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Homeland for the Taking: Birthright Israel

Young adults today aren't satisfied with a status quo existence. We want to find our true calling, and hopefully wealth and stability along the way. Unfortunately, real life isn't always conducive to finding the answers we seek. Immersed in this … Read More

By / May 13, 2008

Young adults today aren't satisfied with a status quo existence. We want to find our true calling, and hopefully wealth and stability along the way. Unfortunately, real life isn't always conducive to finding the answers we seek.

Immersed in this post-college struggle to find a meaningful and productive life, I found myself with a diverse group of other twenty-somethings on an Israel Experts Birthright trip. Some of us came simply for the free vacation; others hoped to trace their roots and culture to help them find what is "true" and "real." What we didn't expect was to find ourselves in a charged atmosphere of questioning minds, as fertile-and at times illuminating-as the desert that was made to bloom.

As it turned out, all of us were "seekers," which is a nice way of saying that we were a little bit lost. I called myself a writer, although writing barely supported my coffee addiction. Before we even checked baggage, I met a girl who had just lost her fashion job along with her boyfriend (who also happened to be her boss), an insurance adjuster who hated his work, and a medical student who was taking a year off to work on a farm in Florida.

Most of us had danced around the idea of a Birthright trip before, but avoided it for various reasons. Some thought it would be too much like propaganda. Others had never felt entirely comfortable in Jewish groups. Still others (or their parents) were afraid of ending up on the evening news. The fact that we were finally able to sign on to Birthright (and actually board the plane) was a testament to our development as individuals; we felt sure we could walk away with our authentic selves intact no matter what the trip threw at us.

Luckily, the trip didn't require us to exude a happy-go-lucky attitude. "All we want is for you to ask questions," Joe Perlov, our tour organizer said, the morning we arrived in Israel, exhausted. "I don't care if someone is miserable the whole time. In fact I hope someone is miserable the whole time."

Photo by Renee BlodgettJumping Off Haystacks

Our trip began with a visit to Kinneret Cemetery, the final resting place of the settlers of the first aliyah. Many found this the most inspiring part of the trip, largely due to our docent, Joel Goldman, who told us that his one wish for our group was not to give our kids bar mitzvahs or to marry another Jew. "I want each one of you to find that thing in life that makes you jump off your haystack in the morning," he said.

At a visit to Kibbutz Degania, I finally felt I understood what had made the settlers jump off their haystack. Having grown up in a Philadelphia suburb that was only two percent Jewish, I was deeply impressed by a place where Judaism united people, instead of being an indicator of difference. This was the Jewish community I had heard about, but never actually seen, and perhaps didn't even believe was actually possible until that moment. Not only did I see it actualized at Kibbutz Degania–and perhaps from the idealized perspective of an outsider–I watched our bus turn into its own close-knit Jewish community.

One girl who was half Jewish on her father's side, and who had hardly ever stepped foot in a synagogue, wrote to me last summer: "I tend to go through life feeling constantly judged by others and feeling that I need approval from them. On the trip, I always felt accepted. I got to escape into a surreal life that was the most memorable trip of my life."

Believing the Dream

In our liberal circles, we are often deprived of the opportunity to believe in anything whole-heartedly. My liberal arts education taught me that any distinct concept or idea will crumble under the scrutiny of too many questions. Birthright set an example where it was okay and even honorable to believe in the state of Israel, to adopt, so to speak, the settler's original dream.

When I returned home, I gave myself permission to act on my new love for Israel and other dreams I had lacked the bravery to carry through. I signed up for the WUJS Institute in Arad arts program, and soon was spending five more months in Israel, learning Hebrew and focusing on my passion, writing.

Of course, not everyone joined me on the plane back to Israel. One participant, Elizabeth, found that "being in Israel just makes me more certain that I want to live in New York." Birthright heightened our self-awareness and focus–but not according to an outside agenda. We each listened foremost to our own inner voice, whether we were being introduced to a holy site or discovering the person sitting next to us on the bus.

Perhaps, on a basic psychological level, my attraction to Israel is not so different from that of the original settlers. I recently found a quote by Chana Senesh, words she wrote shortly after her aliyah at age seventeen, describing how Zionism functioned in her life: "One needs something to believe in, something for which one has whole-hearted enthusiasm. One needs to feel that one's life has meaning, that one is needed in this world. Zionism fulfills that for me."

In Israel I found a source of pride that I can carry for the rest of my life–no matter what I end up doing.

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Art Credits: Jerusalem by Johnny Hornig. Girl on Haystack by Renee Blodgett, whose blog, Down the Avenue, chronicles her extensive travels.

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