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You and Israel: It's Complicated

February 23, 2011

Should I tell you first about the camel ride? About the Israeli soldiers we befriended, or about welcoming Shabbat at the Western Wall? How about waking up at unfathomable hours and defying the laws of physics to squeeze everyone's bags under the bus, and then setting out to scale Masada before sunrise? I could go on and on, and not even begin to describe everything about the Birthright experience — any more than Birthright, in only ten days, could possibly convey everything there is to know about Israel.

No description I provide could encompass the sites you visit, the food you eat, or the connections you make on Birthright — connections with Judaism, with your trip peers, and with the people and the land of Israel. More than anything, when you take a Birthright trip, you're overwhelmed by a feeling: the feeling that right now, and more than ever before, you're exactly where you need to be.

To me, Israel is a matter of course. I lived in Israel as a kid and have been back to visit countless times. I was raised to consider Israel my home, whether I happen to live there at any given point or not.

So the first time I staffed a Birthright trip, my participants surprised me, and I surprised myself. I never expected that my participants (affectionately known, though they were all around my age, as my "kids") would bond so fiercely with a country they had never visited before, or that I would share in their experience so profoundly.

The vast majority of my kids didn't describe themselves as particularly 'Jew-ish'. They tended to define themselves by how little they felt they knew about Jewish religious practice, or how infrequently they attended synagogue services; the distinctions between the various lineages of my trip participants, interfaith or otherwise, rarely came into play.

In talking to my kids about Israel and Judaism, I found out about their upbringing and their educations; whether they were Jewish on all sides of their family wasn't always mentioned. The stories people told about their backgrounds usually set the scene for what they wanted to gain from the trip. Plenty of my participants identified as half-Jewish, but this wasn't a factor that set anyone apart. Everyone on the bus was equally ready to learn.

Explaining ancient and contemporary Israeli history and culture can prove a daunting task, and I often fought the urge to simplify the facts for the participants rather than simply admit to not knowing an answer. Our tour guides, however, never lacked for responses. Every Birthright tour guide I've met has impressed me not only with an incredible breadth and depth of knowledge, but with an uncanny savvy for relating information in comprehensive, (mostly) apolitical ways that engaged the entire group. I've seen guides accomplish this through storytelling, song-leading, dancing, map-making, and even silent meditation, and I have yet to encounter a participant who wasn't affected by what we had learned.

Along with a fuller comprehension of the facts about Israel, what is Birthright trying to give to its participants? Its stated goals stay safely in the neutral arenas of providing participants with a Jewish experience in Israel, to strengthen their connections with Israel and with their Jewish identity. Much better-known, of course, are the unstated goals and the rumors that fly about the ulterior mission of the funders. The phrase "having Jewish babies" became so ubiquitous a euphemism on my last trip that before our night out in Tel Aviv, our tour guide dispensed a few choice Hebrew pick-up lines toward the cause. And the unwavering "No drinking the night before visiting Yad Vashem" rule may have been instated because of one story about a hung-over kid — but to our participants, it stated quite plainly that the day we visited the Holocaust museum and the Har Herzl military cemetery was, to the people at the top, the most crucial day of the entire trip.

In our communications since Birthright, one of my participants described our trip as "emotionally exhausting." So many of our kids had come from towns where Jews and Jewish families were an anomaly, and discovering this other world — where they had an intimate family of over forty of us on the bus, and an extended family of millions; where Jewish culture had so much more immediacy than distant memories of Hebrew school — triggered a switch inside them. The Israelis we met had plenty of opinions to offer (and stated them far more candidly than Birthright would ever dare) about how we ought to stay and live in Israel, or return home to more patently Jewish lives. But as far as the Israelis were concerned, interfaith lineage was irrelevant; if you had made it this far you were part of the clan. The participants who had always considered Judaism to be a minor part of their lives were hit hardest by a hunger they didn't know they had, to be part of something larger than themselves — and by the idea that here, in the Israel they were shown, everyone belonged.

A relationship with Israel is as complicated as a relationship with any contentious family member. As the soldiers who traveled with us can attest, the Israel that we saw on Birthright was colossally removed from the Israel lived by Israelis. In their country, repeating the simple claim that everyone belongs and is welcome would spark endless debate. Making decisions about Israel requires reams more information than any tour guide could provide — and each piece of information is complex, confusing, and contested on all sides. As with that family member, our relationship with Israel won't go away; what we each do about it is up to us. And therein lies the genuine goal of Birthright.

Our relationships with Israel may be complicated, but the biggest gift Birthright ever gave me was a framework for allowing my feelings about Israel to be simple. During the wrap-up session of each trip I staffed, I found that Birthright had ignited a spark in people who hadn't expected to be moved — including me. Kids who had anticipated feeling like outsiders had extended their return plane tickets and were planning on staying in Israel longer; kids who had always assumed that Judaism wasn't really their own talked about taking classes and becoming more involved in their Jewish community back home.

Amid plenty of identity struggles of my own, I had always considered Israel and Judaism to be "mine" without a second thought. The rush of sharing all that I loved about them, and seeing them through my participants' eyes, as though for the first time, was intoxicating. For all its complications, that thrill is free for the asking.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Michal Richardson

Michal Richardson is an educator, calligrapher, and Israeli folk dance teacher working in children's entertainment in New York City. She aspires to one day perform a song on her ukulele from atop a unicycle.

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