Renewing Jewish Inspiration from the Birthright Program

    January 2012          
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Samantha and a few new Israeli friends


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The Journey Called Birthright and its Exceptional Influence

Samantha Bonizzi

I proudly wear a Hamsa around my neck, the one I obtained in Israel. I wear it everyday to remind me back of the ten days I spent there. I wear it to ward off evil, and to suggest what I learned about Judaism and Israel as a country. How much impact can ten days make on your life? For me, and thousands of others who have participated in a Birthright trip, it can change a lot.

I ventured to Israel with little background knowledge of Judaism. My mother and father, though no longer married, come from significantly different backgrounds. My mother is Jewish, and my father is 100-percent Italian and Catholic. My mother, however, was never religious, so she allowed my father to bring me up in the Catholic faith, saying that one day, if I wanted, I could make my own decisions about Judaism. Until college I never gave it much thought.

As I started to form my group of friends in college, I could not help but notice how many of them were Jewish. When asked about my religion, I would explain that my mother was Jewish, but I was simply not raised that way. I started receiving astonished looks, and they would point out the fact that if my mother is Jewish, that makes me Jewish, which was not something I had ever realized. After being introduced to the Birthright program through a friend, I decided it would be a good opportunity to discover something about myself, and my background.

Upon arriving in Israel, it did not take me long to realize how beautiful the country is. Over the course of the trip, I noticed that the tiny nation still has every type of land one could imagine. Israel is comprised of deserts, wooded areas, small villages, ancient cities such as Jerusalem, and even the developed city of Tel Aviv. It amazed me the closeness in distance between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv but the vast differences between the two.

Walking through Jerusalem was like walking through the pages of a Bible. As we walked, my tour guide Saar Sapir, explained every corner in detail. The area he pointed out that sent the biggest chill up my spine was the church that the Bible says Jesus was crucified in front of. Here I was in the homeland of the Jewish people, but the history of Christianity was still right in front of me. It began to dawn on me how peaceful a country Israel is and how all religions are welcome.

As a tour guide, Saar enjoys seeing people come with a certain image of Israel, and leave with a larger connection. Saar said, "On Birthright, Jewish people get to see the holy sites, geography, places of history, the heritage, and stories that they have been hearing about their whole lives. Moreover, they see the true Israel."

While I personally did not have a perception of Israel before the trip, I saw that others around me made the connections that Saar described. I was learning a lot and I gained even more knowledge from the eight Israeli Defense Force soldiers that joined our trip. All these soldiers were between the ages of 18 and 21, people my age who had no choice but to defend their land.

Nitzan Rav-Hon served in the Israeli army for three years. About accompanying a Birthright trip, he said, "It was such an eye-opening experience, because you realize that serving in the Army when you turn 18 is the strangest thing for those who don't live in Israel."

It was incredible how the soldiers and American college students, who came from such diverse background, developed friendships with one another.

"A huge highlight of my Birthright trip was becoming friends with the Israeli soldiers," Olivia Slutsky said. "It was amazing to be asked what it's like to go to college, while they were soldiers."

The American media display the turmoil that occurs in the Middle East, but Israelis only want to remain where they are, peacefully. The I.D.F. formed simply to defend Israel's existence against the many countries that do not think they should be there. It dawned on me how important it is for Jewish people to have their own country after visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The museum made everything I have learned about the Holocaust extremely real. At the end of the museum, we were brought into a room called the Hall of Names. This is the Jewish People's memorial that lists Jews who died in the Holocaust. Standing in that room, I was overcome with emotion about the devastating history of my people. Israelis are so passionate about their country because of the importance of having a safe haven for Jews.

Joel Dascalu, a soldier of the I.D.F. said, "I am very thankful for my life here in Israel, so I take pride of the fact that I am able to serve my country. The special thing about the I.D.F. is that nobody is there for the money or personal benefits; it's all about giving back to the country."

During her Birthright trip, Alanna Kirschbaum witnessed a scene that gave her a life-altering view. During her group's visit at the military cemetery of Har Herzl, she watched the soldiers go up to the gravesites and listened to them speak about how they knew the deceased soldiers or had a personal story about them. "It was so moving to see the connection between the live soldier and the gravesite and to see how strongly the soldiers feel about serving Israel," Alanna said.

But with times of emotion also came times of happiness and pride. I floated on the Dead Sea and soaked up the salt and mud. I enjoyed a sunrise hike up to the Masada. I rafted down the Jordan River. I rode a camel! And I touched the holiest site in the world for Jewish people, The Kotel, or the Western Wall.

I experienced my first full Shabbat at the Western Wall. Around me, Jewish people from across the world sang, danced, and prayed together. A sense of community goes along with Judaism, so despite my confusing background, I still felt a part of it. I slipped my note inside the Wall and believed that those wishes were being answered over any prayer I ever said.

Jason Kleinerman never felt much of a connection to Judaism until his Birthright trip. Kleinerman was born into the family of an Italian mother and a Jewish father. His mother converted however, and even when Kleinerman's father went to jail, his mother continued to bring him up in the Jewish religion. He attended Hebrew school and received a Bar Mitzvah, but he never felt part of the community. He went on a Birthright trip at age 24, thinking it was going to be a vacation, but he left feeling as if he belonged to a culture and a group of people for the first time in his life.

"Being in Israel, in that setting, brought out the best in me, and it was the moment I felt like I was becoming a man. I realized how inspired I was by the trip and I wanted to be a part of the inspiration process for others." Jason has since been a counselor to a few Birthright trips and leads by displaying his own passion for Israel to the group.

As one of my own Birthright leaders, Jason was inspired me, and helped in my decision to receive a Bat Mitzvah. When I was a little girl, I had told my Jewish grandmother that I wanted one, but obviously under the circumstances, it could not happen. I thought back to this when my tour guide offered us the opportunity to have one right there in Israel. It was a short ceremony, but I wrapped a Tallit around my body, sang the prayer, and read part of the Torah. Even the people with me on my trip listed me in a chair in celebration.

I experienced a spiritual peak while in Israel. I am not a very religious person, but I felt more in touch with God than I ever had sitting through countless church masses. While visiting Tzfat, we went to see an artist named Avraham Lewenthal. Through each of his pieces of art, he described a different part of the Kabbalah. He made a big impact on me because of the way he seemed so at peace with the world. Through studying the Kabbalah, he learned that everything just is and everything happens with a purpose. These notions I already believed, but I never realized they matched anything dealing with religion.

Beyond just a reinforcement of beliefs, Birthright gave Molly Weisberg a whole new will to live again. When Molly was 24 years old, her boyfriend died, and she thought that her life was over. This was until she attended a Birthright trip to Israel. She had been to the country when she was about 10 years old, but in college, life got in the way and she forgot about the country's specialness. After going back, she knew that she wanted Israel to remain a part of her life, which is why she became a Birthright leader.

"I want my participants to come back to America and just tell one person about the real Israel and how different it is than what is in the news. Then I will feel like my job is done," Weisberg said.

The ten days I spent in Israel surpassed any expectation I had. For one, I was nervous about how religious the program was going to be. But what impressed me was that I never felt like I was being brainwashed. On the contrary, I learned that there is no such thing as being a bad Jew. It does not matter how many holidays you partake in or how often you attend services, because the involvement is all up to you. The history and the culture make up Judaism just as much as the religious aspect. Although I am still forming my beliefs and they can change day to day, I never plan to take off my Hamsa.


from the January 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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