Taglit (Hebrew for discovery) or Birthright as many people know it was something I knew I was going to do since I was a little kid. I didn’t know much about it except for the fact that it was a free ten day trip to Israel paid for by various donors so that Jews across the world get to experience what life is like in a Jewish state. I got accepted and soon it was time to leave. I walked into the airport in Toronto having zero idea what to expect. But I was hesitant because is anything in life really free? I thought there MUST be some strings, some cause I’d need to support, or some pledge I’d have to sign. I didn’t grow up super Jewish and I come from a multi faith home, would there be other people like me or would they all start singing in Hebrew spontaneously and in cue? As the plane left Israel and I settled in for a comfy 11 hour flight I thought to myself: what did I get myself into?
Fast forward to ten days later and I’m thankful for how wrong I was. Birthright was the gift of a lifetime simply because it gave me the option to explore something I’ve never been given the chance to before. And while there were a few spontaneous Hebrew sing offs I also managed to come out with lessons that will last a lifetime.
1.) It is okay to go on an adventure alone.
The majority of people will be by themselves or only with one other person but when you go alone you’re free to do whatever and are so much more open to meeting and getting to know those around you.
2.) Everyone’s Jewish identity will look different. And that’s okay.
Before birthright I had pre conceived notions that being Jewish meant a certain thing and that I was not it. I was wrong. I only have one Jewish parent and it’s paternal which I thought meant I was less than. My trip leader quickly dissuaded what she calls, an antiquated thought. I can proudly and confidently say I’m Jewish. There were people on my trip who were orthodox, many who grew up attending Hebrew school, some with only one Jewish parent, and some with two but who grew up very secular. But we were all Jewish.
3.) Jerusalem is a magical place.
No matter what religion/background you come from Jerusalem is a must do. It’s incredible that the worlds three largest monotheistic religions converge in one spot. The Muslim, Jewish and Christian quarters intertwine together to create the masterpiece that is the Old City. It’s a messy relationship and one that doesn’t always work- but it sure is a beautiful one. It’s like walking in an open air museum, and everywhere you look there is another story to be told. Above all the most beautiful thing to me was the power of human connection. At the western wall I was taken aback by the amount of people who all felt connected to the same thing. And I know that’s true in the other quarters as well. As much as we are all different we are so much more the same.
4.) There is beauty in tradition.
Judaism is built on tradition. As a millennial I think we often equate the word tradition with the idea of outdated. But while in Israel I learned how wrong that is. My biggest lesson would be the idea of Shabbat. I was fortunate enough to spend Shabbat my first week in Jerusalem. Friday morning I hit the machane yehuda market (more on this later) where people were getting their challah, flowers, and sweets for Shabbat. In the midst of the business everyone wished me Shabbat shalom. That craziness of the market was juxtaposed with a quietness like I’ve never seen only a few hours later. The city literally shuts down by 5. Every. Single. Week. Can you imagine that happening in Toronto? We can’t even seem to turn off our lives for a few hours let alone for a full 25. As I spent that Saturday morning and afternoon with my friends in the park I realized something about tradition: it’s beautiful. It’s usually meant to preserve something special. In this case time with those you love.
5.) You’ve never experienced a market until you’ve been to the ones in Israel.
From Machne Yehuda in Jerusalem to the Carmel market in Tel Aviv, the country is full of markets that will light your senses on fire. You’ll smell every single spice imaginable, see more candy than any candy store you’ve ever been to, get the best fruit smoothies I’ve had to date, all while walking past stands that sell vintage denim shorts and art and jewelry. As a first time shuk go-er you will probably immediately buy a Hamsa bracelet and something with a Star of David on it (I now own both) but the second and third time you go you will see the beauty in just wandering and watching. Mind you it’s busy as hell and you will be hotter than you can imagine. But visiting the shuk will be an experience you won’t soon forget.
6.) Interacting with locals will improve your trip significantly.
The five days that we got to spend with the IDF soldiers assigned to our trip was the best five days of the trip. It’s one thing to read and learn about the conflicts going on in a country. It’s another to visit that country. But when you get to visit that country and walk around and learn from the people who live and work in it everyday it’s a whole new thing. Before birthright all I knew about the IDF was that it was mandatory service. Taglit gave me the chance to learn so much more. The IDF is filled with all different types of people from different walks of life. But they all are willing to die for their country and I think that’s pretty incredible. Can you say the same about your country?
7.) Israel is so much more than a conflict zone.
Yes Israel experiences a lot of conflict. And yes you will see soldiers everywhere you go. And yes it doesn’t have peace agreements with multiple countries that surround it. But that’s only a part of its story. Israel is a country of innovators- it has the second highest rate of start ups only after Silicon Valley. It is a country of nature- rivers and mountains in the north, cliffs and caves in the desert, the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean. Israel has it all. I’m so thankful that our tour guide Karen showed us the beauty of Israel and how deep it is. Israel is also a country filled with people just like you and me. It’s people aren’t walking around everyday thinking of conflict and war, they are thinking about everyday life. Want to know what my Israeli friend and I spent the week talking about? Boys. Life here may be a different reality than I’m used to at home but I was reminded that at the end of the day humans are all the same.
8.) You won’t want to leave when it’s over.
Israel is a country that gets under your skin. It is a place that touches the deepest parts of your soul and teaches you something new everyday. I extended my trip two months- with two extra weeks in Israel and I am SO glad I did. Ten days on Birthright is simply not enough. That’s because for the Jewish people (no matter where you are in the world) Israel is more than just another country- it’s a place you can call home. You have the right to a citizenship and the state was created for you. That concept really hit me while on Birthright and it’s something I’m STILL blown away by.
9.) Never give up.
I’m sure you’ve heard the term “chutzpah” used before. It’s used to describe someone who has a shameless audacity. Israeli’s have chutzpah. The desert covers over 60% of Israel. In 1955 President Ben Gurion challenged his people to make the Negav a site for innovation and growth. At this point there was nothing there. It was dry, vast and VERY hot. You’d think he was nuts. But not the Israeli’s. They tried and failed and then tried again and eventually the Negav became a success story. Today it is a site for innovation. With army bases, global organizations, investors and startups moving south, the region is slowly making its mark. They built thriving spaces from nothing. Chutzpah.
War is a constant threat here. And like I’ve mentioned before serving in the IDF is mandatory. Everybody serves their country despite the cost it can have. Here’s the thing about Israel though: you are always serving. Even once one finishes there years of mandatory service they are in the reserves for a few decades. Meaning they can be called back at any time. No matter who they are. A CEO of a start up can be called back and has to serve. That’s wild to me. Yet people choose to stay here. That doesn’t dissuade them. The threat of war, the process of serving, the trauma of serving, none of that dampens the spirit of people here. Chutzpah.
10.) Learning is a lifelong process.
Being in Israel set my brain on fire. I probably asked about 100 questions every single day of Birthright. Yet when it finished I still had 1000 more. Ten days isn’t going to wrap Israel and Judaism up in a neat little package for you. Like my tour guide Karen liked to say “it’s a lasagna” there are many layers. Birthright lit a spark in me to know more about my Jewish identity and the importance of Israel. It’s now on me to go home and continue to ask questions and learn more. Travelling to new places should do that to you. If you feel like you’ve learned everything once you’ve left a place you probably missed a lot. Don’t stop asking questions and NEVER stop being curious. Knowledge is what really separates us all and I’ll forever be indebted to Birthright for giving me the gift of not just a trip to Israel but a wealth of knowledge I’ll carry with me for life.