Hailey Desser is a 2015 Birthright Israel alumna originally from Baltimore, MD who now resides in…
Carly Alterman is a 2015 Birthright Israel alumna. Currently, she’s enrolled in medical school at NYU Long Island School of Medicine. Last year, Carly created the blog, Eating Over the Counter to combine her love for food with a focus on nutrition-based health initiatives. Carly hopes her recipes, which are all traditionally Jewish and inspired by her time in Israel, will inspire people everywhere to cook. You can check out her Shakshuka recipe featured on Birthright Israel Foundation’s blog.
Lastly, Carly was kind enough to share more on her Birthright Israel experience in our interview below. We hope her words inspire you and showcase the impact of this life-changing program.
What inspired you to sign up for a Birthright Israel trip?
While my Jewish identity has always been central to who I am, visiting Israel was a missing piece that I knew would bring me even closer to my heritage and culture. My grandparents and parents spent a lot of time in Israel living on kibbutzim, traveling, working, and visiting family. Birthright Israel allowed me to visit and learn about the places that held so many memories for my family. Visiting Israel allowed me to understand my Judaism on a deeper level, and that was what I hoped for when I signed up for Birthright Israel.
Did you have any preconceived notions prior to going to Israel?
Before visiting Israel, I had no way to fully understand the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. What I learned during my time on Birthright Israel and living in Israel was that the majority of civilians — both Israelis and Palestinians — truly and deeply want peace for one another. In the three months, I spent living in Israel following my Birthright Israel trip, I was lucky enough to shadow a team of Israeli and Palestinian doctors that worked together to treat Israeli and Palestinian pediatric patients. It is very rare to see positive portrayals of Israelis and Palestinians working together in the media, and I wish it was shown more readily. To fix the systemic injustices that exist within Israel and the Palestinian territories, collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian civilians is vital.
Did you grow up with a connection to your Jewish identity?
I grew up extremely connected to my Jewish identity, especially through the traditions, the food, the family values, the sense of humor, and the teachings of Tikkun Olam and L’dor V’dor (my grandpa’s favorite saying). The Jewishness my family instilled in me took on an entirely new level in Israel, where I learned how to incorporate that Jewishness into everyday life.
What was your biggest takeaway from the trip? What surprised you the most about Israel/Israelis?
So much of how I celebrate and express my Jewishness today is inspired by experiences I had while on Birthright Israel and in the months I spent living in Israel following my trip. In Tel Aviv, I met Israelis who were tough-minded, self-sufficient, and full of life. In Jerusalem, I met Israelis whose lives were rooted in Jewish tradition, spirituality, and practice. In Tzfat, I met Israelis who were generous enough to welcome me into their home, lend me their clothes, and include me in their Shabbat practice. I felt out of my comfort zone and completely within my comfort zone at once. I was pushed and challenged by my peers but also found that my Jewish identity was celebrated in a way I had never experienced before.
How has Birthright Israel played a role in your life since coming home from the trip?
My love for Shabbat has always existed, but my Birthright Israel trip turned that love into one of my most favorite Jewish traditions. The Shabbats I spent in Israel are some of the most memorable of my lifetime. It was during Shabbat there that I really discovered how to celebrate my Judaism through food. Since coming home, I’ve hosted and attended countless Shabbat dinners filled with fresh challah, Israeli spreads, and traditional family recipes. In many ways, it was my time in Israel that really inspired my love for Jewish cooking. Following the months I spent there, I developed a deep interest in exploring traditional Mizrahi and Sephardic dishes that were previously unfamiliar to me. Exploring Judaism through food has taught me an incredible amount about Jewish history, the Diaspora, and Jews of different ethnicities around the globe.
Are you involved more in your Jewish community because of your Birthright Israel trip?
I have always been involved in my Jewish community, but my Birthright Israel trip expanded that community for me in such an amazing way. I found OneTable, which helped me connect with other young Jews in New York City for Shabbat dinners. My Jewish community expanded to the friends I made while living in Israel, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. My time in Israel sparked an interest in me to learn Hebrew and take courses that approach modern issues from a Jewish lens so that I could better understand how I can bring my unique heritage and perspective to current world issues.
It takes nearly 40,000 donors each year to provide the gift of Birthright Israel. If you could meet the person who made your trip possible, what would you say to them?
My Jewishness makes sense to me because of my time in Israel, and that would not have been possible without the individuals who support Birthright Israel Foundation. It was the most defining Jewish experience of my life, and it opened a door for me that I could have never opened on my own. Not only did I get to travel through Israel, but I got to stay. I got to live, work, volunteer, and learn in Israel because of this trip. I am extremely grateful and cannot thank the donors enough for giving me that experience, and for allowing me the time to build my own relationship with the region and its people.