What started as passive social activity quickly grew into active philanthropic activity and Jewish community building. When I got the call to lead a Birthright Israel trip almost exactly one year after I had taken my original trip, I was extremely excited.  I was especially delighted to find out that I would be paired with the same tour guide as I had on my first journey to Israel, who I admired very much.  At this point, I consider Saar Sapir the brother I never had. 

To tell the truth, I was a little nervous, but without a doubt, chomping at the bit for the opportunity to lead. Since my return from Israel, I had gone into my community and gotten involved and I wanted to spur others to do the same. I wanted to feel pride as my participants decided to extend their trips because they didn’t want the journey to end. I wanted to be a part of the reason that someone would make Aliyah. I wanted to see their faces change as they realized that they were rich (in community and culture) all along, they just hadn’t known it, and most importantly, that they were not alone. I wanted to serve my people.

Now comes the important part: Why? Judaism is a culture and value system Israel is a historical homeland, not just a biblical one. We have a home! What a novel concept. Show a lonely Jewish boy a family he never knew he had, a family that would accept him, love him, and even pay for him to return to his homeland, and low and behold, a true connection was born. Not a connection that concerned learning about ancient letters but only studying their absolute surface in their sounds or the pursuit of a few thousand dollars at the end of a Bar Mitzvah which was more or less the cost to be a member of the congregation over the course of time it would take to complete Hebrew school anyway. I think it is important to put out there that I did get many things out of Hebrew School and my Bar-Mitzvah, but it’s the level of connection that is so different.

They may have declared, “Now, you are a man,” but what privileges does one really gain at the age of thirteen? I became a man on Birthright Israel. As I broke bread with incredible Israeli men and women my age, who smiled infectiously and had a seemingly endless supply of good humor, both intentional and unintentional (Israeli accents are pretty funny), I realized that these people are the same as I am, they are people who have goals and aspirations in Information Technology or History or Engineering or Music. People who were just as susceptible to heartbreak as they were to loves unexpected infatuations. Most importantly, they are people who love their families and friends, who want to travel the world after service, all the time knowing that they would never be able to permanently leave Israel because it is their true home.

However, there is still the other part of today’s average Israeli. They accept their mandatory service to their country as part of the privilege of having a home in the holy land. They want to protect their Israeli brothers and sisters as their own brothers and sisters want to protect them. They don’t whine and complain, because they learn at an early age that the lives they lead are fleeting and their precious home could be taken from them at any time. That they would literally rather commit suicide then be taken hostage, for the simple fact that they see what has happened to Gilad Shalit and don’t want to burden the country or put someone else’s life in danger.

When talking about Gilad, it is important to create a frame of reference. Fact: Israel once exchanged about 200 known terrorists imprisoned within their borders for two soldiers. What is interesting about this was that these two soldiers, who were worth so many live terrorists, were human beings, Israeli, and tragically, already dead.

Right now, Gilad Shalit is being held hostage. What is the value of a live Israeli Defens eForce soldier? Try about one thousand live POWs. But not just any POWs, specific POWs. You might think this is crazy. What’s even more insane is that Israel has been seriously considering it, attempting to negotiate for poor Gilad as citizens plaster posters claiming that “Gilad IS Alive” (the last proof of life was about a year ago at the time of this writing.) His parents put a tent in front of the Prime Ministers house for Israelis to pray and hope and to comfort his agonized mother and father. It is located in Jerusalem and is always well attended.

You would think that one soldier would be a standard cost of war, that the chances of meeting the family of this soldier who had become world famous for all the wrong reasons were remote. Well, we walked by the tent on Shabat, and there his father was. Solemn, in a warm one-piece head to toe jacket that looked like it came from a coal mine. The silence of our group was audible. After waiting a bit for everyone to pass, I hugged him and told him he wasn’t alone, that we are praying for Gilad in America. Over his shoulder, I saw a seat that said, “Reserved for Gilad Shalit” amongst the others positioned for visitors who wanted to pray or cry or just show solidarity. Shmah Yisrael

(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 jason@universalrealtycorp.com and I would be happy to help. Special thanks to Sachlav www.israelonthehouse.com)