I met a group of strangers at the airport, boarded the plane, and felt apprehensive and uncomfortable about my first trip abroad. Birthright Israel would also be the first time I would be in an environment where I did not speak the native language, which would become a source of discomfort in the first couple of days. I did, however, speak a common language with the others on my trip, the language of the disabled community. My Birthright Israel experience was unique in that all the participants had a physical or medical disability. While most Birthright Israel trips include about 40 people, my trip included seven of us. Each of us was accompanied by one personal companion to assist with daily needs, although one of us needed two companions. In Israel, we were joined by a few others, making our group 20 people in total. Our group was much smaller than the usual experience. However, our small group allowed each of us to foster much more intimate relationships.
There were other unique aspects to our trip, called “No Limits,” but soon enough, we became known as “Limitless.” Most of us require power wheelchairs to get around and under other circumstances that might have made the trip impossible. In fact, it was anything but. Our trip included all the highlights because Birthright Israel made that possible.
Jerusalem, A Chance for Intercultural Exchanges
One of the first stops on our trip was Shuk Mahane Yehuda in the Old City. Here, we were provided with an ideal opportunity for intercultural exchanges. I was lucky enough to have a music lesson from a local musician on a harp-like instrument. Although the musician and I did not speak the same language, we still had a conversation that day. In Israel, I learned that words are not always necessary to communicate with people.
At the Western Wall, a site sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, the language was again not a barrier as I was allowed to engulf myself into seemingly another dimension, the spiritual dimension. Within this palpably vibrant site, one can sense that something beyond the tangible is occurring. The note I placed in the Wall had three words on it “Peace for All.” At that moment, I promised myself to return as a journalist for a longer time to truly understand and cover the dynamics of Israel and its relationship with its geographic neighbors.
We then made our way to Yad Vashem. The museum was the amplest proof I have ever seen that the Holocaust occurred. Although I know it did happen, as I have heard about it all my life, even from survivors during my years in Hebrew School, it was painful to see and comprehend all Yad Vashem showed us. It increased my desire to speak and write about these atrocities.
The Dead Sea: Free from Our Physical Limitations
Another experience to which I was looking forward was a swim in the Dead Sea. Any practicing Jew who is familiar with scripture will know that the motif of water is integral to our people. The concept of water washing over me presented yet another opportunity for me to become one with my Israeli brothers and sisters and one with nature. For us, the “Limitless” group, being able to be free from our physical limitations was exceptional.
Birthright Israel in Tel Aviv
While Jerusalem takes us on a tour of the early history of Judaism, Tel Aviv is its modern-day counterpart. It is the only city in the world I know of that has ancient buildings across the street from technological innovation centers, high-rise buildings next to open-air markets, and cultural centers, too many to count. Seeing the bluer than blue Mediterranean from the safety of a sailboat during jellyfish season was an exhilarating experience, only one of several others that included bicycle riding, zip-lining, and a memorable cable-car trip to the top of Masada.
Shabbat Shalom, Becoming One in Israel
Shabbat in Israel is a unique experience. There, being Jewish is not just a religion; it is the culture. After a week of so much exposure to the country, its history, and all the extraordinary events, celebrating Shabbat allowed us to absorb and appreciate everything we had seen and done. That night I remember thinking, “how am I different from when I came one week ago?” a sentiment I shared with our group. We had a most enlightening conversation that night in which our IDF soldiers had the opportunity to explain to us how they viewed us as foreigners when we first met and then came to recognize us as part of their own. They admitted that it is not in their nature to let their guard down to foreigners easily, by nature of what they have been assigned to do. Perhaps, our vulnerability opened unusual levels of trust. This example of allowing others to see our individual weaknesses is what can bring different people closer.
Birthright Israel Transformed My Conception of Israel
From a very young age, my being Jewish was ingrained in me through attending services and Hebrew School, celebrating Jewish holidays with family, and becoming a Bar Mitzvah. In Israel, my sense of being Jewish intensified by the exposure. Before my trip, I was aware of Israel as a country formed to provide a homeland for the Jewish people, but I realized I had a very rudimentary understanding. My trip completely transformed my conception of Israel as a country. In the US, one has to seek out a Jewish community actively. In Israel, one is enveloped in that community.
I went on the airplane with 15 complete strangers, and when I left Israel, I had 15 new family members. This unique Birthright Israel trip afforded the seven of us an opportunity rarely presented to people with physical disabilities. When we first met, I distinctly remember one among us, who looked completely uninterested in going on the trip, with eyes shut, head down, and no smile or look of any anticipation when we left New York. At the end of the trip, this person’s entire face was shining and had a smile from ear to ear. Words could not describe the experience any better. The same could be said for all of us.