A letter to my Birthright alumni

You’ve heard from your friends that Birthright is great, but you find it hard to believe that a 10-day trip with strangers can be transformative.

March 9, 2015 22:06
4 minute read.
A TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT group climbs down the slope of Masada

A TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT group climbs down the slope of Masada. (photo credit: TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT)

Dear Birthright alum,

I recently returned from staffing my twelfth Birthright trip. I know, I know, I always say that your trip is the last trip, but I can’t help myself. Discovering Israel with you has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

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I love meeting you at the airport and seeing that blend of excitement and skepticism on your faces. You’ve heard from your friends that Birthright is great, but you find it hard to believe that a 10-day trip with strangers can be transformative.

Let’s be honest, most of you sign up because it’s a free trip and you would take a free trip to Ireland or Italy or Indonesia if it were on offer. You don’t feel any particular connection to Israel and you certainly don’t understand what all the fighting is about.

You ask me why I keep volunteering to come back and I respond, “You’ll see.”

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When we arrive in Israel we hit the ground running. For 10 days we crisscross the country from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. We hike the wet Galilee, scramble through the dry Negev desert, snorkel in the Gulf of Eilat, crawl through ancient caves in the Judean Hills, sleep (more or less) in a giant Beduin tent, get a taste of Kabbala in the mystical city of Safed, ride camels, raft the Jordan River, float in the Dead Sea and climb atop Masada to see the sunrise.

We learn about the heroism of modern-day Jewish superheroes like David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. We lay our hands on the cool stones of the Western Wall and push folded notes into its crowded crevices.

We stroll through the bustling markets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Jaffa and sample fresh fruits, warm pitas and spicy olives.

Somewhere along the way you fall in love with Israel. You can’t help but fall for the country’s stunning beauty and the captivating charm of its people. You discover that Israel is where new age meets old world, where sacred meets secular, and these dualities are enchanting.

As you learn about the country’s short but extraordinary history you come to see how Israel is at once powerful and vulnerable. Inevitably, the questions turn from where to buy a Knicks T-shirt in Hebrew to why so many of Israel’s neighbors are hostile toward the Jewish state. For the first time in your life, the chaos and confusion of the Middle East troubles you and you are concerned for the future of Israel and the Jewish people.

I’m writing this letter to tell you that I’m not worried. I’m not worried because when I look at you, I can see the promising future of our people.

I look at you and I see courage. You traveled halfway around the world to a country that, from the media and many other’s perspective, is ravaged by conflict. You went boldly into the unknown with open hearts and open minds.

I look at you and see a warm community. It seems to take just one day for you to become friends and two to become a close-knit family.

You listen, laugh and share with one another in ways that amaze me. When the young Israelis join our group, you embrace them and make them feel like part of our family.

I look at you and see boundless talent. You have so much talent! I’m blown away by the music that you play, the songs and stories that you compose, your drawings and sketches, photographs and videos.

I look at you and see joy. Things don’t always go as planned on our trips. We’ve confronted everything from snowstorms to sandstorms and from stomach bugs to strep throat, but you remain unfailingly optimistic and enthusiastic.

There isn’t a single day that goes by when your jokes and exploits don’t make me laugh until my stomach hurts.

I look at you and see a thirst for knowledge. You want to understand your history and your heritage. You want to know what Judaism has to say about life’s greatest questions – who am I, why am I here and what principles should guide my life. You think deeply. You refuse to accept simple answers. Your curiosity is boundless and your desire to search for answers inspiring.

I look at you and see the depth of your compassion. When we visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, your heart grows heavy with anguish. When we walk along the rows and rows of cemeteries on Har Herzl, you are weighed down by the heavy price that we are forced to pay for a strong and secure State of Israel.

Friends, I think about your courage, warmth, talent, joy, curiosity and compassion and I know that the future of the Jewish people is strong and vibrant. We have gone on a great adventure together and I hope that it has made you see that you are a part of a remarkable nation that is forever tied to an extraordinary state.

The author is the director of speechwriting at the Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations. Since 2008, she has volunteered to staff 12 Birthright trips.

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