I never get tired of saying that every Israel experience is special— each one meaningful in its own way. Whether it’s with a Birthright trip, bar or bat mitzvah, a Federation mission, or any other means of visiting—a trip to Israel is unique among all other travel destinations.
Beyond special, however— beyond unique or meaningful—is the first time one visits Israel; the first time one experiences the Jewish state; the first time you come home from Israel and feel a sense of other-worldliness, simply because the candy wrappers on the ground in the parking lot of the airport are written in English, and not in Hebrew. Who would think that something as humble and ubiquitous as a candy wrapper would cause that kind of inner turmoil? After all, what’s the difference between a Milky Way and a Mekupelet? Yes, it’s chocolate, but it’s more, because the Mekupelet (with its Hebrew writing on the wrapper is our chocolate—made in Israel—made in our home). My children used to request that I bring home chocolate from Israel with each trip I made. They even called it “the land of milk chocolate and honey!” I guess it just tastes better. But I digress.
My friend and colleague Hal Sacks (of blessed memory) used to tell me: “The only thing more powerful than seeing Israel for the first time is seeing it through the eyes of a first timer.” And Hal was right. I’ve had the great fortune of visiting Israel many times during the past 20 years, and each time I’ve gone with a first timer, I’ve appreciated Hal’s observation more and more. Through the eyes, ears, and senses of a first timer, I’ve gotten to re-live the feel of touching the sun warmed stones of the Kotel— connecting me with thousands of years of Jewish struggle and joy. I’ve been able to re-experience dipping my toes into the cool swirling waters of the Dan River, knowing that those same waters which originate in the snow-capped Hermon Mountain, also cooled the feet of my ancient ancestors throughout history.
To see Israel with a first timer is to better appreciate the sights and smells of the spice market; to hear the voice of David Ben Gurion declaring the establishment “of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel” (while standing in the very room where the declaration was made 70 years ago). From the ancient to the modern…from hummus and falafel stands to gourmet, fusion, Michelin 3-starred restaurants…from vineyards in the Golan to experimental greenhouses in the desert… Israel is a masterpiece, but not a typical one.
Compare it to a fantastic book that you just can’t stop reading—a book that you absolutely love. But once you’ve finished it, you’re a little bit sad, because you know that you’ll never be able to read it again for the first time. Israel is different. It’s a book with many sequels and more being “written” every day. And if you want to see it again for the first time, all you have to do is go with a first timer!