I recently returned from two and a half days of training to lead a URJ Kesher Taglit Birthright Israel trip. We trip-leaders-in-training started by mapping out our own Jewish journeys and pinning them up around the room; you could see clearly that Israel was not only a high point for many, but also a jumping off point that led to an increased connection to Judaism.
Our staff training was all about how to create a positive, engaging experience for someone’s first trip to Israel – but Birthright participants get so much more than a free trip to Israel. It is not just about the 10-day trip, but about what happens after the participants return home; it’s about helping them forge a lifelong connection to the land and people of Israel.
I remember my first trip to Israel. I was 20 years old. I did not know anybody and I had never traveled outside the United States; all I knew was that everyone said Israel was an amazing place, and I wanted to experience it for myself. I was lost the first week, both figuratively and literally. I hated the food and did not drink enough water. I wish I’d had a guide to help me navigate this strange new place. By the end of the summer, I had fallen in love with the country – it had become my homeland in a way that’s only possible after experiencing it firsthand. I finally got it. And I learned to love falafel!
Now, I get to be there while a group of people are experiencing Israel for the first time — to be there to help them make a connection to the history and people, and to be present when they fall in love with the land. Two and a half days of training for a 10-day trip may seem like overkill, but it was immediately clear that the level of thought and preparation is what will make the trip a success. I am most excited that I get to share this experience with 14 alumni of Temple Ahavat Shalom, where I work; these college students grew up at my congregation, and many of them were my students in confirmation.
When I met my husband, he did not know he was a Reform Jew. He had been on a teen trip to Israel and came back with a strong feeling of connection to the land and people and Judaism, but he did not realize that those strong feelings about Israel and Judaism were completely consistent with Reform ideology. I’m looking forward to traveling with URJ Kesher and being a part of the only progressive religious trip that Taglit Birthright offers – helping to give young participants their first taste of Israel, to watch them take their first steps in the land of our people, and to understand how vital Israel and Zionism continue to be to the Reform Jewish community.
Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik is the associate rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, California. She is staffing her first URJ Kesher Taglit BIrthright Israel Trip this summer.