The Shabbat we spent in Israel was special not just for the reflection and celebration I shared, but also as a catalyst for personal growth, as it opened my eyes to my own potential. Up until a few months ago, my celebrations of shabbat consisted of no more than a caring but perfunctory exchange of "shabbat shaloms" with friends or family. But recently, I've found my celebrations of shabbat to be significantly more meaningful and moving.
Shabbat in Israel was particularly special because of the close friendships made here and the personal growth we've all shared together. For me, my personal growth came through open conversations about our impact projects, as I greater appreciated the value of collaboration and my own ability to help others. I look back on this shabbat and the past week as just a starting point, and I look forward to growing, contributing, and sharing over many more shabbats with the group back in DC.
Jesse Levine, Washington, DC
There we were, sitting in a circle on the second floor library of the Bait v’Gan (or, “vegan,” as the translation read on the welcome sign) Guest House. The circle – the quintessential Jewish shape, according to Yossi, our fearless madrich (guide, in Hebrew) – provided stability, unity, and support for an emotionally fragile (and, in some cases, tearful) group. As it was our last morning together, I looked around our circle at all the amazing individuals I had spent a week with, leaving me inspired by their thoughtfulness, passion, and desire to strengthen the DC Jewish community.
Reflections brought smiles, laughter, and tears as we considered the wide range of organizations we had visited, people we had met with, and relationships which had developed within our group throughout our whirlwind trip. It became clear to me that, far from only a land brimming with the history of the Jewish people, Israel is a land of the Jewish present, and a land which, through our site visits, we learned is primed to have a dynamic future to which we are excited to contribute.
After the closing session at the vegan house, we traveled to Beit Shemesh, Washington’s “Partnership 2000” city. It was here where we saw the foundation of this dynamic future (not without first returning to our favorite lunch spot: the Mivaseret mall’s food court). At a school in Ein Kerem, we were greeted by the sounds of soccer cleats on tile floors and laughter from teenage girls, Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli alike. These girls are part of the Peres Center for Peace’s co-existence program, which seeks to build friendship and trust between young Palestinians and Israelis through sports activities (in addition to four other focus areas). Although these girls don’t always share the same language, their shared experiences and an overlapping cultural vocabulary became readily apparent. When the Arab teens from Ein Rafa arrived, they were greeted with hugs and smiles from the Israelis: it was clear that the program was working.
We were taught how to say “pass me the ball” in Arabic and Hebrew, as well as how to introduce ourselves trilingually in anticipation of the soccer games ahead of us. Unfortunately, my team lost 1-0 on a heartbreaking last-second goal. Congrats to the Benovitz/Lilly/Bortnick team and your amazing goalie, Sonia (an Ein Keremite), on the victory. The losing team (which also included an Engel, Manchester, and Heller) had to do the Macarena when time ran out. Luckily, we had practiced this dance multiple times during the week, including at the Ethiopian absorption center on the first day (for lessons, please consult Jeremy Rosen, Federation’s Young Leadership Co-chair).
Once the tears of defeat had been swept from our faces, all four teams gathered to discuss the lessons we had learned, as well as take plenty of pictures and swap information for our pending Facebook friendships. Before leaving, we were given small soaps made by a local company established to employ autistic adults. Given the strenuousness of our final activity, we couldn’t have received a more considerate gift.
The final activity, you might ask? Bike riding on the Burma Road in Beit Shemesh, the same road used to transport supplies to Jerusalem’s Jewish residents during the 1948 War of Independence. Fortunately, we saved the most sweat-provoking activity of the week for the hottest afternoon of the week and hours before our flight home. Thank you to Partnership 2000 for the soap. If only there were showers. Mazel tov to Seth Engel for winning the race to the finish. A great time was had by all, especially (albeit, sadly) because we knew a good night’s sleep was on the horizon.
From Beit Shemesh, we trekked to Moshav Luzit for dinner Chez Zohara. This culinary wizard (no disrespect meant to Chef Jeff, with whom we cooked earlier in the week at the Jerusalem Culinary Academy) welcomed us into her home for salatim (salads), chicken, fish, brisket, couscous, bread, wine, lemonade with the cutest pug east of the Potomac River. We shared this wonderful meal and last afternoon with a group of Israeli peers. Emily Benovitz, our resident Kentuckian, wrote this haiku following our Moroccan last supper:
So heavy in my belly
Now we have to fly?
Zohara’s cooking left us well-satiated (thanks, Emily) and ready for the 12 hour flight home (though 8 out of 25 in the group extended their stays). Needless to say, none of us were ready to fly to DC after such an empowering trip. We return home eager to act on all that we learned and experienced throughout Israel. There is no way we can possibly express our gratitude to The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Mark and Audrey Solomon, and Bruce and Karen Levenson, for the trip of a lifetime. We were given an extraordinary opportunity. Now, we look forward to giving back to the DC community – and the Jewish community, writ large – in ways as meaningful and inspiring as the gift we received ourselves.
Ben Freedman, Washington, DC
As we near the end of our trip, through countless discussions, both structured and during our own free time, we believe the first Birthright trip achieved its goal with the members of this bus and has led to good both personally and for the Jewish community.
Through our discussions with the CEO and the Director of Education for Taglit Birthright Israel, Shabbat with the Taglit-Birthright Israel: DC Community trrip, and through the shared experiences of the members of this bus, we have gained a greater appreciation for the impact the Birthright Israel program has on the Jews around the world and for the country of Israel. Knowing how meaningful Birthright is for its participants, how does one go about thanking the people responsible for this transformational gift?
When a waiter brings you a glass of water, you say ‘thank you’ to him or her. When your roommate cleans up your apartment you say ‘thank you.’ But what do you say to someone who has given you a gift that completely changes your outlook on the world, a gift that changes your identity, a gift that strengthens and solidifies your place in the Jewish world? “Thank You” is simply not enough.
This is an issue that many of us on the Alumni Leadership Mission are wrestling with right now. This week we have met some of these generous people and families, and have had the privilege to spend all week with two of them, that make Birthright and the Alumni Leadership Mission possible. To say thank you to these people does not do justice for what they have given us. What other word exists that can appropriately convey the level of gratitude that we feel for them?
I believe that the answer to that question does not lie in our words but rather in our actions. Having been the recipient of these gifts, now I have to go do something with it. Our impact projects are just a start. Continuing to be a steward of the Jewish community and Israel is also a necessary next step. And hopefully one day I can return the favor to Jewish young professionals as they too, shape their Jewish identity.
Nathan Adelman, Arlington, VA
This morning we woke up after having a night out on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem to a long bus ride toward the south of Israel into the Negev desert. After about two hours (and an emergency bathroom stop) we arrived in a city near Ben Gurion University to see the work of an organization called the Ayalim Association where we met with one of their cofounders, Danny Glicksberg.
Visiting the Ayalim Association was the activity that I was most excited about before embarking on our trip. Ayalim was described as an organization that supported the pioneering of land in Israel. Ayalim brings Israeli students after their IDF service, around age 22, to build homes and live in the Galilee in the north or the Negev in the south while they are studying in University. It was the word "pioneering" that really stuck with me and I was so eager to learn more.
What we ended up learning at Ayalim blew my trip mates and I away. This wasn't just an organization that wanted to have people living in unsettled lands. This organization works with the purpose of ensuring Israel's future. Danny gave us the population breakdown of Israel: 80% of Israel's land mass is the Negev and Galilee, yet only 8% of the population is living in that area. That leaves a relatively small amount of land making up the rest of the country. He spoke how that we need to settle these other lands for two main reasons. The first is that these lands are undisputed now with the current borders but nobody knows what the future will hold. If these lands are unsettled then one day we might lose them. The second reason is to ensure that the lands remain viable for the population. As a Jewish homeland, Israel is a place for all Jewish people in the diaspora. If there were a sudden influx of immigrants to Israel the current population centers might not be able to handle all of these new people.
Beyond just what the organization does, how the organization does it was just as mind blowing. Every year Ayalim brings in over 1000 students to build these villages. They do so at a very rapid pace of 3 - 5 months and now the organization is on its 14th village. They have already surpassed their goal of 10 villages and the program is still growing. These programs not only physically build structures but also build community. The students working are able grow closer and new families are moving into these villages. Ayalim's work is not yet complete but I would argue that it is making a difference.
We all returned to the bus excited about what we had just experienced but most of all we felt inspired. We will take all that we learned back with us to DC and mold it into our leadership models. Who knows, maybe some of us will come back and volunteer with Ayalim in the future like the old pioneers of the American west?
Sign reads: "Negev or bust!" The sky is the limit.
Brett Eisen, Arlington, VA