Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The beauty of Birthright

By Isaac Simon

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Participants on a Taglit Birthright trip earlier this year. The program, which organizes free trips to Israel for young Jewish adults, is growing. (Kate Linthicum/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Participants on a Taglit Birthright trip earlier this year. The program, which organizes free trips to Israel for young Jewish adults, is growing. (Kate Linthicum/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Following the presidential election last year, I felt the need to escape the hate-filled political rhetoric of the long and arduous 16-month campaign cycle. The combination of being among a vast and ultimately unpredictable electorate and a hectic, anxiety-filled fall semester obligated me to take a break. I found this break in Birthright.

Birthright is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing Jewish peoples with a free trip to Israel. The Jewish people are indigenous to this land and the vast majority of those who take part in the 10-day excursion are coming to Israel for their first time.

I had always fiddled with the idea of going on Birthright and knew that if I chose to pull the trigger, I would go with University of Massachusetts Hillel. As a freshman, I was one of the first people at the Birthright table in the Campus Center, eager and excited to sign up. I would go on to attend the information session and fill out the necessary online personal information, but ultimately was never able to click “submit.” At the time, my reservations were complicated and had nothing to do with my ardent support for the Jewish state or my passion for Zionism. I knew I wanted to have this experience, but felt that it wasn’t the right time.

In September, I joined the UMass Student Alliance for Israel and developed both professional and personal relationships with other Jews, attending Hillel regularly and becoming an active participant in the UMass Jewish community. As the weeks went by, it became clear that even when I was working on an essay or taking part in a fraternity event, my Jewish and Israeli activism never left me. I made a point of absorbing myself in Israeli politics and Judaism and as I learned more, I became empowered. Every time I took part in a Hillel event or spent time learning Torah, I felt challenged, leaving with more questions than answers. Every time I was in the company of someone at Hillel, it reaffirmed for me how little I know about my own people. Because of my steadfast devotion to Judaism, Zionism and my commitment to attending Hillel, I finally decided to submit my Birthright application.

It is hard to articulate just how magical Birthright was because it is impossible to live an experience just by reading about it. Even the most eloquent words would not begin to do the trip the justice it deserves. What I can say is that people, students especially, often tend to live a life that is absent of feeling. Most of those on Birthright were full-time students with part-time jobs. This trip was not a bunch of silver-spooned college students continuing to get spoon-fed. Many came from modest, middle-class means and felt grateful to take part in this journey. To take a break from our busy lives and escape the noise of the United States is a luxury some of us will never again have the liberty to experience.

In Israel, we went everywhere. We went to Haifa, climbed Masada, experienced the culture and night-life of Tel Aviv, went to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, spent the night in a Bedouin tent and ate Middle Eastern food that none of us were previously accustomed to. We laughed, exhausted ourselves and inhaled everything that Israel had to offer but, more importantly, we felt. We were able to feel something that was not part of our day-to-day regimen. Birthright challenged us to think about how complicated the Middle East is and the struggles that Israelis are faced with on a constant basis.

Halfway through the trip, eight Israeli Defense Forces soldiers joined our group and it was then that the political became personal. It is one thing for me to receive Jerusalem Post alerts on my phone. It’s an entirely different thing to speak to soldiers who have lost friends during times of war. When we were in Haifa we visited a school and before each of us split into groups to spend time with these children, the principal gave a speech apologizing for their English teacher who was absent for the day. The principal explained that she had made an emergency trip to Jerusalem to console her daughter who was in the IDF, because three of the four soldiers who died in the vehicular terrorist attack of Jan. 8 were close friends of hers. It was at this moment that the global scope of tragedy became local and personal.

As a proud Jew, I have always gone back and forth between the triumphs and tragedies of my people. This moral dilemma that I have wrestled with was something I was able to confront in Israel. It came to the forefront when we visited Mount Herzl and paid respects to those who had passed. When we visited some of the tombstones of the fallen soldiers who lost their lives in 2014, we heard from one of the eight soldiers traveling with us that he was a mutual friend of a fellow soldier who lay before us. It was humbling to pay respects while also be in the presence of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

The beauty of foreign travel is that you can hold on to the experiences for as long as you wish. Going on Birthright didn’t force me to feel a certain way, nor did it force me to love Israel. It allowed me to enhance and expand the love I have for the Jewish state, a place that I will love for the rest of my life. Like many others, I came home with many unanswered questions, but being in Israel reaffirmed for me how Judaism is a religion of life.

Isaac Simon is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

3 Comments

3 Responses to “The beauty of Birthright”

  1. Shadiq on January 24th, 2017 12:33 pm

    Must be nice to have a free holiday in a state that sponsors genocide against Palestine and steals rightful Palestinian land. The collegian allowing this is disgraceful.

  2. David Hunt 1990 on January 25th, 2017 9:28 am

    Yasher korach on your trip. I wish they’d existed when I was your age.

    Am Yisrael chai!

  3. David Hunt 1990 on January 26th, 2017 3:05 pm

    @Shadiq: So Gaza is a hellhole? An “open air concentration camp”?

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