By Evan Greenberg
In the days leading up to my first trip to Israel through Taglit-Birthright, many friends and neighbors, intrigued at the exotic nature of the place I was to visit, remarked on how excited I must be.
But I didn’t know how to feel. As a Georgia native, resident and university student, the farthest I had traveled was to California. Many of my friends had been on Birthright and had amazing experiences. I wanted the same but knew nothing was guaranteed.
Now that I have had time to reflect on my time in Israel, I can say with certainty that the trip was one of the best I have been on, and I am forever grateful to have had this illuminating experience visiting and learning so much about the home of the Jewish people.
I believe that dissecting and speaking solely about my personal experience would be more suited for a journal or my forever inquisitive mother. Instead, I hope to provide a broader view of the trip and what I’d like to think the other Birthright alumni took away.
I’d like to preface this by saying that Israel is a beautiful country. It is a shame that most of what you hear about it comes from the news. Every step you take in the country has history — often ancient — attached to it. There are beautiful mountains, bodies of water and observatories that complement sunsets like puzzle pieces.
What sticks out to me above all else, and what I think makes Birthright so rare, are the people and the social dynamic within. I knew four people pretty well before the trip, and the rest were strangers or people I had had minimal interaction with. In my estimation, this was the case for most people.
So what happened over the 10 days was remarkable. Our bus, Bus 1290, clicked almost immediately. Most nights would end with a conversation about Judaism — our own, how it is practiced and where we think we fit within that. When it comes to talks like that, people have to buy in completely, or it doesn’t work.
To ask people to reveal their religious beliefs and intimate thoughts, especially to mostly unfamiliar faces, is a daunting proposition. Yet every discussion peeled back tragedy and hardship, doubt and insecurity, pride and nostalgia. It was some of the most mature, intelligent and respectful conversation I have been a part of.
The more I thought about why this was the case, and why it occurred so naturally, the more it affirmed why I am proud to be Jewish. Whenever I meet another Jewish person, I feel as though a shorthand underscores any conversation we have. We have some notion of what life is like and our shared core values.
When you multiply that sensation by 30, it’s magnified astronomically, creating something truly special. That most people in the group were strangers — a situation that changed rapidly anyway — quickly became irrelevant. It was extraordinary.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Israeli soldiers who joined us for five days on the trip: Omri, Idan, Ilan, Tomar, Lior and Barak. They all blended seamlessly into our group, and we learned as much if not more from them as they did from us.
They were all college-aged, and it was fascinating not only to talk to them about their contrasting lives, but also to observe that they think and act in ways that are not dissimilar to our demeanor.
I would also like to extend thanks to our endlessly knowledgeable tour guide, Stav, as well as Mara and Jeremy from UGA Hillel, who kept us organized and sane as we navigated through the country.
In just 10 days, because of Birthright, I became part of a Jewish community of my peers. We laughed, we cried, and we cheered as some of us celebrated becoming b’nai mitzvah in Jerusalem.
In a post-trip conversation, someone who had been to Israel before said Israel always rises to the occasion, and I found this profound. There is wonder and spectacle in every inch — or meter, as I quickly had to learn — in the country. Israel serves as an impetus for growth, conversation and communion among Jewish people, a satellite that beams across the globe.
What an incredible thing that is.