Birthright goes military

The members of this group hail from a different background than the usual participants

Birthright soldiers 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Birthright soldiers 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Birthright trips are always moving experiences for the participants, as they come face to face with (at least some of) the reality of this country for the first time. This is generally quite an eye-opener for the youngsters, and often fundamentally changes their view of Israel, after making do with generally negative news coverage of events here, as well as probably hearing all kinds of stories from friends and relatives.
But many of the members of the Birthright group that spent 10 days in Israel a couple of weeks ago had a better handle on one aspect of everyday Israeli life. Most youngsters who come over here have never encountered military personnel so, for instance, seeing soldiers walking around the city streets with M-16s on their backs might be intriguing, or even startling for them. Elliot Joseph had no such problems.
OREGON-BORN, 26-year-old Joseph has probably seen as much military action as some of our top combat troops. He is a sergeant in the US Marines and has been in the US Army for the past seven and a half years. He has done tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike most Birthright participants, he has been to Israel before, but was allowed to come on the trip in order to gain a different perspective on life here.
He actually heard about the program while on his previous trip here.
“I was in Israel last June, for three weeks, and people said to me: ‘you must be on Birthright,’ but I had no idea what they were talking about,” he says. “I actually had heard about it but I thought it was only for very young people, you know, college students.”
But Joseph eventually found a way to make it work, and came back with a bunch of other youngsters making their debut here.
Joseph is not only one of the more experienced Birthright participants in a military sense, he has also seen quite a lot of the world.
“I have been to over 20 countries, but Israel is definitely my favorite place,” he declares. “Tel Aviv is the best place in the world, especially on a sunny winter’s day,” he adds with a laugh.
Besides soaking up some rays, and getting ferried around the country, Joseph’s trip here also forms part of a personal back-to-roots continuum.
“I recently rediscovered my Jewish roots,” he says. “My father comes from a Jewish family but everyone has sort of married out or assimilated.”
The other side of the family is far from being Jewish.
“My mother is Christian, she is a pastor,” says Joseph, although adding that he was aware of his Jewishness. “I was told I was Jewish, although I come from a Christian home,” he notes.
Joseph is a serious young man and, several years ago, he decided to do something about the Jewish side of his genetic baggage.
“I am going through an Orthodox conversion process right now,” he says. “I love my parents, and we have a very close relationship, but this was something I had to choose for myself.”
His epiphany occurred seven years ago when he overseas.
“It was when I was serving in Iraq, and I suddenly realized that I couldn’t live with a religion which I did not believe was true, Christianity. I just didn’t believe in Jesus. I always tried to feel something [for Christianity], but the more and more I studied about Judaism, just the basic stuff, the more I fell in love with it. This path has been amazing.”
His decision to upgrade his path back to Judaism received a nudge – actually more of a push – in the right direction while he was on active duty in Afghanistan.
“Our vehicle got blown up one day,” Joseph recalls. “I had had my head up, outside the vehicle, to tell people where to go, and I had just sat down when the explosion happened. It would have taken my head off, if I’d still been standing up. I was injured and, while I was waiting to be taken out of there, I kept thinking that if I had died, at that stage my parents didn’t know I was considering undergoing conversion and they wouldn’t have known how or where to bury me. My dog tags say I’m Jewish but then the [army] rabbis wouldn’t do my service because I wasn’t Jewish. That really made me finally decide to do something about becoming Jewish.”
Being here has enhanced Joseph’s bond with his newly found roots.
“Visiting Israel, I can’t imagine that 200 years ago there was nothing here, and so many people have sacrificed so much to make this country happen,” he observes. “I don’t understand people who forget about that.”
He adds that the Birthright trip has given him greater insight into what makes this country tick.
“The first visit was great but I wanted to get back here and meet people, and get to know something about the people who live here,” he says.
ANTONELLA BINER, 25, is currently in the Canadian army as a dentist.
Like Joseph, her trip is also part of her quest to renew her ties with her Jewish roots.
“My family comes from the Soviet Union and they couldn’t really practice Judaism openly there,” she explains. “And when they came to Canada they didn’t really know what to do [about their Judaism] because they weren’t used to being open about it.”
When Biner got married, however, she found an outlet for her religious leanings.
“My husband’s family is pretty religious,” she says, “and they sort of took me in and showed me the ropes, but I still felt I knew so little.”
The Birthright trip offered a way for Biner to expand her Jewish horizons.
“I thought I should come to Israel and find some things out for myself, and piece some of the Jewish things together,” she says. “My husband came here a few years ago, so I wanted to come here too.”
We met up in Tel Aviv on the group’s last day here, and Biner said the trip had been everything she’d hoped for, and more.
“It’s been a real eye-opener for me. I loved being on the Golan Heights. I love nature and cycling, and being out in the open, so that was perfect for me. I wanted to meet and talk to Israeli soldiers – which I did here – and that was wonderful. I was very impressed by them.”
For Biner, it was also an opportunity to check out the reality of what she’d been exposed to in the media.
“I saw things like the security wall, and how close things are, which you don’t get on TV,” she continues. “We also went to the Old City, mostly just the Jewish Quarter and, of course, the Western Wall. That was a very heartening moment.”
NICK RABINOVICH is a former US Marine, and saw plenty of action during his years in the service, which included a couple of tours of duty in Afghanistan. His Birthright experience, he says, has strengthened his wish to make aliya.
“Both my sets of grandparents are Holocaust survivors, and they have some pretty amazing stories,” says Rabinovich. “My grandfather, who died just before I went to Afghanistan, was a partisan in Russia, but he didn’t like talking too much about his wartime experiences.”
Rabinovich says that coming here was a natural step for him.
“I had a lot of reasons for coming to Israel, and I would have come sooner if I hadn’t been in the US Army. My sister was on Birthright and I have an uncle who lives in Israel. I’m going to extend my stay here by five days, to spend some time with him.”
Rabinovich says his 10 days here were a life-changing experience.
“Being in the military I didn’t have much time to think about religion, and about God, but coming here, and going to Western Wall – that was extremely overwhelming, but it was a reminder that God is there and that He’s protecting me.”
For now, Rabinovich has applied for a position with the New Jersey Police Department, but he says that if that doesn’t work out, he’ll be back here soon, probably to live.
“I am sure I will end up making aliya, and I know I will manage here,” he declares. “I am definitely ready to face the challenges of life here, and I don’t think it will even be that hard. I feel welcome here.”
NEW YORK resident Eugene “Max” Kozlovsky spent four years in the US Air Force and says he had been wanting to come here for a while.
“My father came from the Ukraine and he suffered from persecution over there, as a Jew, when it was still the USSR. He actually came here for a few months, after leaving the Soviet Union, and also tried living in Italy, but he eventually settled in New York. I joined him there when I was 10.”
Kozlovsky says he was delighted to follow his dad here, and says he is leaving Israel wiser and better informed.
“It has been an enlightening experience for me over the past 10 days, going to the Golan Heights, and Jerusalem, and kibbutzim.
It makes me feel as if I have been in a dreamland here, but also very real too. Sometimes I felt I had to pinch myself to see whether it was real.”