With the Israel sunset as our backdrop, we asked the young American college students to make two circles and begin the introductions…even though we already felt like family. That tends to happen when you bring together a group of Jewish people; they immediately connect with each other. Just add the excitement of a free 10-day trip, experiencing the land with eight Israeli soldiers, once-in-a-lifetime activities, and you have the ultimate recipe for Jewish unity.
This recipe was very familiar to me. It was my sixth time in Israel and I was ready for the participants on my trip to fall in love with the land, as I had done before them. I assumed we’d visit the typical tourist attractions and have a great time, but I never expected the experience to have such an impact on me.
Previously, I traveled to Israel on five different organized programs…always as a participant. This time I would travel as a staff member for Israel Free Spirit (IFS), the Orthodox Union’s Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.
OU-Israel Free Spirit provides a meaningful, spiritual, and deeper perspective of Israel. It’s not just about touring the sites and cities; it’s about understanding how Israel relates to the participants, what it teaches them about their heritage, and how it inspires them.
As one of the two madrichot (counselors), I quickly understood the unique role we had as the trip’s staff. The madrichot, rabbi, and tour educator became mentors to the 40 young Jews, 18-22, as we guided them through Israel. In turn, the participants inspired us with their questions, insights and growth throughout the trip. Many of them were on their summer break from college, while others had already graduated; they came from all over the United States to experience Israel together.
I felt a special bond with them because I grew up with limited exposure to Judaism and Israel like they did. My family’s connection was severed long before I was born. As Communism crumbled along with the Berlin wall, the stigma of being Jewish did not fall with it. And so my parents made the ultimate choice to move to America from Belarus. However, going to public school provided few opportunities for Jewish development. While attending Midwood High School in Brooklyn, I only began to understand the Jewish part of my identity after my first Israel trip, which led me from one Israel trip to the next. After dedicating my college career at New York University to understanding what being Jewish truly means and choosing a career in Jewish non-profit over corporate advertising, I was ready to share my experiences.
I prepared myself for the participants’ questions, packed the Jewish Taboo board game, and brought along two cameras. The participants on my trip were going to have the Israel Free Spirit trip-of-a-lifetime and I would make sure of that.
And off we went! Icebreakers in Caesarea, wine tasting in the Golan Heights, kayaking down the Jordan River, a mystical tour around Tzfat, learning about modern Israel at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, swimming in the waterfalls of Ein Gedi, hearing from a Holocaust survivor at Yad Vashem, dancing at the Western Wall, and the list goes on and on. But it wasn’t the sight-seeing or the shwarmas that spearheaded our connection to Israel; it was the feeling of togetherness emanating from the people met along the way.
When eight Israeli soldiers (mifgash) joined our trip for five days, we felt this unique connection even more. The group erupted in applause when the Israelis boarded the bus. Both sides were eager to understand the similarities and differences of people their age growing up in another country. Each group came with preconceived stereotypes about the other, but those notions quickly shattered as 48 individuals transformed into one family. They sang Hativka, Israel’s national anthem, in Independence Hall. They stayed up in the hotel lobbies discussing each other’s challenges, whether it was applying for jobs in an economic recession or going through army training. They floated in the Dead Sea. They cried when it was time to say goodbye to each other.
The perfect metaphor for the link between Jews around the world occurred at Taglit-Birthright Israel’s Mega Event in Jerusalem. The theater was filled with 3,000 Birthright participants from various countries and their mifgashim. The concert began with a participant from each country carrying the flag to the stage. Australians, Indians, Canadians, and Americans cheered for their flag, demonstrating pride for their home country.
Then one of the Israelis carried the flag of Israel. Everyone in the theater went crazy! They jumped, clapped, and whooped as the representative brought the flag onstage. Although we showed excitement for each of our countries, we united in our pride for Israel. It was the home for all of us. No matter where we were from, we cheered on Israel. For Moti Barabi, an IDF soldier with a few months left in his service, he said the experience “changed the way I will serve my country…I see who I’m fighting for.”
Moti understands that the Jewish people are all intertwined to each other and to Israel.
During Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies at Masada, Hannah Ostroff from Delaware described this phenomena best when she said, “Where I was growing up, there weren’t other Jews to be in a community with…Delaware has more chickens than people…but now I feel like I have a Jewish family here with the 48 of us and every Jew around the world, and I thank you for that.”
On top of Masada, 17 participants between 18 and 22 became b’nei mitzvot: They personally took the initiative to rejuvenate their Jewish identity. The ceremony didn’t include lavish decorations or a five-course meal. Parents, aunts, and cousins twice removed weren’t there to take videos. Even so, each person felt the significance of this event. It represented the entire OU-Israel Free Spirit Birthright trip because in a way the trip itself is a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. It marks the beginning of a spiritual and personal journey toward understanding what being Jewish actually means. The participants not only initiate this journey for themselves, but for their entire family.
“For many of you seating here, YOU are the first person in your family to walk the streets of Israel in 2,000 years,” Avraham Leventhual, a Kabballah artist from Tzfat, explained to the group. “Two thousand yearsssssss!” Together, Taglit-Birthright Israel and OU Israel Free Spirit propel young Jewish people from around the entire world to realize for the first time that Israel is our home, our history, our nation, our family.
Tatyana Plotkina is Program Associate for OU Israel Free Spirit (IFS), Taglit-Birthright Israel. Her focus is on marketing and communications, with an emphasis on digital media and Jewish non-profit. She graduated from New York University in 2011 with a double-major in Media Communications and Psychology. Tatyana hopes to continue inspiring young people to connect to Israel and to their Jewish heritage.