Is 10 days enough time to fall in love with Israel? Absolutely. Is 10 days enough time to make a sincere and meaningful connection to the land and people? It turns out that it is.
I recently led a Kesher Birthright Israel trip, introducing young Jewish adults to the Holy Land for the first time. Our trip was structured around the flow of Jewish history from the time of Abraham up to the present; each stop was a point on the timeline. Traveling the timeline in roughly chronological order with an educator as guide was an experience that really made our trip unique.
We started in the time of Abraham, crossing the Valley of Ben Hinom in Jerusalem. Also known as Gehennah, the place that was literally considered hell, it was where the Canaanite god Moloch was worshipped through child sacrifice. We went to the Old City rooftops and looked out on Mount Moriah, the place where Abraham learned that our God does not demand the sacrifice of children. From our very first stop, we explored how Judaism has helped shape the world. In a trip that is in part about exploring Jewish identity, understanding how Jews have changed the world sets the tone. Jews may be a minority in the world population, but we have had a big impact.
That this was a Progressive Jewish trip became very clear when we climbed Masada. Like every other Birthright group, we hiked up at dawn to see the sunrise and to learn the history of the place: a group of Jews who were the last to rebel against the Roman Empire, and their ultimate choice of suicide over surrender. What was different for us was understanding the story in the context of what came next, because from Masada we went to Tzipori, one of the places where rabbinic Judaism was born. These two locations were presented as alternatives, as two ways to respond to the Roman empire – two ways to respond to modernity and change, and only one of them allows Judaism to continue to flourish today.
Judaism continues to exist because we have a history of adapting to modern world, of finding a way to live Jewishly no matter where we live. If all the Jews were at Masada, we would not be here today; our existence depends on the fact that some Jews made a different choice. They chose to live and to adapt.
The Birthright experience made that clear to us all: We aren’t just observers of history, even while touring. We are part of the history of our people, and our understanding of the past helps us plan for the future as well.
Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik is the associate rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, CA. She staffed URJ-Kesher Birthright Bus 502 this summer.
Registration opens on September 10th for the next round of Kesher Birthright Israel trips! Register now for trips departing in winter 2013, spring 2014, summer 2014, and beyond.