Venturing to Israel with Taglit-Birthright was a truly amazing privilege. Having already been to Israel once before, I was looking forward to experiencing the Holy Land as a college student for the first time, and I was not disappointed. We were given opportunities to celebrate Shabbat with all of the other Birthright groups in Jerusalem, hold a B'nai Mitzvah for some of our group-mates, and see many of the historic and touristic sites-most notably the Western Wall. I spent more time at the Wall than anyone else in our group to observe the activities on the men's side.
On the men's side of the Western Wall is Wilson's Arch-a covered tunnel-like area with an Ark. Services are held there throughout the day, men in black hats and undershirts with tzitzit constantly funnel in and out, and the back wall is filled with old men sitting at desks and reading old books.
I grabbed a chair and watched everyone pray, much like the way I enjoy sitting in services at my own synagogue and listening to our cantor lead the congregation in prayer. While I sat, a young man, probably around my own age, stood just a few feet away from me-rocking back and forth in prayer, reading from an antique leather bound siddur, left arm and head wrapped in tefillin, and shoulders covered with a beautiful large black-striped wool tallit. He finished after I had already sat there for about ten minutes, removed his tallit and tefillin, put them into very heavily worn embroidered brown tallit and tefillin bags, placed those and his siddur into a laptop bag, threw on a black and orange striped Adidas jacket, and walked out of Wilson's Arch looking like any other modern 21-year-old Jerusalemite. At this point, I realized the balance of deeply religious and modern Israeli life in Israel.
I was fascinated by this casual transformation-one that can probably be seen hundreds of times per day from the seat I was sitting in. This image will surely stick with me as a representation of Israel's combination of deep history and 21st century life. Before seeing this, I never really associated the old bearded men who visit the wall every day with the young men walking around Israel with Adidas jackets and laptop bags, but now I understand the incredible ability of Israelis to find balance in their lives.
In the terrifying atmosphere that is today's Middle East, Israelis continue to not only persist, but also thrive as soldiers, great thinkers, and deeply religious people. Taglit-Birthright provided me the lens to realize how unique Israel and Israelis are and why it is of utmost importance that the nation continues to exist.
-Craig Shapiro, 15
I held back tears as I overlooked the city of Jerusalem. I was finally here, and I finally understood why I had come. About 40 other Jews and I had just finished dancing, singing, and shouting Shehecheyanu, the Jewish blessing of praise. Esther Abramowitz led us in the blessing, prefacing it by explaining why we were reciting it now and in this place. She explained that Shehecheyanu is said when you are doing something for the very first time and reminded us that this possibly was the first time that we, or anyone in our families, had ever been to Israel. What struck me most about this moment was the fact that I had SHOUTED a Jewish blessing in public and that I had felt comfortable doing so.
Caroline and her fellow Birthright friends dancing in Jerusalem. photo by Caroline Birdrow.
From my experience in the U.S., being Jewish is often perceived as exotic, strange, or even, in some cases, a sign of inferiority. I cannot count how many times I have told someone that I am Jewish and then heard in response, "I didn't know you were Jewish," or "You don't look Jewish." In the past, when I heard these words, I felt extreme frustration and asked, "How would I know what religion you practice?" and "What does a Jewish person even look like?" With the fear of having similar conversations in the future, I unknowingly began to treat my Jewish identity as a secret. Attempting to avoid confrontation or ignorance, I hid a part of myself that I was led to believe was not worth mentioning.
It was not until I celebrated my Jewish faith and heritage during my Birthright trip to Israel that I realized why Israel should really mean something to me. Here, I could be proud of calling myself a Jew. When I think back to my trip, this pride is my most significant take-away. From now on, when I interact with others, I want to be more open about my faith so that it comes as less of a surprise. I want to be more tolerant of the misled questions and blank statements. And most importantly, I want to cherish my Jewish identity and my newfound connection to the land of Israel.
-Caroline Birdrow '16
Going on Birthright was an amazing experience that I would recommend to anyone who has the opportunity! Although I didn't know anyone from my group, I can already tell that I made lifelong friends. I was able to go on a full tour through Israel and experience first-hand the country's history and people. My experience was also greatly enriched by the seven days we got to spend with Israeli soldiers, who helped give us their perspective on both amazingly heart-wrenching stories and great moments of friendship. The staff on my trip was awesome: they had great personalities and were very creative. Furthermore, they possessed a wealth of knowledge regarding the history of Israel, as well as general good tips for our travels. I could not ask for a better experience if I tried. It was breathtaking.
David, pictured here on top of Masada. photo by David Pody.
-David Pody, VMI '17
]I signed up for Birthright because it was a free trip to Israel-something that I couldn't really defend not taking advantage of. As a reform Jew with minimal religious involvement, I expected to be pressured to become "more Jewish," assuming that the underlying purpose of Birthright was to get kids like me to have a religious epiphany and become more devout followers of Judaism. That being said- it was a free trip to Israel, so I figured I could handle a little religious prying in order to see places like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
Birthright is not about learning to love Judaism; it's about learning to love Israel. I was surprised to see that I felt no pressure to become more Jewish on the trip. However, I was more surprised to find that after ten days in Israel with 40 random people, I had absolutely no desire to go home.
Drew and his Birthright group. Photo courtesy of Drew Weprinsky.
In one word, my birthright trip was amazing. Our group of 40 students (3 from W&L and the rest largely from Temple University) became a tight knit family. We went on breathtaking hikes, saw historic sites, and floated in the Dead Sea together. We ate authentic Israeli food, bargained in local markets, and experienced Israeli nightlife. We camped in the desert, rode Jeeps through the countryside, and attempted to ride camels (long story). We became best friends with the Israeli soldiers who accompanied us and learned firsthand about their experiences and culture.
We did more in ten days than I thought was possible. But more than anything, we had an unbelievable amount of fun. After ten days, I returned to America with a newfound love for Israel, and 40 amazing new friends.
Drew and his sister, Victoria Weprinsky UVA ‘17 on top of Masada. Photo courtesy of Drew Weprinsky.
To anyone who has the opportunity to go on a birthright trip, I will say this: do it.
-Drew Weprinsky '15