In June of 2013, I did something unprecedented in my life; I agreed to staff a Birthright-Israel trip, which would separate me from my wife and 20-month old daughter for ten days. It was a complicated decision, but I felt obligated to make it happen as I was working for the OU’s Israel Free Spirit trip organizer, and I knew it was crucial to stay connected with the fantastic program we offered. Nothing compares to being out in the field, experiencing and influencing the incredible dynamic first-hand.
The first five days were fantastic. It was an excellent group from all across the US. Great camaraderie. No cliques. Friendly and collaborative staff. I was thrilled with the positive momentum. Then Friday afternoon came. I had never been away from my wife for Shabbat, let alone my family. I remember calling my wife before turning my phone off for the next 25 hours. Both of us started to cry acknowledging the reality of spending the holiest day apart for the first time. Still, my wife didn’t hesitate from saying, “Don’t worry about me. Make it worth it and have a great time.”
A few hours later I was speaking to our group, 48 people aged 18-22, including eight Israelis who joined for five days as part of the mifgash that highlights each trip. There were also three other staff members and a medic/guard. On this Shabbat, they would be my family, and it was time to embrace that reality. We were in the Old City of Jerusalem, just a moment away from welcoming Shabbat and walking a few hundred steps to reach the Kotel where we’d celebrate Shabbat together. The courtyard was quiet. The dozens of children that commonly play here were instead in their homes preparing for Shabbat with their families.
I shared my situation with the group and told them what my wife had said to me. I remember my voice cracking from the emotions rushing in. Still, I managed to say to my Birthright Israel family that “There’s nowhere else I’d rather be than right here with all of you.” The group didn’t let me down. My openness and vulnerability drew smiles and adulation. We ended with a loud bus chant and went down into the Kotel plaza with our passion on fire. We all danced with smiles – nothing prevented us from enjoying every morsel this moment had to offer. It set the tone for the next 24 hours of Shabbat.
By day ten of the trip, we ended on top. Incredible summary session. Happy tears were coming from multiple parties. Six people chose to extend their Israel ticket for more educational programming on the last day, not wanting their adventure to end, and approximately half of the group were continuing their journey in Israel overall. The group inspired me, and I was grateful to have been a part of their lives and playing whatever role. However, four years later as I reflect, I look back on the sacrifice made and how much it meant. My wife gave me a priceless opportunity, and I am forever grateful to her. May we all merit to be proud of the sacrifices we make in living the most optimal lives possible.