The reason I was sent to Israel for free was because the people in charge wanted to teach me what it means to be Jewish. They put me myself and 40 other 20 something year old Americans on a busy 10 day tour of Israel. Starting each day at between 6-7Am and officially ending at 10-12PM meant touring Israel at breakneck speed. I completely forgot what the concept of free time meant. We went through an intensive ten-day educational program that would let us experience Israel-its ancient history, its modern day development, the people and places. Our goal was to learn about Israel’s society after it’s creation by the United Nations and this its recent history as the Jewish homeland. The idea was for us to observe and participate in Jewish life in modern Israel.
And what they were teaching…sunk in by the end.
The program, Birthright Israel, designed a program that mixed site-seeing, cultural exchange, lectures, and serious discussion all with a really great group of peers.
No, the goal of the program is not to turn you into someone shown below.
But hopefully when you visit the holiest Jewish site, like the Western Wall (Kotel), you will feel some kind of connection to the religion.
The site-seeing Israel
part really dominated the trip. This was really a mixed bag too. They covered all bases through, from off-road jeeping
to touring synagogues.
I wasn’t a big fan of the constant travel, but it was necessary if we wanted the rest of the trip to have a real impact. You see, in order to understand many of the concepts discussed on the trip we had to see the country in action. We visited the border between Israel and Lebanon to listen to a lecture by a hardcore conservative American expat working at kibbutz. He also fought in the military for years, including the latest 2006 Lebanon war. We hiked in the Golan heights to take in the beautiful scenery, also seeing it from another perspective as a former bunker. A night out to a dance-bar in small city Tiberias meant seeing what it might be to, well, party. As simple as that. At the other spectrum we toured the Knesset listening to one of the more liberal politician’s explaining why he feels why Israel needs to grant Palestine its own state. Another day we toured the Holocaust museum and later that night we went to a comedy show featuring a participant from our group who actually works as a professional comedian
. Believe me, I realize the irony.
The Cultural Exchange
Another component of the program was to include a handful of Israeli’s around our age for a portion of the trip. Previously, my impression of young Israel’s were the backpackers on a bender in South America after finishing their military duty. But the ones who joined us on the program were much different. They all volunteered to join us and assimilated well into the group. If we’re talking about cultural exchange how about the Saturday afternoon when myself, another American and Israel participant walked over to a religious family’s house for a Shabatt lunch. It’s not like the Israeli was totally comfortable doing this either which kind of reveals the diversity of Israel. I know for a lot of participants in the group it kind of helped remove that orientalist idea that everyone in Israel is a certain way. We spent our downtime hanging out with Israeli’s, as they also shared hotel rooms with us. And we partied with them too. But we also participated in discussions with them about Israel and what its like to be Jewish in Israel. So it was a good mix
When the program ended I really thought I wouldn’t see any of them again. But they were really great. One guy invited me to visit him in Haifa for the day and another one invited me out a few times in Tel Aviv.
Learning Through Lectures
Formal learning apparently has its place too. Throughout the program we sat through speakers ranging from a Holocaust survivor to Yemen bread-maker.
The Holocaust survivor gave us a detailed account of his experience as a teenager surviving a handful of concentration camps. The Yemen breadmaker took a break from his work to explain to us his personal connection to the religion. A career lecturer
explained to us in a hotel meeting room the current situation in the Middle East with all of the political players and possible outcomes.
Then we had some less interesting speakers like an artist in Sevat, the capital of Kaballah. He introduced us to the basics Kaballah. But in reality he was just a confused stoner who didn’t actually explain much. Or another speaker in Jerusalem who talked to our group about connecting to God. He provided a little insight but most were to exhausted to listen.
But most important were the program staff. The tour leader was a really interesting American who moved to Israel, joined the military, started working as a tour guide, and married a Colombian.
Hence the Colombian poncho he turned into a prayer shawl, tsitzit. But he introduced and explained everything we were seeing and experiencing in the most insightful way which added so much extra value to the program. Besides the tour leader, this particular program also staff the trip with an orthodox Rabbi and his wife. The Rabbi was able to provide additional meaning to the trip and help anyone wanting to connect more to the religious aspects of Judaism. His wife also played an important part in connecting with the women. Personally, I think they were their to also serve as a role model of an ideal Jewish couple 😉 They were both really great people who were very open to everyone’s lifestyle and acted more as friends than anything else.
Myself and 39 other 22 – 26 years old Jewish people formed our group. I specifically chose an older age group because I just don’t know how much I could relate to a bunch of 18-22 year old students, even if I was 22 at the time. They were mostly professionals and graduate students. Let’s see, we had people in Finance, HR, Childcare, Social Media, Marketing, and other fields. This meant most people had been working for a real job for a few years already.
Most had taken off from work to go on this trip. Since they were sacrificing their vacation days they really wanted to have a worthwhile experience. Unlike students who would have been sacrificing a portion of their 4-month long summer break or month long winter break.
This description probably makes it seem like as a group we acted much different but I found that it became just like any group activity no matter the work or age situation. Besides a few people, most were well behaved and any cliques formed didn’t solely associate with those in it.
Out of 40 or so people only a couple consistently observed the religion. Others had been raised observing the religion while some had no understanding of the traditions at all.
The program’s purpose was to help each of us build our Jewish identity – whether religious, observant, culturally Jewish, or whatever you want to call you yourself. All of us were Jewish in some way or another but prior to the program our common heritage did not mean all of us had felt a strong feeling of kinship. Only a select few had felt a connection to their religion, though many connected to their ethnic identity. The purpose was to better understand our background to feel better connected to Judiasm, the Jewish people, and Israel.
Part of this learning meant an endless amount of group discussions before and after activities. There were also icebreakers and discussions on specific topics. The trip included several formal activities focused on the interaction between the Israeli and American participants. Ice breakers were typically organized by staff early in the trip to mix Israelis and us. The Israelis prepared a group activity for
us to teach about an aspect of their lives as students or soldiers. In this case we did a simulated military training exercise like an obstacle course competition.
Or while visiting the military cemetery at Mt. Herzl the Israelis soldiers dressed in military uniform, which was a break from their usual civilian clothing. During the visit itself, some discussed relatives or friends who had fallen in Israel’s wars.
As I mentioned before we had a lot of formal discussions. For instance, prior to our visit to a Holocaust museum in Jerusalem we all shared our personal connections and opinions of the Holocaust. On a lighter note we had other discussions where we had to rank a set of values in order of its importance to being Jewish. On a lesser level we did lots of mini activities like putting stickers on a personal map of Israel to remember each place we had visited.
I previously had the perception that our tour would be guarded pretty heavily with at least a couple of actual private security guards. Instead one young private security guard protected a bus of over 40 people. Security was a joke but it was not needed at all because there is very little danger anyways.