I recently returned from leading my 38th Birthright Israel trip. Virginia-based students on this trip were from William and Mary, Christopher Newport University, and Old Dominion University.
Students always ask if the trip gets old for me. After all, we go to mostly the same places, see the same things, and just about keep the same itinerary. So, what makes the trips unique every season?
Each Birthright Israel trip starts with bonding programs, which bring students who do not know each other together and gives them a sense that for the next 10 days they are not coming from different places with differing backgrounds, but rather they are one family, trying to achieve the same goal. With 40 participants it is easy to see 40 different faces, but it is important for them to feel like they are one group and that their experiences are shared and common. One of the main goals of the trip, therefore, is to bond together 40 random Jewish people and help them see that there is the Jew and then there is the Jewish people. The trip is a microcosm of that. For the first time in many of their personal Jewish experiences, participants often feel like there is a larger purpose to being Jewish than their own isolated Jewish experience. By being in Israel, immersing in the experience, and being willing and open to see a different side of the Jewish experience, doors open that most students never knew existed. To me, seeing those doors open for 40 Jewish students is why I continue to lead these trips.
This past trip was also unique as we were in Israel during a difficult time. While we were safely traveling in the north, through central Israel and in the central Negev regions, kites were burning acres of Jewish land and our brothers and sisters in the IDF were in harm’s way. While we were dancing at the Western Wall, learning about our ancient past in our ancient homeland, riots were taking place on the Gaza border. While we were hiking Ein Gedi, climbing Massada, and overlooking Mitzpeh Ramon, terrorists were trying to dig tunnels or cut through a border fence. For American students who have never experienced an existential threat at home, this was very disconcerting.
One of the experiences of Birthright Israel is to spend some of the trip with Israelis who are the same age as the students. For Americans to spend seven days with eight Israelis who are 18–22 years old, can be very inspiring. While most of our American students are enjoying campus life, going to parties and football games, and building their social lives, many young Israeli adults are carrying weapons, walking borders, jumping out of planes, or stopping incendiary kites. They are saving Jewish lives. Lessons learned from taking personal responsibility for a country at age 18 or 19 are invaluable.
Students also met young Jewish adults who have committed themselves to Torah study. This is also a foreign concept to most of our youth. Why would someone devote years of their lives to studying ancient wisdom? Why would hundreds of thousands of young men and women devote their formative years to the study of our people and our traditions? Stopping on the side of the road and seeing a tank with Jews praying around it or stopping at a local grocery store and being asked to join an afternoon service in the meat section is not something that happens in America. But in Israel, when Judaism is life, and the land is your heritage, the Jewish experience shifts. It is that shift that all Jews need to experience.
Birthright participants experience Jewish learning, insights in to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and hiking throughout Israel, all of which build a deep and personal love for the land, and much more.
The students who travel with me to Israel return to campus invigorated and hopefully ready to lead others. From Israel advocacy to Jewish learning and personal growth, this trip helps today’s Jewish student become tomorrow’s Jewish leader. My hope and prayer is that all of the students who travel with me will pay it forward to others and carry the lessons they learned with them.
Any young Jewish adult who wants an Israel experience is encouraged to contact me as I am more than happy to help them get to or back to Israel if they have already been.
Rabbi Gershon Litt is an adjunct professor at CNU, rabbi at Adath Jeshurun Synagogue, director of the Hillels at William and Mary, CNU, and ODU, and rabbi of the Commodore Levy Chapel at Naval Station Norfolk.
– Rabbi Gershon Litt