We want to highlight your Birthright Israel experiences! Did you eat the biggest falafel? Climb the tallest mountain? Make a record number of new friends? Submit your story and become famous on the URJ Kesher blog! Email your submission to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.
Feeling Safe in Israel
By Olivia Wittels, August 2014
August 6, 2014 – Over the course of eighteen days in Israel, I heard four sirens. I feel like I should get that out of the way, since the most common response to telling almost anyone that I spent two and a half weeks in the Middle East is a wide-eyed, concerned look and palpable relief that I’ve returned.
A follow-up remark is typically along the lines of: “Did you feel safe?” or “Wow, it’s a crazy time to travel there.” While this may be true, especially according to many Western media outlets, I cannot help but feel frustrated each time I hear such comments. Don’t get me wrong – I truly appreciate having friends and family who care about my safety. Nonetheless, after spending eighteen incredible days in Israel, I find it difficult to not be upset by any negative perceptions of a place that showed me some of the most meaningful and memorable experiences of my life.
Thus moving on from “did you feel safe” (unconditionally) and “I bet you’re glad to be home” (I wish I could have stayed longer), I want to share a bit of what made Israel so special, with the hope that my experiences can serve as a small testament of what this remarkable country has to offer.
First and foremost, I have to mention the other participants on the program. Because of pre-trip cancellations, the trip was uniquely comprised of both Birthright Israel age groups (18-22 and 22-26), which turned out to be an enormous advantage. Immediately it was clear that forty 18 to 26 year olds boarded a plane with open minds and adventurous spirits, only adding to the cohesiveness of our group – it was obvious that everyone on URJ Kesher Bus 841 genuinely wanted to be in Israel. I have never seen a group of such diverse people mesh so well, which made each day even more fun and exciting.
When six Israelis joined us a few days into the trip, the dynamic of our group changed in an even more positive manner. The Israeli soldiers and students are some of the most friendly, kind, and brave people I have ever met; getting to know them and hear their own thoughts about Israel and the current situation helped me feel further at ease and comfortable in this historically-rich, yet often troubled nation.
My therapist once told me that she thought I was perpetually drunk. A personality trait that I could not escape.
Constant changes in direction, walking into walls, falling over my own feet, and the disability to finish sentences were signs enough to question whether water was the main source of my hydration. This was said in jest since she knew very well that my drunken personality was due to the chaos of being pulled in ten different directions – and not that I was always sipping on a Blue Moon. I was generally sober in college, but still…my therapist had my “drunk state of mind” pinpointed.
Three years later and her observation still holds some truth. I am go go go all of the time. Running around. Walking faster than the people in front of me. Checking emails. Scheduling appointments. Barely at home except to sleep. Thinking about tomorrow’s endeavors. My mind gets so flustered that often times my brain thinks faster than my mouth can move and I end up creating my own mixture of words AND inevitably sound like a real idiot. As much as I enjoy making up vocabulary – my attempt to be 2014’s Shakespeare – this is not the way to live my life. The New York City lifestyle does nothing to assist in my tripping over the imaginary step that I thought was in the middle of the road. For the love of Moses, breathe Jenna!
June 3, 2014 – Five days ago, I returned home after the amazing adventure of leading a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip with URJ Kesher. Since then, I’ve been trying to put my experience into words and struggling to do so. After all, how do you really describe such an intense and rewarding ten days in just one blog? But here goes!
Heading into the trip, I admit that I was pretty nervous about leading a group of forty young adults across the world for ten days. This was my first time leading a Birthright Israel trip and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I also wasn’t sure about what to expect from Israel. The first/ last time I was there was six years ago as a participant on Birthright Israel with a different trip organizer. Truthfully, that experience was not very impactful. I was hoping that this trip would leave me thinking about Israel, awakened to new issues and thoughts and leave me still questioning things I saw and learned. I am happy to report that the trip did just that.
As a leader, I knew that my experiences at camp gave me an advantage, but I wouldn’t realize just how much my camp experiences would come into play until the trip began. And then I discovered, that Birthright Israel is so much like camp, only in Israel and on a tour bus! Name games and mixers? No problem. Remembering participant’s allergies, likes and dislikes, and details about their personal lives? Well, after being a Unit Head at camp for more than one hundred campers, forty seemed small! I also was fortunate to have two friends from camp as participants on my trip and that was very comforting! It was also really special to be able to share such a meaningful experience with them.
Birthright and Bring Israel Home: A Winning Combination
By Alisha Glass and Josh Greene, April 2014
April 3, 2014 – We grew up in the same town. We went to the same temple, and attended the same middle and high schools. We knew that traveling to Israel with Taglit-Birthright Israel was something we wanted to do together as part of our coming-of-age experience.
Needless to say, our first visit to Israel was incredible. For 10 days, we bonded with new American and Israeli friends, got an insider’s look at the lives of Israeli soldiers, and crisscrossed the country – on our bus, on camels, and on foot – all the while eating new foods and engaging with the land and her people. By the time the trip was nearly over, we had so many connections to the Jewish homeland that to have it all end as quickly as it had begun seemed unfair. There had to be a way for all of us to come together again!
February 25, 2014 – For URJ Kesher Group 231, Taglit-Birthright Israel began like any other group. After weeks of planning and anticipation, we finally assembled at the El Al counters at Newark Airport’s Terminal B. We completed the initial administrative tasks, checked in for the flight, and passed through security. While we waited to depart, we said Tefilat Haderch (the traveler’s prayer), got to know one another, and charged our electronics one last time. Finally, after what seemed liked the longest morning on record, we boarded our aircraft, named after the city of Haifa, and began our journey.
But Group 231 was unique; we were – and still remain – 50 individuals who chose to participate in an experience designed for members of the LGBTQA community. Some of us identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning; others prefer the term of “ally;” some of us chose not to label ourselves into any category. While we all had different reasons for participating in this program, the first of its kind sponsored by URJ Kesher, we all came together in a way that none of us had every envisioned.
February 5, 2014 – Nathan Rifzis and Joanna Duretz were complete strangers when they traveled to Israel together in May 2012, but by the end of their 10-day trip, they were well on their way to falling in love. These days, the two are planning their upcoming wedding – and fondly remembering the trip that brought them together. Nathan, a native of Milwaukee, and Joanna, originally from Coral Springs, FL, were traveling to the Holy Land with URJ Kesher, the Reform Jewish trip provider for Taglit-Birthright Israel, which provides free group trips to Israel for young Jews ages 18-26. Here, Nathan and Joanna reflect on their relationship with Israel, with Judaism, and, of course, with one another.
Nathan: A friend talked me into going on Birthright Israel. He told me, “Hey, man, we’re getting old. Let’s cash in that free trip before it’s too late!” Before that, the farthest I’d ever traveled was to Canada. I figured a trip to Israel would encourage me to travel more and maybe rediscover my faith.
Joanna: My three older sisters had all gone before me, and they’d had a blast and learned a lot, so from a young age, I knew I would go on a Birthright Israel trip, too. I chose URJ Kesher for its Reform focus; I attended URJ Camp Coleman growing up, so I was familiar with the Reform Jewish community. I was excited to go to Israel for many reasons, but what appealed to me most was being immersed in Israeli culture.
Welcome to something new from Kesher, just in time for 5774! The Alumni Connection will bring you timely articles about Jewish life, pop culture, social justice and more from ReformJudaism.org - and keep you connected to current events, culture and life in Israel as well as inform you about opportunities for your next Israel experience.
September 16, 2013 – Our Taglit-Birthright Israel trip with URJ Kesher 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 Israel 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.