In 1979, a middle-aged woman, her husband, and two children boarded a plane departing Kiev to escape a communist regime in the Soviet Union as Jewish refugees. Uncertainty filled their minds as they made their way to a more accepting life in the United States as Jews.
That unassuming woman, my babushka (grandmother) once again recalled the last time she fled Ukraine as a small girl on a train to escape the Nazis and wait out the war in the frozen land of Siberia.
For 5 long years, my babushka survived the bitter cold and barren landscape with nothing but the warmth of her mother, sister, and grandparents, while her father fought for their freedom against the Nazis.
The reality of this story has sat with me for years. It crept between the haunting images in Holocaust museums, and in the lines of books I’ve devoured, like “A Man’s Search for Meaning.”
So at 26-years-old, I decided to embark on a 10-day Birthright Israel trip to retrace my Jewish heritage, and to develop a deeper connection to my ancestors and the struggles of all refugees and immigrants worldwide.
A brief introduction to Israel:
Israel is extremely geopolitically unique, so here is some background information that might help you understand a visit there a little better. The nation is roughly the size of New Jersey and takes up less than 1% of the landmass of the Middle East. It is a young country (established in 1948) and the national languages are Hebrew and Arabic. Ethnic/religious Jews make up 75% of the population, which is 8.5 million people. Just for reference, approximately 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. The other 25% of the population is mostly Arab/Muslim.
The country shares borders with Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Palestinian territories (all of which are Arab/ predominately Muslim nations). Essentially Israel is surrounded by people who don’t exactly agree with their religion, culture, or right to the land they occupy.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is complexly rooted in the establishment of Zionism (the movement to create a “Jewish Homeland” in a place considered sacred to Jewish origins). This was largely in response to anti-Semitism throughout Europe, and Jews simply feeling like there was no safe place for them to live.
The land had previously undergone several occupants, and in 1948, it was under Palestinian control- who have their own historical claim to it. This converged with the rising Arab Nationalism movement, which strives for a political union in the Arab world, and resulted in an ever-evolving conflict in the Middle-East.
The Birthright Experience:
With that in mind, I landed in the LAX airport on a blistery summer day, to catch my flight to Tel Aviv. I collected my 65 liter backpack from the conveyer belt and eagerly went to the El Al Airlines gate where I was to meet my Birthright group.
One by one young adults dragging giant suitcases big enough to move to the Middle East with, rolled up. Some with siblings, some with a significant other, but mostly we strolled up alone, sat down silently on the leathery airport chairs, and wondered what the next few weeks had in store for us. We were then given name tags that would therby identify us and help spark conversations.
Five hours later, the excitement of the journey ahead began to sink in, and I shared it with the strangers who had rapidly become my new birthright friends while waiting in line at the airport.
After a thorough and invasive interview by the attendants of EL AL Airlines, I was pulled aside and chosen for further inspection. “What is your connection to Judaism? What do you do for a living? Why where you in Malaysia? (prompted by a stamp in my passport). After the interrogation, all my bags were then opened, rummaged through and tested for chemical remnants. Eventually, I was deemed safe, and escorted to my gate.
I only dwell on this process to illustrate the level of security precautions engrained into Israeli culture. The extent of this became clearer when I landed in Tel Aviv and my group gathered around an airport corridor for orientation.
A young conservatively dressed woman began to explain the origins of Birthright. She informed us of the rules, restrictions, and privileges we were afforded during this all-expenses paid whirlwind tour of Israel. As I sat there enthralled by where I was, and grateful for the opportunity, an announcement came over the intercom and interrupted our speaker. “Do not leave baggage unattended, or it will be immediately disposed of.” We were then told that “disposed” meant any left bags were exploded in a take-no-risk manner.
From there we were shuttled to bus 166, which would become our sole form of transportation in the days to come. Long hours on the bus quickly became filled with philosophical debates with the Rabbi, who accompanied our group, and answered our prying questions about Judaism. It also became a platform for meaningful conversations that formed the foundation of our new friendships.
The days that followed were filled with visits to historical landmarks, rafting down the Jordan River, sipping wine at the Golan Heights, feeling the vibrations of prayers at the Western Wall, dancing at a concert with thousands of people with a shared heritage, mourning humanities mistakes at the Holocaust museum, being mesmerized by a sunset camel ride in the Negev Desert and the warmth of a bonfire in a Bedouin camp, floating in the Dead Sea, admiring street art in Tel Aviv, and exploring the markets in Jerusalem and Jaffa.
Birthright Israel, is an adventure unlike any I’ve ever known. Your world, no matter how well traveled you are, quickly becomes richer through it’s well organized and strategic itinerary. You are enthralled by the culture, absorbed by the history, captivated by the locals, and overwhelmed by emotion. You are thrust into a tight-knit community, weaved together through history, and share those experiences in an inter-cultural exchange as you travel side by side with young Israeli soldiers.
You learn that despite being persecuted since the beginning of the modern era, Jews have mastered the ability to endure and overcome. Even if you are not religiously Jewish, you realize just how powerful heritage can be when you are welcomed into a land that feels like the warm embrace of revisiting a childhood home you only really know from pictures and stories. And no matter how hard you try to deny the holiness, the energy of the old city in Jerusalem envelop you in enchantment.
You can’t quite fathom the ancient storylines that mark the sandy landscapes, until you feel their energy come to life as you walk along cobblestone alleys at the Western Wall. If ever there were a moment that I have been overcome by emotion, it was standing grounded in a fluid timeline of millions of people’s hopes and sorrows who make the pilgrimage to this spot. The un-staged atmosphere of dancing, prayer, and tears is thickly distributed and unavoidably absorbed inside the tall stone walls.
The gravity of war, then unfolded solemnly before me as we visited the cemetery of fallen Israeli soldiers and heard the first-hand stories of loved ones lost to an ambiguous war.
As I overlooked the borders of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, the tensions of differing beliefs, and complexities of peace became tangled in my mind. I lost myself in a world of lines between religion and morality
I talked to locals, asked clarifying questions, brushed up on news and current events in the middle east, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of it. The conflicts are so deep-seated and outlined by hate, that love and logic often struggle to overcome it.
Don’t get me wrong, on a day-to-day level, Israel felt and appeared safe. People went about their days working, grocery shopping, dating, and partying. I was even blown away by the number of women I saw running alone at night in the major city of Tel Aviv (something that is not a common practice in the USA). The soldiers and locals I conversed with eagerly discussed their love-lives, travel-plans, and career goals. It certainly did not feel like a country at war.
That being said, bomb shelters, air raid sirens, and the iron dome defense system are integral parts of life for Israelis. Attacks are not necessarily commonplace these days, as much as they are expected to happen in patterns and Israel is relatively well-prepared for whatever may arise.
In the two weeks I spent in the country, there were a handful of terrorist attacks stemming from a disagreement in security precautions at a holy site in Jerusalem. The site is historically significant to both Jews and Muslims and controversial to begin with, but became a hot topic when metal detectors were installed near the entrance.
Even being so physically close to these attacks, and walking amongst the tension in the aftermath, I always felt safe during my time in Israel.
The Birthright itinerary itself was educational, thoughtful, and jam-packed. Each day was full of well-organized activities like scavenger hunts that helped us get to know the history of the cities, speakers who shared their stories of making Aliyah (Jews that move to the land of Israel), getting a taste of the outdoors through hiking, rafting and beach days, learning about Judaism through observing Shabbat (Judaism’s day of rest from sun down on Friday to Saturday), and nightly bonding sessions as a group to reflect on the day’s activities.
As someone who thrives on spontaneity and independence, this trip went against my grain in every way possible. That being said, I feel beyond grateful for having experienced the country through Birthright Israel. I did, however, choose to extend my trip to get a less curated sample of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (which is a common and cheap option for Birthright participants).
In the end, I left Israel with an increased sense of connectedness to my heritage, unexpected friendships, a wealth of new knowledge, intrigued about the Israeli culture and political affairs, and an intense desire to return to explore the emotions that my trip evoked.
Don’t forget to check out my Israel vlog here: