Four years ago, I boarded a plane to take a journey with Birthright Israel. I had very few expectations.
As a senior in college, the past President of a national Jewish sorority, and a member of the Chabad Student Board, I was confident in my Jewish identity. I was raised in a strong Jewish community, attended Hebrew School twice a week until my Bat Mitzvah, and celebrated the High Holidays with my extended family. I skipped class and fasted on Yom Kippur, ate matzah on Passover, and lit the Chanukah candles with my roommates. At the time, my Judaism revolved around traditions, family, friends, and food. I hadn’t given Israel much thought until I applied for Birthright Israel.
I can’t say I remember the exact moment our plane touched down at Ben Gurion Airport or my first step onto Israeli soil. What I do remember most about those ten days is when it all clicked for me and everything I had ever known about Judaism fell into place. It was in this moment that I realized why the Birthright Israel trip is truly a gift from the entire Jewish community, from one generation to the next.
It was our last day in Israel and we spent the afternoon exploring the Shuk in Jerusalem, taking pictures, purchasing last minute souvenirs, and stocking up on Marzipan rugalach. I knew I wanted to bring a piece of Israel home with me so that I could hold on to this experience every day. I decided on a hamsa keychain with Tefilat Haderech, the traveler’s prayer, inscribed on the back. As I handed the vendor the last of my shekels, he said to me, “Make sure you come back soon. You know this is your home.”
In those stranger’s words, my entire worldview of Judaism transformed.
I was not born in Israel, I do not hold an Israeli passport, and I don’t have any biological family in Israel. But, as this man told me, it is my home. In fact, even if I never return to Israel, it will still be my home.
I had never thought of Judaism as something intrinsically tied to Israel. That far away country in the Middle East had always been an abstract concept in my mind. I was Jewish and Israel was Israel, but the two were unrelated. Birthright Israel made me realize just how important the country is to me, to Judaism as a whole, and to the future of the Jewish people. Israel allows me to be a strong, proud Jew. It allows me to attend Rosh Hashanah services in New York, California, Wisconsin, or Italy. It gives me an innate connection to over twelve million people, the large majority of whom I’ve never met. It gives me the ability to find the comfort of home anywhere in the world.
This year, 50,000 young Jewish adults will board a plane to go on a journey with Birthright Israel. Like me, they’ll visit the Western Wall, explore the streets of Tel Aviv, go shopping in the Shuk, and eat endless amounts of hummus. They’ll have their own hamsa keychain moment and return home with their own story. They’ll recount this story, again and again. One day, they may even pass their story on to their children, to the next generation.
The author is a New York native, University of Wisconsin alumni, brunch enthusiast, hopeless romantic and gym junkie.
Birthright Israel is able to provide this extraordinary trip to each participant as a gift — with help from generous supporters. If you want to help young Jewish adults discover a deeply personal connection with their Jewish heritage and the state of Israel, please make a gift to Birthright Israel Foundation. When you give right now, your support will be TRIPLED thanks to a special matching gift campaign! Click here to learn more.