As a Jewish college student, it’s difficult to go one week without hearing about someone’s experience on Birthright. Regardless of whether you hear it from a friend, classmate, or relative, it seems like someone always has something to say about the time they spent in Israel. Even non-Jews seem to be highly aware of the prevalence of the program; any time I talked about my winter plans to visit Israel, I was always met with the response, “Birthright?” And I can see why the program has grown to its size and risen to the notoriety that it sees today; it’s a pivotal moment in the lives of so many who participate.
I’m fortunate enough to attend a university widely known for its comprehensive study abroad programs. My particular Birthright trip was organized solely in conjunction with the University of Delaware, so it was constructed like a brief class, with its subject being “Food, Wine, and Culture.” As such, I was introduced to a plethora of unfamiliar fares and libations. Seeing as the end of fall semester and my departure for Israel were fairly close together chronologically, it was a palette shock to go from American “college food” to the traditional cuisine of a country on the other side of the world. Note that I didn’t say “Israeli food,” because the term is practically nonsensical. Israel has very few foods of its own creation, and the ones it does own are purely derivative of influences from its neighbors and Western allies. This has led it to possess what many refer to as a “food mosaic,” largely based upon the typical Mediterranean diet and recipes from Arab countries. As such, our meals consisted of as much hummus, pita, and falafel as it did dishes that most Jews probably have never even heard of. However, I can confidently say that I was never served a bad meal, even in the most unglamorous of restaurants or dives. Consistent with what I heard previous visitors say, every piece of produce is fresh, the markets bustle and burst with positive energy, and every bite satisfies your tongue as much as it does your Instagram timeline. Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem is a magical place, and absolutely my favorite spot on the whole tour.
That said, you can’t go on the trip with any expectations; any idea that you have about what your first time in Israel is going to be like is wrong. Everybody’s experience in Israel is wildly unique because it’s completely dependent upon who you are as a person. By the end of my trip, my whole group seemed to have had their “Birthright moment.” But all of ours were at different times and at different places. Mine happened to be in Tzfat – a quaint, quiet, antiquated city seemingly almost entirely populated by highly observant Jews. Coming from an area with a very small Jewish minority, this was a great shock. As we walked the narrow, beige streets of the ancient city, I noted all of the locals making their way to their respective synagogues for Sunday services. To them, this was standard procedure. But I broke down in awe of the rareness of this sight; not only was I in a place where I was not in a religious minority, but I was in a beautiful world where my culture was respected and intensely celebrated. My tears dried, and as a result I was able to more clearly see the sides of the streets plastered with graffiti reading along the likes of “Hashem loves you.”
I could exhaust the storage capacity on my computer going on and on about the places we visited; the whole country is a feast for the senses. But cliché as it sounds, one of the most significant things I took away from Birthright was my love for the people I encountered. I went in knowing only three or four other students on my bus, mainly acquainted through my freshman year dorm. By the end of our 15 days, almost all of us felt comfortable enough around each other to fully open our hearts to one another. The bonds I formed with my peers not only brought me closer with them, but also with UD Hillel, and most importantly, with my religion. I’ve always had Jewish friends (despite their rarity where I grew up), but knowing that I have a religious and cultural community that I can always rely on and call home at my school is priceless. In addition, the connections that I made with my peers that live in Israel are relationships I look forward to maintaining for my whole life. All current or former members of the IDF, hearing stories of their individual experiences and how they contrasted greatly with those of anyone I’d ever met in America opened my eyes to the reality of growing up in one of the most highly contested territories in the world. When examining the political occurrences of Israel from afar, it’s easy to overlook the human impact of everything. But meeting and becoming close friends with the people who “live the news” every day has helped me to separate the State of Israel with the Land of Israel. They’re two distinct entities, and there’s a lot to be said for the people that are involved with both. Leaving our new Israeli friends was even more difficult than expected, but I knew deep down that this was not a goodbye, but rather a lehitraot (“see you later”).
Admittedly, I have a short attention span and I forget ideas and feelings easily. I can usually only recall only the most intense and profound emotions that I experience in the long-term. But the sense of awe that I found as I stared over the valley around Masada or the pit in my stomach that formed as I touched the Western Wall are memories that won’t go away. Neither are the 300 photos that finished off the last of my iCloud storage.