Justin G’s Reflection: Birthright Israel

Israel Photo for Charlotte & Justin_SmallIt was four in the morning and I found myself lying in bed wide awake. Wearing the only clothes I had not packed in my now-lost luggage, I was completely, totally, utterly exhausted, but of course, my body’s internal clock was still tuned to Israeli time. As I lay there blankly staring up at my ceiling, I tried to unpack the whirlwind of a week I had just experienced.

I had been to Israel twice before, but this trip was different. The last time I had been I was 17, and too young to truly understand all the complexities and ironies that make up Israel; this time I was older, wiser, and determined to make the most of my Birthright experience. It didn’t disappoint.

Looking back, for me, the focus of Shorashim, and hence my takeaways, fall into three main silos: religion, politics, and relationships – or, put another way, the exact three topics one is usually taught to refrain from discussing with complete strangers.

My takeaways from the religious aspects of the trip were fairly easy in that this trip simply reaffirmed what I already knew: Judaism, and for that matter religion, is strictly one’s own. Despite what others claim, there are few, if any, litmus tests of someone’s Judaism. During our brief stint I witnessed Americans and Israelis alike practice a litany of different versions of prayers, traditions, and customs.  And, encouragingly, I think towards the end of the trip, those who fell into the more myopic construction of Judaism began to at least see the merits of the more secular camp’s views.

My takeaway from the political aspects of the trip, however, were, of course, more convoluted. For a long time my Judaism and my politics have always clashed: how do I justify a belief in those Jewish values which we are deeply ingrained within us at a young age – human dignity, social justice, world peace, tikkun olam, and the like – with a proclaimed Jewish state who, daily, is depicted in the media and internationally as acting against those very values? Working in politics, this quandary has only grown as I’ve moved up in my profession. I assumed when I came on the trip I would receive a justified yet dogmatic narrative; instead, I was pleasantly surprised when, to their credit, Birthright reminded our trip that this was one side of the story, encouraging us to understand all sides before forming an opinion. That being the case, getting to experience an immersive, politics-centered trip was fascinating: from anecdotes of former-IDF soldiers sharing stories of their experience with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to ex-Mossad agents discussing the region’s geopolitics, to befriending and getting to spend a week with Israelis who – like me – work in and breathe politics in the Knesset. I can’t imagine a better way to understand the ever-shifting tectonic plates that make up Israel’s political topography. I left this trip with more questions than answers – but, I also left with an appetite to learn even more and intend to vociferously read all I can on the matter until sated.

The most important aspect of this trip was easily and unequivocally the relationships. The bonds that formed on this trip are those of the ilk that have the potential of lasting a lifetime. Having Israelis on the trip was particularly special for me; from our arrival at Ben Gurion airport until our departure, I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more welcoming, open, and kind group of people – even willing to put up with the most egregious of pronunciations of butchered Hebrew.

As for the Americans, having grown up more accustom to Jewish traditions than some others on the trip, and having been to Israel before, I felt a special connection with those people who got to experience everything for the first time – experiencing the very same feelings I felt years before on my first trip. The memory that will stick with me most is getting to help six friends with their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs at the Kotel – an experience that was equally as special for me as it was for them and one I will not soon forget.

Most importantly, I think the biggest takeaway I will bring home from this trip is a renewed sense of wanting to do more in my Jewish community back in D.C. I’m already planning on hosting Shabbat, offering my house up for my Israeli cohort coming in October, and looking ways to go back to Israel for an extended amount of time.

All in all, I will always cherish this trip, and the wonderful people I met and memories we made will always hold a special place in my heart. Even now, with my baggage since returned, clothes cleaned, and hours of sleep under my belt, I’d trade it all in in a second for one more sleepless, launder-less night in Jerusalem.