BY HEATHER BARR
This summer, I got to experience the opportunity of a lifetime. Thanks to the Israeli government as well as many private donators, Jewish young adults between the ages of 18-26 can go to Israel for free. The gift is called Taglit-Birthright Israel, Taglit meaning “discovery” in Hebrew, and the main purpose of the trip is to teach individuals about Israel, help them connect to Jewish values and traditions and to discover a deeper connection to their Jewish heritage. This is exactly what I did. I developed a much deeper understanding of not only Israel and Judaism, but also of myself thanks to Israel Free Spirit, one of Birthright’s many trip organizers. While the trip I chose departed from New York, the 40 people in my group came from all different parts of the country. What was most unique was that everyone came from varying Jewish backgrounds and while we all spent ten days together doing the same activities, everyone experienced Israel in a different way.
Birthright maximizes the ten days participants have in Israel by creating an extensive itinerary leaving out no major attraction and creating the best experience possible. With Israel Free Spirit, the trip began in the Northern part of Israel and we slowly made our way down the country. I would like to note that throughout the trip I did not once feel unsafe and the program does a fantastic job making sure we are not placed in any danger.
The trip began the moment we stepped off our ten-hour flight as we visited Caesarea almost immediately. For the first three nights we stayed in Tiberius where the hotel overlooked the Sea of Galilee. During our three days in the north we hiked the Golan Heights, toured the holy city of Tzfat, went to Mount Bental and were able to see the bordering country Syria and we went many other places in-between.
Towards the middle of the trip, we were introduced to eight Israeli Soldiers of the Israeli Defense Force that stayed with us for five days to show us what it is like to live in the country of Israel and they completely enhanced our trip. Our first day with them the group kayaked down the Jordan river and at night with we experienced the city of Tel Aviv, known for its nightlife.
Friday and Saturday were special as we headed to Jerusalem and that is where we celebrated shabbat. Some individuals on the trip never previously participated in shabbat services, including myself, and it was truly a moving experience. The group went to the Western Wall as the sun was setting Friday night and seeing the hundreds of people gathered in one place was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It was in that moment I felt strongly connected to Judaism for the first time and a major purpose of this trip was revealed to me. We spent several days in Jerusalem after shabbat where we walked through the Old City, visited Mount Herzl, a national military cemetery, and toured Vad Yashem, the largest Holocaust memorial and museum, to name a few activities.
One of the last days of the trip, the bus took us down to the south. We slept in a Bedouin tent, experienced a traditional Bedouin Hafla dinner and then sang songs and roasted marshmallows around a bonfire in the middle of the desert. The following day was our last full day and the word busy is an understatement. We began our morning at 5 a.m. riding camels, then we hiked Masada and celebrated as participants were given the option to have a bar/bat mitzvah on top of Masada. Following this activity, we went on one last hike, went under waterfalls and we ended the final full day floating and relaxing at the Dead Sea.
While I chose to name the well-known Israeli attractions the group visited and toured, the smaller activities are not to be forgotten. I went on this trip with two of my cousins, and left Israel with a much larger family. The experiences we shared are unforgettable and the connection I made within my group and in the country of Israel are indescribable. I was fortunate to have taken this wonderful opportunity and would absolutely recommend it to anyone eligible. Israel Free Spirit made the trip educational, fun and extraordinary, as I’m sure all the other Birthright trip organizers strive to do. Coming back home was difficult and unfortunately necessary, but I have no doubt in my mind that I will one day return to Israel and I have continued to keep in contact with my group. I return from this trip more knowledgable, spiritual and passionate regarding Israel and the Jewish religion. The Birthright program is nothing short of spectacular.