It’s been almost two months since I got back from Israel after going on a Birthright Israel trip. This was my second trip to Israel. My first trip was more than twenty years ago over Pesach for my brother’s Bar Mitzvah when I was in third grade. This trip to Israel was different.

You see, on the first trip, I was coming from New York, where I was attending a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school, a yeshiva I had attended since before kindergarten, and on this trip, I was coming from Alaska. Yes, you did read that correctly. I moved up to Alaska after finishing law school at Washington University School of Law in 2021. While I have always stayed relatively close to the Modern Orthodox Jewish background I grew up with, as well as to my ancestors’ Lubavitch history from the Pale of Settlement, moving to Alaska was definitely not one of my most Jewish decisions.

Upon arriving in Alaska, however, something a little unexpected happened. I don’t know if I attribute it to the geographic closeness between Alaska and Russia, where my great-great-grandfather (Aryeh Leib Schoenkin) was forced into the Tsar Army at a young age for 25 years due to the Tsar’s antisemitic policies or if I attribute it to the two Lubavitch Chabad Houses here in Alaska run by families with backgrounds from Russia and Eastern Europe where the tunes sung during davening are likely some of the very same tunes my ancestors used when they davened back in Russia, but the fact is that my move to Alaska actually brought me closer to Judaism.

Sample 10 Day Itinerary: See how a typical Birthright Israel trip comes to life and how it unites young Jewish adults from all over the world with the people, history, and land of Israel.
Sample 10 Day Itinerary: See how a typical Birthright Israel trip comes to life and how it unites young Jewish adults from all over the world with the people, history, and land of Israel.

As I began to move closer to my true self in Judaism, I made the difficult, but at the same time easy decision that while there was a lot I liked about Alaska, I didn’t see a future Jewish life for myself here, and therefore I began to realize that I would need to leave Alaska. Don’t get me wrong, the Chabad families up here are absolutely amazing, but I yearned for a larger Jewish community, one where I could see myself raising an observant Jewish family. This meant changes to a lot of my plans, but when I consider the sacrifices and commitments of Leib and my ancestors, I knew it was necessary and the right thing to do.

I reached out to several Chabad Rabbis who I have kept in touch with over the years about going on a trip to Israel. After talking with Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein, who I knew well from my time in Evanston, Illinois, as well as Rabbi Yossi Abenson, I decided to go on a Mayanot Birthright Israel trip. I can’t exactly explain how the idea of traveling to Israel came to mind during all of this, but it did, and looking back on it, I could not be more thankful that it did.

By the time I departed on my trip for Israel, I had already grown quite a bit in my Judaism, such as getting back to various things like putting on my tefillin and davening most days, as well as keeping more strictly kosher outside of the home (inside the home was always easy thanks to some great kosher places that ship up to Alaska). Prior to my trip, I had also made definitive plans to leave Alaska just a few months after I returned from Israel, taking a career risk but knowing it was what I needed to do. And so, I flew from Anchorage to Miami to meet the group, a group filled with amazing people, and then from there, we flew to Israel.

To explain and understand Israel’s meaning to me, it is important to note that I have always been someone who speaks up when Israel is attacked by anti-Semites. No other people throughout time have had to defend their ties to their homeland like the Jewish people. And I would be remiss not to mention that I was given my first name in honor of a courageous man who had been the permanent representative of Israel to the United Nations and who would later become one of Israel’s strongest defenders as prime minister, as well as become an important protector of Jewish people across the globe.

It is always on my mind that if Israel had existed when the pogroms were happening in Russia or when the Germans were killing six million Jews, there would be many more Jews alive, for the Jews would have had a place to go. A place to go, live, and thrive. And so, it was not like I went to Israel without Israel already having quite a bit of meaning to me.

Keeping all this in mind, I landed in Israel with the tefillin my dad had ordered me from Israel many years ago, not knowing what to fully expect.

We first went to Teveria and then Tzfat, and then Tel Aviv, and while all those places are great, especially the view of the Kinneret from Teveria, they were not anywhere near the highlight of the trip. Instead, and rightfully so, the highlight was Jerusalem. As we approached Jerusalem on the bus, it felt different. Jerusalem is where every Jew comes from. There is no place that is more Jewish in Israel than Jerusalem.

Upon approaching the city, especially when one comes from the city of Tel Aviv, the historic nature of the city immediately draws you in. This is a city that has existed for several thousands of years, a place that is the true home of the Jewish people.

While I had been to Jerusalem before and remember leading a part of the davening at my older brother’s Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel (I still remember going up to the bimah and putting on a tallis), this time was different. Walking in the Old City and approaching the Kotel, there was a feeling of knowing you are exactly where you should be. And while the Kotel is not the holiest site in Judaism (that is the Temple Mount), at this time, it is the holiest place that Jews can daven at. It is unfathomable to think how much that wall has withstood over several thousands of years. As I stood there, I thought about that famous photo I have seen many times of Jewish soldiers davening at the Kotel in 1967 during the Six Day War when Jews could finally return and daven where the Second Temple once stood. The sacrifices that had been made just so fellow Jews and I could be standing there are immeasurable.

And of course, I must mention we went to the Kotel twice on the trip, the second time on Friday night. I don’t believe any of my ancestors would have envisioned their descendants having the opportunity to daven and bring in the Shabbos at one of the walls of the Second Temple.

As the trip began to conclude, one of my favorite Jewish songs kept popping up in my head, and that is the well-known song of Im Eshkachech. The lyrics of that song are translated in a simple form to “If I forget Jerusalem, I will forget my right hand.” And as a Jew, I could not agree more. I can never forget Jerusalem, for wherever I live, it is always my past, present, and future.

Upon returning to Alaska, I realized that my trip to Israel had confirmed my thoughts and plans. I knew that returning to a larger Jewish community was what I needed to do. As I prepare for my move to a substantially larger Jewish community in another part of the U.S., a move that actually started to come together while in Israel, I could not be more thankful for the opportunity I had to visit Israel.

Benjamin A. Schoenkin currently lives in Alaska. In his prior life, he was a journalist. He then went on to graduate from Washington University School of Law. He has lived in various Jewish communities of all sizes across the United States.