Our Kesher Birthright Israel trip was almost to the halfway point when we were joined by a group of Israeli soldiers who stayed with us. They were only with us for half of our trip – but in many ways, it was the most meaningful half.
We spent five days with seven soldiers, and I believe it is that experience which helps Birthright participants to understand Israel in such a short period of time. I was amazed at how open and willing the Israeli participants were to share their personal experiences, sharing details about Israeli life and what it meant to go into the army before college, a very different experience from their American counterparts. Our young participants quickly became friends, connecting in that way that only happens when you travel with a group. Our Americans and Israelis talked about what it means to be Jewish and how, for both groups, national identity superseded religious identity. It was a personal connection to Israelis their own age that made the difference between a great trip and truly life-changing experience.
The soldiers by our side gave additional meaning and context to the rest of our trip. The North American participants found Har Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery, to be profoundly moving, in part because by the time we got there, we were all very aware that there was a price being paid for the sense of peace and security they felt the whole trip. A price being paid for the sense of safety they felt even when we traveled near the borders with Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, as well as the checkpoints. A price being paid by the young men and women who accompanied us – and who were not so very different from our American participants.
In 10 days, a group of young adults who had never been to Israel came to understand that Israel is their birthright, and that no matter where they are on their Jewish journey, they are connected to both the land and to the people of Israel.
Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik is the associate rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, California. She staffed URJ-Kesher Birthright Bus 502 this summer.
Registration is open for the next round of Kesher Birthright Israel trips! Register now for trips departing in winter 2013, spring 2014, summer 2014, and beyond.