During this turbulent and important time in Israel’s history, I was given a phenomenal opportunity, along with my friend and colleague Leslie Strasser, to be part of an Israel experience.
Birthright Israel is a partnership of private philanthropists, the State of Israel and local Jewish Federations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. Young adults who have not had a previous “peer experience” trip to Israel are invited to go for free. The goal is help them connect to the Jewish world.
Our trip was designed as a tour of Israel —you know, the big, cushy, air conditioned bus that takes nine days on the ground and shows you all the major spots in the entire country. A way of sightseeing that was appealing to some of the participants and appalling to others. Nonetheless, everyone grinned and bore their 100-percent-free trip to Israel…real warriors!
The trip was nothing short of amazing! From our brazen bus driver to our very Zen medic/armed guard to our playful and sassy guide, our tour was interesting, fun, relevant and emotionally and intellectually challenging.
I faced my first challenge on the flight over before we even landed in Israel. Within a span of a few minutes, one stranger came to me nearly crying with joy that 40 of us were coming from so far away to see Israel at this trying time. A few minutes later, I overheard a cry: “I can’t believe your mothers let you come on this trip!”
One of the most important benefits of this trip to Israel was its power to bring people from many different places in their Jewish journey together. As a Jewish professional, finding people from these different backgrounds is often a challenge that ends in events, lectures and gatherings being filled by “the usual suspects.” Being free of charge, the trip was available to anyone who was able to take the time off from work. Including both people with very strong Jewish identities and connections to Israel, as well as those who (at the start of the trip, at least) felt nearly no connection to Judaism or Israel. Put people from all different ends of this particular spectrum together on one bus for 10 days and make them interact with each other, and the outcome is bound to be interesting.
Of course, we enjoyed the requisite float in the Dead Sea, jeep ride through the Golan Heights, dinner and camel ride in a Bedouin camp and overnight stay on a kibbutz. We also had an enlightening tour through the ancient city of Tzipori, a long walk to synagogue on Shabbat and a chance to lay tefillin in the Old city of Jerusalem. I was also impressed with our tour of Wadi Nisnas and the Arab-Jewish cultural center of Haifa.
As an employee of the Jewish Federation, visiting Kiryat Malachi (our Partnership 2000 city — an immigrant city with which Seattle has a deliberate philanthropic relationship) was important to me. Aside from sending money there, we are attempting to build real-life person-to-person relationships. So, when people from Seattle go to Israel, we send them to Kiryat Malachi to meet the residents and to see what the Jewish Federation supports. Conversely, we arrange opportunities for young adults from Kiryat Malachi to come to Seattle to be counselors at summer camps, or for their social workers to come and talk about their work in Israel.
During our trip to Har Herzl, the Israeli military cemetery, we saw the graves of those who fought in every war from the war of independence in 1948 to current military skirmishes. It was so powerful to see the Jews who came from all over the world in 1948 to be part of forging this important country. The most moving experience of this visit was to see everyone from 18-year- old ground soldiers to the most senior of generals buried in the same simple, beautiful way, showing that no life is more important than any other.
A little ways up the hill, we visited the double grave of Yitzhak and Leah Rabin. We heard excerpts from his last speech, given moments before he was assassinated, as well as pieces from the eulogy his granddaughter gave at his funeral. The emotion and pain felt about the Rabins was a good indicator of how close much of the country felt to peace immediately preceding his death — a stark contrast to how the country feels now.
This trip was an unbelievable gift to the 38 participants, as well as the Jewish community of Seattle. Thank you to Hillel at the University of Washington for organizing this adventure, Birthright Israel for funding this program and the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle for its commitment to assuring that young people are able to visit Israel.