LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — I never imagined that a trip across the world to a foreign country with dozens of strangers could be as life-changing as it was.
In March, I was selected to participate in a free 10-day trip to Israel referred to as Taglit-Birthright Israel, or Birthright. The program included round-trip airfare, touring of Israel, local health insurance, site entrance fees, hotel accommodations, transportation and two meals per day.
Taglit-Birthright Israel was collectively established by the government of Israel, thousands of Jewish communities and donors, along with private philanthropists who send groups of young Jewish adults to Israel during the summer and winter seasons. The program allows for participants to explore their identities without being influenced by religious or political views while touring the country.
“Eligible individuals are those who identify as Jewish and are recognized as such by their local community or by one of the recognized denominations of Judaism,” said Noa Bauer, vice president of international marketing for Taglit-Birthright Israel.
On June 17, I departed from Los Angeles International Airport through a program run by URJ Kesher, a nonprofit organization that is an official provider of Birthright Israel experiences.
Forty strangers all of Jewish heritage yet of different ages (22-26), personalities, interests, and postal addresses awkwardly waited in line with two American tour guides, Ellen Holtzman and Emily Meyer, to check luggage and prepare to embark on a journey to Israel.
“Leading a Birthright trip is as rewarding as being a participant on a trip,” said Holtzman. “I love hearing how this short 10-day trip has changed their lives for the better. Birthright is an incredible opportunity that truly connects individuals to their past history, their current life and opens their eyes to a future connection of Jewish identity.”
Shortly after landing and entering through customs in Tel Aviv, the group met an Israeli tour guide named Shai Nahon, and a medic named Eli who accompanied as a security escort. Nahon carried a GPS communication and tracking device to ensure the group’s safety throughout the entire program.
A bus that served as a means of transportation for the entire trip drove the group north toward a biblical nature reserve called Neot Kedumim.
A lively and passionate woman named Sarah guided the group through the scenic landscape as she discussed Shivat Haminim, which translates from Hebrew as The Seven Species. During the tour, group members smelled fig and grape blossoms, tasted sweet date honey, took photos by a water wheel, planted trees, churned harvest grains on a threshing floor, operated an authentic olive press and said a blessing over a glass of wine.
Hakuk Balev Guest House, a kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee, served as a hotel for the first three days of the trip as the group celebrated Shabbat together for the first time.
In the Jewish religion, Shabbat is recognized from sundown Friday evening to sundown Saturday evening every week. This time is meant for reflection and relaxation with friends and family members. A Havdallah service is then performed to mark the end of Shabbat.
After Havdallah, the group enjoyed an evening out along a boardwalk in Tiberias. Lounge-style restaurants, kiosks that served gelato and street vendors decorated the ocean front while Israeli’s danced and performed for locals and tourists.
The next stop of the program took participants to an archaeological dig of an old temple that was discovered in Hamat National Park. Nahon discussed how being a minority in a foreign-dominant culture has existed throughout Jewish history, which led to further group discussion regarding the continuing struggle with antisemitism.
“I really enjoy guiding educational groups because of the added value,” explained Nahon. “Birthright is an amazing organization that provides Jewish men and women an incredible opportunity to better understand our heritage and where we come from.”
Eight Israeli participants, some of whom were actively serving in the Israel Defense Forces, and others who were attending college boarded the bus on the way to visiting the holy city of Tzfat.
The group marveled as it wandered through the art-lined alleyways and bartered with street vendors to purchase Judaic souvenirs for friends and family members.
Artist Avraham Loewenthal, a Michigan native who later returned to live in Israel, shared sketches and paintings that he created based on the spiritual learning of Kabbalah within at the Tzfat Gallery of Mystical Art. A local band then privately performed in a courtyard while the Israeli participants better acquainted themselves with members of the group.
One of the benefits of participating in a Birthright program is being able to experience well-rounded, educational programs along with thrilling outdoor excursions.
After driving to the Golan Heights, the group took part in a nature hike to the Banias Waterfall, followed by several hours of rafting and swimming down the Jordan River.
The day concluded with a group discussion on top of Mount Bental from where the border of Syria could be seen. Nahon explained the defensive role that the IDF takes against potential threats made by surrounding militant groups such as ISIS. Participants then explored an underground bunker, which was once used by the IDF during times of attack.
Upon arriving to Jerusalem, group members learned about the security needs of Israel while taking in the scenic view of the secular walls of the Old City from an outlook at the Haas Promenade. The tour then continued to the top of Mount Herzl, the national military cemetery of Israel, where former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Theodore Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, are buried.
Nahon then guided the group through the quiet streets of Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Group members witnessed archaeological excavations at the Southern Wall of the temple before being led to the Western Wall, which is also referred to as the Kotel.
Lunch was enjoyed in the Jewish quarter after participants shopped their way through the cobblestone alleyways of the marketplace on Ben Yehuda Street. With shawarma-filled stomachs, the group traveled south on a two-hour drive to the Judean Desert.
Upon arriving to the Bedouin encampment, members rode into the sunset by camel. The hospitality of the Bedouins was overwhelmingly gracious. They prepared a delicious feast for dinner, and then shared insight into their culture over coffee and tea.
Around 4 a.m., the group awoke in sleeping bags and boarded the bus to travel to Masada. Participants ascended the mountain to the top of an ancient fortress, which was formerly home to the Zealots, and looked out over the Dead Sea while awaiting the sunrise. After exploring the mountain refuge for several hours, the group cautiously walked down the winding dirt “snake path” and headed to a beach resort to float in the salty Dead Sea, one of the lowest places on Earth.
Unfortunately, Birthright for the Israeli participants only lasted for five days. They returned to their daily routine after being dropped off in Jerusalem on the way back to the hotel.
Overall, the Birthright Israel experience can be an emotional roller coaster. Some adventures have high points filled with laughter followed by somber moments later in the day.
The program included an educational tour of Yad Vashem, Israel’s museum for the Holocaust. Some of the group had previously visited Holocaust museums in the United States, while others remained unsure as to what they were about to encounter inside the triangle-shaped memorial.
After the tour concluded, the bus dropped participants at Machane Yehuda Market, where locals pushed their way to the front of each crowded line to buy challah and sweet pastries for Shabbat dinner. An exciting moment for a handful of girls on the trip occurred when Julian Edelman, wide receiver for the New England Patriots, stopped to take photos and chat while he walked through the market.
The Sabbath was later welcomed by the group for a second time at Wohl Rose Park in Kiryat HaLeom. A special service was led by several participants.
During Shabbat, the group walked to the Israel Museum to view the Dead Sea Scrolls and capture photos near and on 3D sculptures. A naming ceremony was then held to give members the opportunity to share the meaning behind their Hebrew names, followed by an evening out at a bar in Tel Aviv.
The last day in Israel was spent volunteering at the Jaffa Institute, a nonprofit agency that provides assistance to thousands of poverty-stricken neighborhoods filled with underprivileged children from Jaffa, South Tel Aviv and Bat Yam. The institute also provides boxes nonperishable items to Holocaust survivors.
Nahon then guided participants to Independence Hall in Tel Aviv to learn about how the cultural Zionists played a role in establishing the state of Israel in 1948. After the lesson, members strolled through HaShikma Market and walked to Jerusalem Beach to swim and relax.
“After visiting and getting a 10-day ‘crash course’ of the country, I have a new-found love for the land and people of Israel,” said participant Steven Wittenberg. “My highlight of the trip was really getting to know the other group members and growing friendships that I will have for life.”
On June 29, the group of 40 participants who were all recent strangers to one another traveled as a “mishpacha,” meaning family, to the airport during the early morning hours.
“Birthright Israel seeks to give every Jewish young adult from around the world the opportunity to visit Israel on an educational trip,” explained Bauer. “Our vision is to ensure the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities and the connection with Israel.”
I can’t speak for everyone on the trip, but I think most would agree that the Birthright program has connected us to Israel in a new way, which changed our lives for the better.
For more information about registration, trip eligibility and future URJ Kesher programs that will depart from Los Angeles, click here.