Written by Features Editor Isabel Rouse, this article recounts Rouse’s positive experience on the annual Wesleyan Taglit-Birthright, which sponsors a 10-day trip to Israel for Jewish young adults.
There are few countries in the world where you can see tropical palm trees swaying next to stoic pines; where people take their weekends on Friday and Saturday; where every street sign has three languages on it, each in a different alphabet; and where the world’s arguably oldest city is a 40 minute drive from one of the world’s newest cities.
After visiting Israel, I concluded that it is a land of contradictions. Even its diverse landscape, with a myriad of ecosystems, mirrors its political and cultural complexity. In spite of this—or perhaps because of it—people who visit Israel fall in love with the country.
I went on Taglit-Birthright with 43 other college students this winter break: six Trinity College students, one from Connecticut College, and the remainder from Wesleyan. We arrived in Tel Aviv, on the Western edge of Israel, on Jan. 9, and immediately drove to the very northern tip, mere miles from the Syrian border. We journeyed to the middle of the desert and across the country from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea. It was easy to do this in nine days since the country, as our tour guide Erad Omer told us, is the size of New Jersey. While Israel may be diminutive in size, it is dense, eccentric, and heterogeneous: a force to be reckoned with.
For example, Israel has an official Orthodox Rabbinate, yet the vast majority of the country is secular. Thus causes infinite difficulties (if you are not orthodox and want to be married, you must travel to another country—Crete is a popular destination).
For half of the trip, we were joined by eight Israeli soldiers around our age, who were serving their required two to three years in the military. Some worked as combat soldiers, others as “jobniks” who went home every day. Although they had experienced events and seen sights to which none of us could relate, we still found common ground. They joined us not as guards or guides, but as fellow young adults, who wanted to meet other young Jews and learn about Israel. It’s safe to say that for a majority of the students on my trip, this was the highlight of our experience, and many of us felt a personal bond with the soldiers.
“The part that resonated the most with me and continues to be the most memorable experience was our daily interactions with the Israeli soldiers, hearing their powerful stories and trying to relate them somehow to the very different lives we live as Americans the same age,” said Adam Ilowite ’12.
For those of us who didn’t feel so close to the soldiers, however, there was Omer Avidan, our medic, who carried a gun, spoke almost no English, and was always good for a laugh; or Shlomie, the taciturn bus driver, resident chain smoker, and provenance of our group’s name, “Shlomie’s Homies.”
During the time that Shlomie drove us around and Erad continuously described the ever-changing landscape, we immersed ourselves not only in the culture and vibrancy of the country, but also in the political and historical context of the land. Even for local Israelis, this is no easy feat, for Israel is rife with political controversy and clashing identities. Each time I thought I understood Israel and had discerned its nuances, the situation simply got more complicated, and I wasn’t alone in thinking so.
“I enjoyed when we talked about current events, because it’s so different than just reading about it in the newspaper,” said Molly Lobel ’14. “In the U.S., we talk about the conflict so much that I almost don’t even think about it, but getting to actually see it and where the conflict is coming from and how segregated everything was, the prejudice that’s on both sides of the argument, was really interesting. I really appreciated going with Wesleyan kids too, because everyone asked good questions and had good discussions. I thought that made the trip for me.”
Towards the end of the trip, we did a program with the soldiers in which we were asked our opinions on the politics of Israel and Palestine, orthodoxy and reform Judaism, our Jewish identity, and the relevance of Israel. We were told to stand in different parts of the room depending on our answers. The Israeli soldiers were just as diverse in their responses as the Americans. It was clear that, unlike what is often portrayed, there is no “general Israeli response” to the political controversy that has overtaken the country since its inception.
For others, the trip was less about the politics of the land, and more about the spiritual impact of being in a place of such historical, cultural, and religious significance.Lina Mamut ’13, who said that she was raised ethnically but not religiously Jewish, had her Bat Mitzvah last year at Wesleyan before going on Birthright this year.
“Birthright helped me reaffirm my connection to Judaism by understanding the true connection the Jewish people have to the land of Israel,” she said. “I have never felt so spiritually connected to a physical place as I did at the Western Wall; being at the focal point of all Jewish prayer was inspiring, and I left Israel awestruck.”
Much of the trip wasn’t as serious, however, and some of the best interactions were those that occurred while we sat around smoking the hookah that Lina bought while Din Cohen, one of the soldiers, played classical guitar late into the night.
We also went on several nature hikes: from the moist and tropical nature reserve Tel Dan, to the hot and dry Masada fortress in the Judea desert that overlooked the Dead Sea, where we swam—excuse me, floated—in the water and smeared dark, wet mud on our bodies. We rode camels and went into the desert at night while staying in a Bedouin tent. We went to a “shuk,” or market, in Jerusalem, where I haggled with vendors and bought persimmons—my new fruit obsession—as well as Israeli desserts, hot milk drink, spices for my mom, and scarves. Bradley Maykow ’12, from Connecticut College, bought home a “shofar”—a ram’s horn used for the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
I have never considered myself very well-versed in Israeli politics or history. When people solicited my opinion on the subject, as a Jew, I didn’t feel comfortable commenting. Had I responded, I would have made vacillating half-answers and tried to appeal to both sides of the argument.
This was part of the reason that I applied to go on Birthright. Although many of the organized trips have a decidedly religious or propagandist flavor to them, often with the goal to convince young Americans to make “aliyah” and immigrate to the land, I was grateful that this trip was geared toward the interests of university students. We learned about our Jewish culture and identity within the context of the complex Israeli land, and the immensely convoluted politics of the country.
And for those students who didn’t enjoy the trip, they can always remember the camel ride.