The noise is deafening and the chaos is unbelievable as hundreds of college students try to find each other in a crowded, post-New Year’s bedlam. Passports are checked, name badges are given, and the security line is crawling. The excitement in the air is palpable. These students are traveling to Israel, most of them for the very first time, on a tiny little program called Birthright.
Ice breakers and orientation. These kids are not going to sleep tonight until they know everyone’s names. The flight was long, even with the yoga sessions in the back of the plane. We get our luggage, meet our amazing tour guide, and hop on the bus, our new home for the next 10 days. The bus is a magical place on Birthright, an opportunity to both foster a family atmosphere and delve into some deep topics in an organic way. I rarely sit on the bus; I travel to each row, talking to students and answering their questions, on topics from Israeli politics to feminism in Judaism. I join games, give advice, pass out candy and water bottles. As our bus climbs north, our seasoned guide, Meir, tells us about the landscape outside of the window. We clamber out of the bus and marvel at the Roman aqueduct jutting out of the beach along Mediterranean Sea in Caesarea, and toast (with grape juice) the new experience we are about to share.
There is an electric current in the air today despite the exhaustion of the students. I watch them survey the spitting waves and dash in and out of the arches of the aqueduct, putting their arms around people that were strangers just 24 hours ago to pose for selfies. I just keep thinking, they have no idea what is about to happen to them.
We make our way further north, finally arriving at our hotel. After getting settled, we experience our first Israeli dinner. The hotel buffets in Israel are legendary, and the students pile their plates high, talking and laughing. We get to know each other by getting into age order, height order, alphabetical order, learning each other’s names as we go. Finally, we all head to sleep, exhausted from all the wonder and travel.
After an extensive Israeli breakfast, we board the bus for another day of seeing the land of Israel. We started off our day with a stunning hike to the Banias Waterfall. We slogged through the muddy trail along the river to the gorgeous Falls and then headed up the suspended trail with the rushing water below us. These hikes also provide perfect opportunities to get to know our program participants — music, politics, career choices, and Jewish backgrounds were all discussed as we marched through the terrain.
Our next stop overlooked the Syrian border, where we spent time learning about the civil war in Syria and the history of the conflict with Syria and Israel. To understand the conflict while actually seeing the physical places we had been hearing about for so long was extremely powerful. The questions flowed, and Meir fielded them all like a pro as we shivered in the cold mountain air.
We then made our way to the ancient Talmudic village of Katzrin, where we toured some of the ruins and learned about the history in a unique and entertaining way. Once we had experienced the ancient village, we then drove just a few minutes away to the modern village of Katzrin, where a family welcomed us into their home and talked to us about their experience moving to Israel, life in Israel, and played us beautiful music and fed us delicious treats.
Our final activity for the day was preparing for the arrival of some very special people who would be joining our trip the next day — eight Israeli soldiers! Birthright has an amazing program where Israeli soldiers join the trip for the middle five days — as participants. It is one of the most powerful parts of the Birthright experience. They are the same age as the participants, yet instead of pledging fraternities and sororities these young men and women are in the army, putting their lives on the line daily.
We broke up into small groups to talk about stereotypes of Israelis and Americans to prepare for the arrival of our soldiers, and created posters depicting these classic stereotypes.
We greeted the Israelis with a lot of energy and excitement, as the soldiers boarded the bus individually amid cheers, with the “Rocky” theme song blasting as loud as the bus speakers would allow. They ran through the bus, exchanging high-fives with Americans who would be their best friends within the next 24 hours. To get to know them, we “speed-dated” the soldiers and learned that we were a lot more similar than any of us would have realized, from television and music, to education and families. We solidified our new relationships as we jumped onto jeeps to explore the countryside, including twists, turns, and dust.
We then headed to the mystical city of Tzfat. We had a brief intro to the city, then of course, went right to lunch at an amazing Yemenite restaurant. Then, of course, we shopped, with most of us descending upon the artists’ colony, selflessly supporting the local economy (I tell parents not to worry, since after 11 trips, I get a lot of discounts).
We then went to visit some of Tzfat’s iconic sites, including the incredible candle factory and a beautiful synagogue from the 16th century, where we discussed the synagogue’s history and ideas introduced by the synagogue’s founder, Rabbi Yosef Caro.
Our final stop in Tzfat was the studio of kabbalist and artist Avraham Leventhal. Avraham spoke about how he connected to his Jewish identity through Kabbalah and explained the meaning behind several of his paintings. He inspired many of us to think about our spiritual selves through his incredible story and artwork.
We then switched gears and made a special stop at Nimrod’s Overlook in Rosh Pina. The overlook was dedicated by the father of a gifted young man who was killed in the Second Lebanon War in 2006. We were extremely privileged to meet Nimrod’s father and learn about this young hero.
By Devora Jaye