Birthright Israel by Zoe Stein '17

In June, I participated in Taglit Birthright Israel, a program that sends Jewish young adults to Israel for ten days and reunites them with their Jewish heritage. I went on a trip sponsored by Hillel, so my peers were college students, recent graduates, and six Israeli soldiers who were around my age.

Each Hillel Birthright group heard a speech by Avraham Infeld, former president of Hillel International. Throughout the rest of the trip, I kept Avraham's words in mind. He described the "five legs of the table" which are memory, family, the three commitments at Mount Sanai, the state and the land of Israel, and the Hebrew language. Avraham said as long as each Jew relates to three legs of the table, (s)he will have something in common with every Jew (s)he meets. The three legs I related to most on the trip were memory, family, and the land and the state of Israel.

The first leg of the table, memory, was most prominent when we visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, and Mount Herzl, the national cemetery. Yad Vashem is designed like a tunnel that is deepest and darkest in the middle, during the worst times of the Holocaust. One end represents Jewish culture in Europe beforehand, and the other end overlooks Jerusalem. Mount Herzl is where Israeli soldiers and citizens who died fighting for Israel are buried, as well as prime ministers, presidents, and other important political figures. As Avraham Infeld says, "History means knowing what happened in the past. Memory means asking how what happened in the past influences me, and my life today". Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl help us remember Jewish history in a personal way and reflect on how it influences our lives.

The second leg, family, was noticed during our visits to Jerusalem and Masada. Walking through the Old City of Jerusalem, we passed by a Bar Mitzvah celebration. The boy was being carried around in a chair, surrounded by people dancing and singing. As they marched through the street, more and more people joined in, including the 40 Americans on my trip. As we climbed Masada, we witnessed another Bar Mitzvah. We saw the boy saying the blessing over the Torah in the oldest synagogue on top of the mountain, surrounded by five or six other men. Then, some members of our trip decided to learn the blessings and have their Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies at Masada. "The essence of our Jewishness is being a family", says Avraham Infeld. This held true as the boy in Jerusalem celebrated with any Jew who passed by him as well as when my peers decided to share their ceremonies with people they had only known for a week, but considered family.

I most noticed the third leg, the state and the land of Israel, when we visited Independence Hall and the Negev. At Independence Hall, we heard the recording of David Ben Gurion reading the Proclamation of Independence. We sat in the same room he originally delivered the speech, and learned the ceremony was put together in one day and held in the basement of an art museum because they were afraid of being attacked. After hearing the Proclamation of Independence, we stood and sang Hatikvah, the national anthem, along with the recording of the people who were there on Independence Day. "You do not arrive in Israel as a tourist. You come to Israel to explore your soul, and to meet the place that converted your family from refugees to those who will never again lack a homeland" (Avraham Infeld). Hearing the Proclamation of Independence and speaking with Israeli citizens showed me why the state of Israel is important to Judaism. The reason Israel feels like a home to me is because I am surrounded by other Jews, Hebrew, and despite the conflicts, I felt safe. The Negev is where I felt a connection to the land of Israel. Sitting in the desert and staring at the night sky, I was reminded of Abraham being told his descendants would be as many as stars in the sky and grains of sand on the seashore (Genesis 22:17). I found it amazing that after years of diaspora and assimilation, millions of Jews have returned to the land of Israel or feel a connection to it.

Visiting Israel on Birthright gave me a chance to reflect on my Jewish heritage and relate to three legs of the table, memory, family, and Israel. I am happy to say that as a member of Hillel, I see people relating to all five legs.