Israeli soldiers, described to me her altered perspective of Israel after trekking with our group. She rediscovered a beauty in the country, which she realized that she had taken for granted.
There was something especially magical about our night in the Bedouin camp. Learning about Bedouin customs was interesting, and the traditional dinner was delicious; but perhaps the most profound part of that night was when we made the stroll away from the campsite, a little deeper into the desert. It was there that for the first time, we dissipated, found a solitary spot amidst the emptiness, and experienced the inimitable quiet of the desert. The quiet was piercing. The sky was infinite. I was at once lost and firmly connected to my surroundings.
Perhaps the only other moment that — for me, at least — compares in terms of solidarity was the time when the Israeli soldiers simulated “basic training” for us. After a series of relay races and challenges, we all assembled into one big circle. With arms around one another, we began to chant: “achim, achim, achim — simcha, simcha, simcha.” “Brothers, brothers, brothers — joy, joy, joy.”
David, a student at Penn State, summed up his birthright experience in a few sentences.
“Our trip and my experience in Israel cannot be summed up in one or two sentences, or even words for that matter,” David said. “But if I had to say something, it was sensational; absolutely incredible. Complete strangers became brothers and sisters while experiencing the food, culture, national pride, demography and the breathtaking geography of our homeland. Enough said.”
Enough said indeed.