Birthright Israel participants are typically pretty clueless about life in Israel before their trip. They return from the Middle East with a visceral connection to the Jewish State and these 15 lessons on life in Israel.
Life in Israel is modern …
When alumnus Nathan Lightman claimed his birthright, he was surprised to find that the streets of Tel Aviv felt a lot like Chicago. “There were trendy restaurants and foods from other countries, lots of retail and service-based shops, and people everywhere using smartphones instead of looking in front of them as they walked,” he said.
… and high-tech …
The biggest eye-opener for alumna Julia T. was visiting The Center for Israeli Innovation by Birthright Israel, where Birthright Israel participants explore the Jewish State’s technological contributions to the world. “Regardless of religious or political orientation, it is impossible to deny that Israel is the light upon the world,” she said, “be it through medical startups, innovation in irrigation, or defense techniques.”
… yet Israel is steeped in ancestry.
Alumnus Jared Siegel read about the Holocaust as a child. He recalls seeing pictures of piles of shoes from the victims of concentration camps. During his visit to Yad Vashem, he saw the actual shoes. “That site will never leave my brain,” he said. “This was when I realized, thank G-d for Israel.”
Alumnus Billy Steinberg, who only recently learned that his grandmother survived Auschwitz, was also moved at Yad Vashem. “Entering the museum and seeing historical items helped me to imagine traveling to the 1940s and connecting with the past.”
While praying at the Kotel, alumnus Daniel Samoohi felt his late grandfather (who had lived in Israel) communicating with him. “It’s a feeling I will never forget,” he said.
… and living history.
Alumnus Michael Fizek connected with living history while touring the tunnels underneath the Western Wall. For alumna Jordyn Landau it was a tour of the Golan Heights. “Instantly my college studies on history connected me tangibly to the journey as we learned about the ancient Jewish ruins from thousands of years ago,” she said.
When Landau celebrated Shabbat in Jerusalem, she described the experience as an exploration of her Jewish identity alongside her people’s history. She also felt a historical connection to her Jewish heritage while climbing Masada at sunrise. “Learning about the Jewish history atop the beautiful setting of Masada took my breath away,” she said.
Israel is safe …
Before Birthright Israel, alumna Ashley Horine was a little scared about traveling to the Middle East. “All around the world, Israel is always on the news,” she said. “A bombing here, an airstrike there.” While the media makes Israel out to be a war zone, the reality is different. “Israel is the exact opposite of what the media portrays,” she said. “The entire 10 days I was in Israel, I felt safer than I do at home in the United States.”
Alumni Courtney Barnett and Shahriar Sharifi went on their Birthright Israel trip during a difficult time, when rockets were targeted at Israel. The trip was nearly canceled and many participants dropped out. “We probably had only 20 people that came and it really brought us all closer together since it was such a small group,” said Barnett. “But never once did I feel unsafe which is the craziest part.”
… but protecting the Jewish State comes with a cost.
Birthright Israel participants are accompanied by Mifgashim (Israeli peers) during their visit to Israel. These Israeli peers are IDF soldiers, young professionals, and college students. As alumna Amanda Flaxman put it, the seven Mifgashim who accompanied her Birthright Israel group were all about her age, yet as residents of the Jewish State, they had to “go through trials of life that I could never fathom.”
At Mt. Herzl and Masada, alumnus Alejandro Mansbach finally realized what his father was fighting for during the 1982 Lebanon War. He also gained an immense appreciation for the IDF “for protecting our people and ensuring a Jewish State now and forever.”
There’s more to Israel than meets the eye.
While there are tons of tried-and-true places to visit in Israel, the beauty of Birthright Israel, according to Michael Fizek, is the ability to get an inside look from the locals and go off the beaten path. “The Israelis showed us places we might not have known about, including that you can even get cheeseburgers and non-kosher food in the country,” he said. “They taught me about the real Israel.”
Speaking of the food, it’s delicious …
Whether it’s breakfast in Jerusalem, brunch in Tel Aviv, or dinner in Jaffa, Israel is a land of plenty when it comes to food. There was not one dish tried by Fizek that the alumnus didn’t love in Israel. “I remember eating at a restaurant the very first day, there was a delicious eggplant dish with tahini,” he said. “My peers sitting around me didn’t like it, so I got to enjoy as much as I wanted.”
… and the beauty of Israel is extraordinary.
Photos don’t do the land of milk and honey justice. Take the sunrise at the top of Masada, for instance. This glorious view is something alumna Mollie “will hold on to forever. Standing at the top, I thought of the beautiful country the Jewish people are able to call home and I feel nothing but pride.”
It’s not just the physical beauty of Israel, though. Alumna Laura Minskoff saw beauty in the normalcy of Israel. “Israel became this place for me that I can’t just go to visit once, but it is a place that can be home, where normal things happen, and that it is part of me,” she said.
Religious awakenings await.
Hiking up Masada at dawn also made an impression on alumnus Billy Steinberg. He called the sunrise from the mountain a sign that ”G-d was waking from his slumber.”
Alumna Sheyna Ryvkin had a religious awakening after spending Shabbat in Har Tavor, (where the story of the Judges in the Book of Judges took place). Later, during seminary, she learned about the biblical book. She “cannot explain the excitement” she felt when she realized she had visited the place they were discussing. “It was then that Har Tavor meant so much more to me and became more than text,” she said.
Israelis are our brothers and sisters …
Birthright Israel Madrich (leader) Alan Avitan has some news for you. “Israelis are just like us,” he said. “They listen to the same music, have the same interests and that we aren’t very different from one another.”
… and so are future generations of Jewish people
While standing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, alumna Sarah Myer felt a kinship with the Israeli moms who brought their kids to the Kotel, “despite their busy lives.” Alumna Ariana Sloan reported a similar experience. She saw a pregnant woman praying with her belly touching the wall. “She and her baby were praying together, and it was special to see how connected they were so early on,” she said.
As donor Rob Clarfeld puts it: “I have an obligation—a visceral responsibility—to support Israel not just for our generation and my family, but for all the generations of Clarfelds, unknown to me.”
Our roots are interconnected …
The connection between all Jews in the Diaspora became clear to alumna Nicole Livadas while observing a “massive structure shooting out of the ground on a hill overlooking the city” in Israel. She contemplated what the piece of art meant to her and decided, “it was roots … what I learned from this piece of art is that my roots are deep, yet they are exposed. I am tied to my people by our shared memory … deeply impacted by the history of my people. I’ve always known this, but my hands are now and will forever be, grasping the roots of my people tighter than ever before. My roots are deep, but they can be seen in all that I am and all that I do, and, of that, I am proud.”
… and if you’re a Jew, you’re home.
Regardless of where in Israel our participants feel most at home, it’s usually a sense of belonging they’ve never felt before. “Israel is mine, it is yours, it is ours,” said alumna Alix Ablaza. “Being Jewish is so much more than religion. It’s a shared ancestry, land, and awe-inspiring community.”
You pretty much have to go there to understand.
As alumnus Corey Dicker puts it: “Being in that magical place allows a group—of any age or background—to fully understand its importance.”
Did Birthright Israel expose you, your child, or your grandchild to life in Israel? Share your story.