“Tradition!” Loveable milkman Tevye belts out his famous song in the Tony-winning Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, vocalizing the traditional family roles of shtetl Jews in Czarist Russia.
Our people’s connection to tradition dates back to long before the 1964 show and the time period it depicts. Our rich cultural heritage has been passed down since Abraham, generation after generation—even amid exile, persecution, and assimilation.
That doesn’t mean we are stuck in the past, according to Rabbi Ari Hart. “We are a people of the future,” said the rabbi and Birthright Israel alum. From counting the candles up for eight days during Chanukah to aiming to do better in the coming year on Yom Kippur, “We believe in the future, and we believe that the collective Jewish future is shaped largely by small human choices.” Birthright Israel remains forward focused while helping participants connect to their homeland and heritage. By exposing them to their traditions in the Jewish homeland, Birthright Israel helps them go on to create their own back home, thus creating a vibrant Jewish future through thousands of individual stories, including the ones to follow.
Connecting the Past and the Present
Birthright Israel connected alumnus Neil St. Clair to his homeland and its history. It also made him think about the Jewish traditions in his daily life. Nowhere were these thoughts more palpable for him than at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. As he observed the memorial to the 1.5 million children were systematically murdered during the Holocaust, St. Clair’s own kids came to mind and, “I broke down and sobbed.”
For alumni Tatiana and Haley, who met on Birthright Israel and later married, it was the vibrant Jewish young adults in their Birthright Israel group that helped them connect the past and the present. “The Jewish immigrant story has been told so many times, and the historical and current struggles of Jewish people are so real,” said Tatiana. “But being surrounded by such a wonderful group of young Jewish people made me feel grateful that our ancestors worked so hard to make our lives possible. The fight to claim Israel reminded me of the fact that each person on the trip had family that had persevered through tough times.”
It Couldn’t Happen Without Israel.
Before Birthright Israel, alumna Kyla Gladstone didn’t consider her Jewish heritage part of her identity. “I had attended a few services and had witnessed some of the traditions, but it was all carried out in Hebrew, a language I didn’t understand,” she said, “and I always felt so lost.”
After two weeks in Israel, everything changed. “I could connect with the values of Jewish culture: family, charity, courage, and hope,” she said. “After all this, I could never dismiss my Jewish identity. I no longer feel separated from my heritage. It isn’t a distant line of relatives stretching decades and centuries into the past. It was right there. Alive and well in the land of Israel, and I finally feel like I belong.”
A Connection Felt Everywhere, Even the Airport.
Alumnus Aidan Segal made many new friends on his plane ride to Israel. Together, they sat “above the clouds somewhere in the Middle East, anxiously awaiting our first glimpse of the Land.” Then came the powerful moment Segal entered Ben-Gurion Airport. “I realized I was standing on the ground of a nation that for centuries was the prospect of a dream,” he said. “It is a dream no more.“
Thank You, Technology.
Alumnus Nathan Lightman grew close to many of the participants on his trip. Even though they come from different countries and connect with their Jewish identity differently, he said they shared an underlying connection, “having heard the same songs, eaten the same foods, and heard the same basic prayers all our lives.”
As for staying in touch, Lightman continues to communicate via WhatsApp. He learned this year, like the rest of us, the importance of merging ancient Jewish tradition to the modern world: He now observes Shabbat virtually with his friends and family.
Immersing in Jewish Tradition
From Shabbat to tikkun olam, here’s a look at some of the ways participants are exposed to Jewish traditions on Birthright Israel.
Alumna Rachel Abramov, meanwhile, described her Shabbat experience on Birthright Israel with beautiful detail: “As the light settled into dusk, we entered the Old City as a group and lit Shabbat candles. Together we strolled to the plaza in front of the Kotel, awestruck by what was in front of us: circles and circles of people dancing and singing joyously. My breath was taken away as I witnessed all these people together with every single face in the crowd experiencing pure joy … I felt something indescribable that I’ve never felt before. I want to keep my first Shabbat and I want you to help me.”
Birthright Israel fed the flame of alumnus Billy Steinberg’s love of Judaism. “When we visited the Kotel, it was like no other wall I had ever placed my hands upon,” he said. “The wall accepted everyone’s notes to God, while other walls refused. Before the trip, my Uncle gave me a note to place a prayer into the wall. The Western Wall in Jerusalem approved the prayer and sent the message directly to God.”
During their Birthright Israel trip, participants often embrace their Jewish identity with a bar or bat mitzvah. Alumna and Birthright Israel trip leader Shira Kaplan called the B’nai Mitzvah ceremony “one of the most moving parts of leading a Birthright Israel trip.”
The ceremony connected alumna Sabrina Karlin in with “my past, present and future. To me, this [ceremony] is an affirmation of dedicating my life to something bigger than myself, living by the beliefs and traditions that have shaped and guided my family for generations.”
What better way to learn about Tikkun Olam than by pitching in, in the land of milk and honey? On his Birthright Israel trip, alumnus Eren Niederhoffer learned this firsthand. “In our religion, we help our people out in many ways,” he said. “We performed our service by picking tangerines for the homeless at a tangerine field. This helped us know that we were doing our people a good service.”
Continuing Impact Back Home
Alumnus Riley Pope grew up with no connection to Jewish tradition whatsoever. Today, he organizes Shabbat dinners for his family, “a tradition that has now begun in my mom’s household on a bi-weekly basis,” he said. Pope has this to say to the donors who made his trip possible: “[You] relit the embers of Judaism in a family that was only moments from complete assimilation.”
Donating to Birthright Israel Foundation will help save Jewish young adults like Pope from being lost to the Jewish community forever. Your support guarantees the continuity of our life-changing trips. Please donate today to help us to pass down our traditions to the next generation of Jews.