By Hilary Weissman
Like most Jews of a certain age, I came back from my Birthright trip saying it was “amazing” and “impossible to describe.” You really did “just have to be there” to understand. However, upon my return from Taglit this past winter break, I launched right into my jam-packed college schedule. I had sorority recruitment, spring classes, and an online internship waiting for me. They left little time to increasing my observance of Shabbat. I honestly never got the impression that my Birthright experience was supposed to impose a sense of obligation to become a more observant Jew, which is so subjective in and of itself. While I keep in touch with some of the soldiers we met through Facebook and see the other students on campus, and I can now vicariously live through my parents’ anniversary plans to visit Israel in the fall, I have yet to make solid plans to return again beyond daydreams.
Shaul Kelner’s “Tours that Bind” got me thinking about my trip, and how my faith may have developed over the six months that followed it. In Kelner’s case study on the various Birthright trips he observed since it’s inception in 1997, the reader can detect a hint of incredulity and disappointment in the ignorance and shallow appreciation from many of the American and other non-Israeli participants. An assistant professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University, he dissects the relationships formed and then comments made, however misinformed or surprisingly pensive. Kelner seemed to conclude that all the horny teenagers wanted from the trip was booze and babes, two factors that were slightly more acceptable when a group of Jews were involved.
I developed a fervent appreciation for the land of Israel, its people, its modern culture juxtaposed by its rich yet tumultuous history, and its natural environment. The first half of the trip involved meeting Israeli soldiers and finding out they were the same as us, just facing far more harrowing obstacles day to day, and complaining far less than we do about it. But in their plain-clothes, you couldn’t tell them apart from the crowd of our tour group, especially when they swapped their authentic IDF shirts for our free university bookstore giveaway tees. Our conversations ranged from our favorite bands to our political outlook on military service. Our opinions of both hinted at the discrepancies of our upbringing, but also the similarities of our age. As we sat and listened, asking few questions, I was in awe of the pride, loyalty and patriotism that dripped from the pores of the IDF soldiers, something that was sorely missing from their American peers.
Our Outdoor Adventures tour let us experience the beauty and strength of the Golan Heights, the Negev desert, and all that lay in between to a more physical extent. Spiritually, our guide did not impose his own beliefs upon us, nor did he tell us how we should feel or what we should see. He admitted that he too was not strictly religious, but his faith and sense of belonging was clear. Most notably, before we got to visit the Western Wall, he told us “To some of you this may be a very powerful experience. You may cry. But to some of you it may just be a wall. And that’s OK too.” He gave us the comfort and freedom to just experience each moment without pressure or context.
And, just like Kelner in his book, our guide would often comment in light-hearted jest about our “stupid American-ness”. Kelner didn’t miss a “like” or an “um” among the tourist’s conversations about what the Birthright experience would entail, and our guide would often imitate our youthful colloquialisms. True to form, students took advantage of the lower drinking age, took a dip in the Jewish-mother-approved dating pool, and coveted the not-so-mother-approved IDF eye candy (Hey, it’s a two-way street). We hiked up Masada’s steps, we watched our feet come out from under us in the Dead Sea, we rode camels and slept in a Bedouin tent. The fact that we did this all together, after so many other young Jews had traveled the same path, allowed us to not just up our friend count on Facebook, but foster real connections that can last. It may not be the kind of faith that the State of Israel or Birthright’s founders envisioned originally, but it is a binding of spirits all the same.
It didn’t go unnoticed that all our guide wanted was for us to ask him questions. But after his lengthy tutorials about the various sites and historical backgrounds, like Kelner’s subjects we were often left staring, seemingly blankly ahead, but really I think we were just taking it all in. He often answered all the questions that I never would have thought to even ask. After trips to Yad Vashem, Mount Herzl, and Masada, we finally did come a bit alive in our abilities to communicate how these experiences made us feel. Perhaps that is all that the Israeli government could hope for from the young Jews who visit; to finally talk about, ask questions of, pay mind to the Jewish state that was created, the people who have fought for its right to exist, and why they continue to do so.
Netanyahu and The Jewish Agency have shown newfound conviction in bringing more and possibly younger Diaspora Jewish youth to Israel. They have such faith in the potential for our support and possible return, that they are putting millions where their mouths are. The JTA’s “Fundermentalist” reported that Netanyahu said, “A lot of people were skeptical that these things would grow and develop,” he said of programs such as Birthright and Masa, “but I think they have, and I think they’ve made a profound difference. They’ve connected an entire generation of young Jews to Israel at time when there are so many forces that are working to disconnect them from Israel.”
With new trips that may be open to high schoolers, along with scavenger-adventure trips that resemble reality TV shows like the Amazing Race, it seems that Birthright’s main concern is attracting new tourists, rather than raise funds for the program. They are trying to make a trip meant to pay tribute to a long history and tradition into something that is hipper, fresher, cooler than it already is. It’s hard to imagine that the original most-expenses-paid trip to the Homeland would be a hard sell.
So what did I take from my 10 days in Israel? Do I really feel more in tune with my Jewish roots? For one thing, I am interning here at Moment. However, I also fulfilled the promise to my mother that I wouldn’t come back married, engaged, or with plans to move away and never return. I may even be an example of Kelner’s doubt as to what the tourists actually take away from “the trip of entitlement” in a Jewish sense, but I like to think that I still gained an enlightened perspective that the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had hoped I, among many, would.