My 18-year-old sister, Shirel, recently returned from a Birthright trip and joined 7,500 alumni in the greater Los Angeles area. The all expense paid group excursion to the Holy Land, though widely shared, is still highly personal and for many, intensely spiritual. Here, in her own words, is Shirel’s experience:
Three days back from Israel and it already seems like forever. Today is uneventful and slow, at least compared to the last 10 days of the birthright trip I went on. I was so hesitant to go at first. I was scared that I wouldnât make friends or that it would be too hard away from home, my parents, and my boyfriend, but half an hour into the trip (at the airport) I knew that it couldnât possibly turn out to be a mistake. The vast majority of people were from Orange County, allowing them to share the same colleges, lifestyle and acquaintances, and I sometimes felt a little bit like an outsider being from Los Angeles. But being with 40 people for 10 days, it was impossible not to end up all mingling and having fun together. I walked out with four or five good friends that I hope to stay in touch with for a really long time.
The days were jam-packed with amazing things to do. We saw everything from the Golan Heights to the ancient city of Tzefat. Kayaking in the Jordan River was incredible and refreshing. Any chance we got to cool down from Israelâs summer heat, we did. We all took a dip. We visited independence hall, walked around Jaffa and got to explore the flea market independently. This was one of the best moments. For once I got to feel integrated with Israelis. I felt like I was on my own bargaining and living the lifestyle like everyone else, not feeling like a tourist.
We were joined by eight Israeli soldiers our age that traveled with us for a few days. We got to learn how they live and the cultural differences between Americans and Israelis. We floated in the Dead Sea, climbed Masada and slept in a Bedouin tent. At night things continued to heat up. We went to bars and night clubs. We drank, partied, created a stronger bond with each other and snapped away with our digital cameras. Once the sun rose we were back on the bus traveling to Jerusalem and getting ready for Shabbat services.
By far the best thing about this trip was finally seeing the Kotel (the western wall). At first I thought it would just be fun like everything else on the trip. We would go, I would put a note in the wall, touch it and snap a few photos. I was wrong. Of course, I did all that, but it wasnât like everything else on the trip. For me it was the most beautiful thing ever. The moment I touched the wall tears streamed down my face. I still canât explain why or what it was but it was just a feeling of someone being there with me. It was the closest I ever felt to God.
Being a group of 18-25-year-olds, sometimes it was hard not to feel like we were on MTVâs The Real World, but then again who wouldn’t want to be on that show? Itâs insanely difficult not to have a wonderful time on this trip. I not only had fun with people my age, and ate amazing food, but I also connected with Israel and Judaism more than ever. I got to see what we fought for, how important a land of our own is and how beautiful Israel truly is.