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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 rbigman@urj.org for consideration.

Reflections from OSRUI on Birthright Israel: Israel

By Daniel Shore, February 2015

ElmoFebruary 9, 2015 – We did the typical Birthright Israel itinerary, but it was the small moments along the way that made it campy. It was running into someone from OSRUI in Tzfat who was on a different Birthright Israel trip (how did we let that happen?!). It was having a talent show Beit Café style. It was watching several of our alumni naturally plan and lead a Shabbat service—another moment they’d been preparing for since day 1 of their OSRUI lives. It was re-connecting with Israeli staff from last summer while out in Tel Aviv. It was hearing from one alum who is currently doing a one-year teaching fellowship in Ramla and meeting up with another alum who is about to join the IDF.

It was me being asked to do my Elmo voice on Day two by a non-OSRUI participant because the Julian Assange of OSRUI had leaked a secret, and then me having to read Mad Libs as Elmo every time we did games on the bus. And it was me buying a frog-like oven holder at an olive-oil factory so that I could also find my Kermit impression. It was me being my OSRUI-self that I so dearly miss being every summer, and every day, that I’m #campless. And it was our alumni participants getting to reunite at every stop for a picture or at Aroma for an iced coffee or on a camel for, well, camel riding, or sitting together on the bus to write the best blog posts. It was new connections with old friends. The best kind of friends.

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Reflections from OSRUI on Birthright Israel: The Airport

By Daniel Shore, February 2015

DepartureFebruary 6, 2015 – How often do you arrive at the airport and within minutes have seen FOUR people you know? Okay, so maybe I set myself up for success when I agreed to staff a Birthright Israel trip with a bunch of OSRUI alumni on it. And the familiar faces kept streaming in, and each hello varied from, “It’s so good to see you! for the first time in 7 years!” to “This feels just like staff week 2011. Wait, no, 2012. Was it really just 2 years ago?!”

Not having been back at camp since 2012, nostalgia filled the terminal for me as we gathered to check in to our United Airlines (more like ReUnited Airlines) flight. And even though there were also non-OSRUI participants on the trip, there was an instantly-established aura of a camp opening day every time someone new arrived to the meeting point, where I’d step into Rosh Eidah mode and shout over everyone to say, “Hey everyone, this is __________” and the group, without hesitation, would start making introductions and asking icebreaker questions. There’s nothing that says camp prepares people for these moments more than hearing an uninterrupted introduction that starts with, “I’m Aaron and I spilled coffee on myself at 6am this morning and it’s nice to meet you have you ever been to Israel before?” (I’m convinced they put multiple Aarons on every Birthright trip so that you can use it as the protected name in stories like this.) Everyone had arrived and was properly greeted. We were ready to check in.

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A Quest for Answers: Birthright Israel

By Bella Merritt, January 2015

10885083_10205109616476066_8533063935112535064_n-1January 8, 2015 – I’ll be honest, before traveling to Israel on Birthright Israel with nine other Kalsman staff members, I had become disenchanted with the idea of Israel. I planned for my Birthright Israel trip to reignite my love for Israel. I wanted to re-discover what I fell in love with the first time I went to Israel. When I went to Israel the first time, I traveled up and down the country for a month. The first time I was in Israel I spent four days hiking in the Negev Desert. Looking back, there was one hike in particular that was most memorable for me. I had been hiking for about 20 minutes or so I came to a plateau. Just beyond this plateau, in the distance, was the Red Sea. I soon came to realize this is the sea that parted its waters to lead Jewish people into the land of Israel. My first time in Israel was all centered on learning about the history of the Jewish people and how I connected to the land of the Jewish people. Now that I had an opportunity to go a second time, I wanted to explore my own Jewish identity.

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Feeling Safe in Israel

By Olivia Wittels, August 2014

Olivia - Blog 2August 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.

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Israel: Round Two

By Jenna Leigh Mark, July 2014

IMG_5082July 12, 2014 – 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!

And then I went to Israel…

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An Experience To Remember

By Jane HK, June 2014

Kesher Bus 449June 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.

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Birthright and Bring Israel Home: A Winning Combination

By Alisha Glass and Josh Greene, April 2014

3HavdallahApril 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!

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Discovering a Unique Israel

By Barry Shainker, February 2014

Israel 2013-14 033February 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.

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He Said, She Said: Finding Love in Israel

By Nathan Rifzis and Joanna Duretz, February 2014

Joanna and NathanFebruary 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.

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