Birthright Israel Mariel Pearl '15

Over winter break I was fortunate enough to have the chance of a lifetime: a free trip to Israel. While all my friends were at home resting, I journeyed around Israel with 40 new friends. Never was our Taglit group called "tourists." Instead we were welcomed with warm arms. Birthright Israel is a not-for-profit organization that sends Jewish students between the ages of 18 and 26 to Israel for 10 days. There is a wide range of programs available for Jewish adults from cooking themed trips to outdoor adventures. I chose Go Kesher, a Reform Taglit-Birthright trip focused around the idea of a connection to Israel. For many people in the group, including myself, this was the most diverse group of Jewish people my age I had been around.

I have always identified with Judaism. I only have fond memories when I think of the years I spent in temple through Hebrew school, training for my bat mitzvah and serving on my senior youth group in high school. Israel was always a word I associated with Judaism but I never imagined myself having the connection I now do to the country. In general I consider myself a "modern Jew" which is a term I use loosely to describe my interest in meeting and learning about my history and religion and my reformed dedication to the Torah. I was not sure how college would play into my Jewish experience. When W&L's Hillel organized a Birthright trip my first year I realized that Taglit was the natural next step in my Jewish learning. When I found out I would be going this year I was understandably excited, but at the same time, I did not know what to expect. Knowing the mission of Taglit-Birthright I expected to get some sort of Israeli propaganda that promotes the country to my generation. After completing the trip I do feel a much stronger connection to my religion but that connection was entirely mine, and talking to the participants in my group, each of our connections could not have been more different.

There are plenty of memorable moments of the trip but a select few make me want to travel back to Israel. My favorite part of my birthright experience was meeting five Israeli soldiers and having them accompany us as we toured Israel. Hearing different perspectives on the recent wars and peace treaties, I saw Israel's history through their eyes, which really was a one of a kind experience. I immediately bonded with a soldier named Hadar who I consider to be like myself in every way-we like the same music, fashion, and celebrities-except for the fact I am currently in college and she, although the same age, is an Israeli soldier. I guess I went into the program expecting to meet Israelis that were super religious and went to temple religiously. In my mind I had associated Israelis with a higher connection to the religion because of their geography but through the trip I learned your Jewish experience is what you want it to be. Although I do not keep kosher or go to an orthodox temple, I am very connected to my religion and heritage. I learned a lot about myself through my week trip. One of our evening activities was to debate what it means to be Jewish. The adjective "Jewish" is one that I use frequently to describe myself but it wasn't until the activity that I really delved into what I would consider being "Jewish" to be.

Describing my 10-day Birthright trip in one short article is nearly impossible. I could spend hours talking about the Bedouin Tent, Dead Sea or our crack of dawn visit to Masada. Even if you have no connection to a religion, Israel is a moving experience with the sheer amount of history packed into such a small country. I now feel a much stronger connection to Judaism and hope to go back to Israel soon.