My experience with Birthright Israel began as soon as I got on the bus in front of the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, wearing an IDF uniform along with seven other Israelis. We were greeted by a group of about 40 Americans from San Francisco with cheers and stormy applause. It started at that moment, and not a minute before, despite the preparations I had made for it.
I joined Birthright Israel because I wanted to experience something “more” in my military service, something a little different from my daily routine. I didn’t realize that I did not know what I was getting into and how much the five days on Birthright Israel would leave a mark on me. Of course, I had heard a lot of stories about Birthright Israel. But still, it’s like that saying, until you experience something it is impossible to understand it.
During the time I accompanied the group of bus number 499 I met amazing people in it. I’ll be honest — at first, it was a little weird, a bunch of Americans, all at least 3 years older than me and living a completely different life than mine. I was not sure how and where the connection between us would be formed, if at all. But it was not long before my worries disappeared in an instant. We found a common language (no, I do not mean Hebrew or English😊) and became friends very quickly.
Most of the American participants had never been to Israel before. However, despite this, they had a strong desire to know as much as possible about Israeli culture, to absorb as much as possible of the nuances that characterize this place, and it was truly amazing and heart-warming. For five days people around couldn’t stop saying “Sababa,” “Yalla Balagan,” and “Todah“. And they kept talking about falafel and shakshuka, and how delicious it was!
It was fun that the Americans came to us with questions about our lives, our military service, our opinions, and our experiences. They never stopped taking an interest in us and wanted to learn through us about Israel, Judaism, and life here. The thing that amazed me the most during the tour was their endless enthusiasm.
It started with the enthusiasm for the views of Jerusalem and Masada to their excitement for when I shared with them a small secret I had discovered – that Bissli and Bamba are so much tastier when you eat them together!
Simply put, their enthusiasm swept me away and very quickly I found myself feeling like a tourist in my own country. It was very interesting mainly because I had the opportunity to experience the country from another point of view I had not known before. All this enthusiasm on their part caused me to fall in love again with the country and to be grateful for the place I live.
On my first day with them, we arrived at the Western Wall and I stood in front of the Wall together with one of the Americans who told me the following, which sent shivers through my spine, “I have never been to this country in my life, I live on the other side of the world so far away from here and yet, to stand here makes me feel like I’m just so at home.” We barely knew each other and yet it was thrilling to hear that she experienced this connection to the Western Wall that is so important to us as Jews. At that moment, I realized how important this place was to me as well.
One of the most significant moments was undoubtedly when we visited Mount Herzl. We got there with all the soldiers in uniform and wearing berets on their heads. We walked around so many of the graves, and most naturally the Americans asked me a lot of questions. The tour educator told stories of fallen soldiers and at one point we Israelis were allowed to share personal stories as well. I told the group about my experiences from Operation Tzuk Eitan in 2014 as a high school student, and about life in the shadow of a war taking place in my country. I told them how much I cherish the soldiers who fell for our country and that I am proud to have the privilege of serving in the military and contributing my share, that I do it for my family, my friends, and for all those who are buried there at Mt. Herzl.
I explained that until now I was the one being protected, but now it was my turn to protect my fellow Israelis.
When I finished speaking, the Americans stood in front of me in tears. They do not live here, most of them visiting here for the first time in their lives, and yet they were so impacted on a personal level by the stories my friends and I shared with them. They thanked us for our service and told us that thanks to us there is a future for the Jewish people and that they value us very much.
I admit that I did not expect such a response from my American friends. I cannot explain in words how emotional and empowering these moments were. I will never forget this day. This experience was a significant moment for me in my life. It’s these moments where we understand how important this country is, not only for us Israelis but also for the masses of Jews around the world – religious and secular, Orthodox and Conservative, for those who visited Israel and may even know some Hebrew, but also for those who never were here but only heard stories about a small and distant country in the Middle East.
On Birthright Israel I met people who are in different places on the Jewish spectrum. While I got to talk to them, get to know them, and hear different opinions, I also encountered what unites us all – we are all Jews who are connected in one way or another to the Jewish religion, tradition, and culture. For me – this experience on Birthright Israel was real Zionism, and I am so proud that I took part in it. Birthright Israel strengthened my love for Israel and my Judaism, and it also revealed to me the enormous importance of Israel’s connection with Jews from around the world. I recommend that every single Jews join Birthright Israel for this unforgettable experience.
This blog post was originally published in Hebrew and has been translated to English.