Over the years, I have met countless people who have traveled to Israel on Birthright, claiming that the experience “changed their life”. I was always struck with confusion at remarks such as this because I could not grasp how a trip could change the course of a person’s life. However, having just experienced Birthright for myself, I can confirm that the claim that it’s “life changing” is not a hoax; it most certainly changed mine.
I am not a religious person, but I have always held Judaism close to me being that my grandfather is a Holocaust survivor. Further, I dreamed of visiting Israel, but my parents were understandably resistant due to their fears of terror in the country. So when I finally somehow convinced them to let me apply for Birthright, and later got accepted to a trip, I was extremely nervous; not only because I knew absolutely no one in my group, but also I was fearful for the same reason as my parents. However, after a 10-day trip, I not only learned about the history of Israel and Judaism, but I learned a lot about myself; some messages that I will carry with me for the rest of my life:
1. Israel is not as scary as the media makes it out to be. I expected to enter the country with armed security everywhere to make sure no one got blown up. I expected to see a look of fear in citizen’s eyes. I expected to feel unsafe. But this was not nearly the case; in fact, I felt safer walking through the streets of Jerusalem at night than those of New York City.
2. You don’t have to be religious to be a good Jew. Through the trip I began to realize that Judaism is more of a culture than a religion. My favorite moments were not the touristy stops at the Dead Sea or the Western Wall, but rather when my group and I were dancing and singing to Jewish music experiencing pure happiness.
3. It doesn’t take years to make good friends. I was truly amazed by how close I became with people by the end of a 10-day trip. I guess this was because we had something stronger than time, and that was experiencing Israel and exploring something as powerful as Judaism together. It was like being placed on an adventure with people who are all so similar to you; you can’t help but become like a family.
4. Kabbalah is an amazing concept that I had no idea even existed. Who knew that there was a mystical sect of Judaism that believed in giving back to the community more than you keep? People who practice Kabbalah rely on the goodness of others to help if they are at a loss, so to them it is not really a loss to give to those in need. Although unfortunately I don’t see this lifestyle as realistic, I think it’s pretty awesome that there are people out there that do.
Overall, I learned that I am so blessed to have been born into such a beautiful community called Judaism, and that I have not really taken advantage of it. Birthright has opened my eyes to the person I have the potential to be, to the culture I look forward to embracing, and to the beautiful country that I am no longer afraid of, but rather am anxious to return to.