Everything changed after Birthright Israel. Judaism was pure boredom to me up until I stepped off the plane at Ben-Gurion Airport in 2014. I grew up in Florida and went to the University of South Florida, where I joined a Jewish sorority, with only four Jewish members. Chabad would ask me to attend Shabbat, and I honestly wanted to be anywhere but there. That was until my second semester sophomore year when one of the four Jewish members of my sorority happened to be the Birthright Israel recruiter. I convinced my brother to sign up with me since we both had never been out of the country without our parents or grandmother, and since Birthright Israel was free, it was an obvious yes.
We landed in Ben-Gurion after the sunset and headed straight to Jerusalem. I could see the lights of the city through the bus windows, but that didn’t really do too much since it was so dark. The next morning, I woke up around 6 AM, walked downstairs into the courtyard of my hostel, and called my mom. It was May and a cool 65 degrees outside. I shared my excitement with her and, through the phone, she could hear birds chirping around me. We both paused to take it in. I was already grateful to be here.
I met my group at the bus after breakfast, and we were off on our first day of adventure. Our staff handed us bandanas to use as blindfolds, blasted some Israeli music on the bus stereo, told us to close the bus windows, and get ready for a surprise. The bus came to a stop, and one by one, we were led off of it, blindfolded. I remember the cool crisp air dancing between my legs as I held onto the notes of one particular song we heard moments before on the bus. The lyrics “hey, something grabbed ahold of my soul. I’m going home back to Jerusalem.” With the count of three, our guide asked us to remove our blindfolds. As is from a movie, in slow motion, One. Two. Three. We pulled the blindfolds from our faces, and there it was Jerusalem, the city of Gold. The city that quickly grabbed ahold of my soul. The moment that, still to this day, if I close my eyes, I can feel the breeze and smell the smells, and I’m home, back to Jerusalem.
I spent the rest of my trip learning that Judaism wasn’t boring but that it has a beautiful philosophy behind it. Birthright Israel allows us to take off our everyday masks and focus on who we are as people. Like in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Birthright Israel provides participants with physiological and safety needs allowing us to focus on love and friendship (with our bus mates) and reach self-actualization as we start to figure out who we are in this world. Birthright Israel allows you to just be.
My brother was also impacted by these experiences, as well. And as many participants will tell you they formed special relationships with the strangers they met on the trip, the most special relationship I developed was with my brother. We had this unique opportunity to understand each other outside of our daily lives. Our trip was our first time as adults interacting without our parents and truly getting to know one another. Turns out, my brother is a really great person.
By the time my trip ended, I was drinking the Kool-Aid. Actually, I took a bath in it. I turned to my brother and said I’m not going home and he agreed to extend his trip with me. We spent the next week at a program called Israelin. We stayed in an apartment in Jerusalem, took a class in the morning, and went on a trip to places Birthright Israel didn’t take us. Just another way to connect more deeply with the land and explore our roots.
Birthright Israel is the red phosphorus on a box of matches that you strike a match against to ignite a flame. I knew from this point out it was my responsibility to keep this flame going.
When I returned to Florida after my experience, I took an active role in Jewish life on campus. When a Pro-BDS petition went around campus and was at the forefront of Greek life, I stood up for Israel. I made sure that the BDS movement was not going to play an active role on my campus. I watched students provide signatures to support BDS on our campus in exchange for a free piece of pizza without even understanding what they were signing. I made sure to educate others about what their signature meant and explain the consequences. Many people were shocked to find out what they were actually being asked to sign.
After college, my role in Jewish life only continued to flourish thanks to Birthright Israel. I wanted others to be open to the impact, so I decided to volunteer to staff trips. I’ve led 10 trips in only five years, and most recently, I’m working for a Jewish organization in Miami, OneTable, inspiring young adults to build a Shabbat practice that feels authentic and sustainable to them. From the first steps on the Jerusalem stone to where I am today, my whole life path was changed because of Birthright Israel, and for that, I am forever grateful.