Taglit Birthright Israel is a movement that is changing the Jewish world. Having sent over 350,000 young adults to our homeland, it is part of a larger paradigm shift that has radically changed the way that Jews view community building.
To see where Birthright Israel is succeeding, we must first consider how previous efforts have failed. We can sum this up by analyzing the rite of passage that occurs when one becomes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Our parents and our Hebrew school teachers taught us that if we learned our aleph bet and memorized the undulations of our haftorah and torah portions, we would be able to complete our holy task on the bima with ease and become a man or woman.
Except then they bribed us with cash. And they made us go to school for three additional hours after we had already attended school for eight hours that day, two or three times a week. And we learned some basic midrash. And we studied the Holocaust. Hitler and his Holocaust. The horrible, terrifying Holocaust, which we must never forget.
But how could one ever dream of forgetting it? To a young Jew, it seemed the only thing relevant to Judaism besides learning how to sound out words without knowing what they meant was the holocaust. I loved reading Night by Eli Weisel. I felt reverence for my ancestors, but I often wondered, is this all that Judaism stands for? A strange hocking language where our elders didn’t feel it important to teach us what the words we recited meant, only that we know how to pronounce them when they were presented to us in text? Or was it the tragedy that sapped our people of their strength that we must never forget? I remember singing Shmah Yisrael in prayer and loving the beautiful melody, but never once knowing what Shmah Yisrael even meant.
I sit here on an Air Canada flight, returning from the pioneering city of Tel Aviv located in the heart of the land of milk and honey after just having lead a Birthright Israel trip. Forty of us departed Ben Gurion International Airport after 11 days of exploration in the holy land where, before our final bus ride to depart, we sat in a large circle in the Bar Mitzvah room of the Jerusalem Gate hotel as each person explained in their own way how the trip had exceeded their expectations in every shape and form. They had become tight knit. They had become brothers and sisters who took up for each other and acted selflessly.
Truth be told this is my second time making this journey. A year ago, I departed to Israel as a Taglit participant with Sachlav Israel on the House. By the end of the trip, I truly felt like my heart had been filled to bursting for the first time with something hard to explain. I couldn’t describe it and when I sat in that same circle and attempted to sum up how I felt, I stammered and made statements about sticking together and keeping the momentum that we had built. I didn’t have a clue what I was really talking about. I just didn’t want the feeling to end.
And it didn’t. The fire that was lit that day blazed furiously, and even when some friends that I had made didn’t stick around or didn’t make a point to keep the ties that had binded us in our homeland, I cherished those who remained active in my life and began searching for ways to replicate the passion I had felt. People I met on Taglit, more “Jewish” then I was before it, introduced me to Combined Jewish Philanthropies, a fancy name for the Boston Jewish Federation, and I was off to the races…
(To be continued in a series of blogs. If you are interested in participating in a Birthright Israel trip or just want more information, please email me at email@example.com and I would be happy to help. Special thanks to Sachlav www.israelonthehouse.com)