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The Trip of a Lifetime

The beautiful ancestral songs and laughter in the Arabic and Hebrew languages spoken on every corner harmonize with the sounds of music and sizzling of frying falafel. Vibrant and poignant street art transforms city walls into a gallery of masterpieces. The sun shines as if smiling upon the Holy Land. It radiates warmth on every green mountain, grain of desert sand, and wave of ocean water lapping at the shores of endless beaches. It feels right to be here in Israel with the inspiring people on my bus and all in this spiritual air.

Gillian Zucker and friends enjoying a Druze feast. Photo credit: Casey McKeowen

When I first received the email that the University of Delaware’s Hillel was planning the first ever Birthright Israel study abroad trip, I thought that the opportunity was too good to be true. There had to be some sort of catch for me to be able to see some of the most beautiful and spiritually significant sites in the world while earning three college credits in a Food, Wine, and Culture course. Feeling the travel bug and knowing this could be a life-changing adventure, I signed up and didn’t look back. From the second we stepped off the plane I knew this trip would be different from your “typical” Birthright Israel trip.

Our first stop in Israel was at a spice farm, Derech Hatavlinim, in the North where we got to take in the beauty and vibrancy of Israeli flavors. We had a chance to try a variety of spices, like Za’atar, which makes pita and olive oil come alive. We later got the chance to make our own blends of za’atar, at a women-owned company. It all came together for a true “taste of Israel”

Every adventure still feels surreal, from Yad Yashem and placing a note in the Western Wall to hiking Masada, camel rides, and floating in the Dead Sea. In keeping with the study abroad focus of the trip, we learned about Druze culture by visiting a Druze village, cooking, and then eating a traditional Druze feast. For the wine focus of the trip we visited wineries, learned about what makes wine kosher, and of course, tasted ten different types of Israeli wine. I still can’t believe I got to earn three credits for this experience.

Students making Za'atar at Sindyanna of the Galilee. Photo credit: Sam Finfer

Being raised in a multifaith household brought so much light and learning about the universal values of being a good person and kind to all people. Yet, for the past 21 years, I struggled with feeling like I wasn’t “Jewish enough.” But for the first time, from our first orientation session, I felt a great sense of belonging and was inspired towards personal and spiritual growth. From conversations with my staff and new friends, I started to realize that there is no one way to be Jewish and that I could form my own Jewish identity from this day forward. The culmination of this journey was becoming a Bat Mitzvah in Israel, tying my experience and the spiritual connection I continue to feel to Israel. Being Jewish is so important to me, and I will explore my identity within Judaism for the rest of my life.

Overall, being in Israel felt like a spiritual homecoming for me, and I will bring the lessons I have learned about religion and advocacy back to the work I do in the future to make a difference. To borrow from my Bat Mitzvah speech: I am so proud and thankful that I went on this trip for me, to meet such inspiring people, for my parents who gave me the foundation to take this journey, and my ancestors before me - who’d be really proud if they were here.

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