By Marci Fiedler
Just a few weeks ago, I was walking through the Har Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem. No site in Israel speaks more powerfully to Israelis and visitors alike than to visualize the courage, honor – and sacrifice – that has been required over the years to protect and defend this tiny country.
That morning, my visit to the cemetery was all the more powerful as I led a group of Chicago-area college students on the final day of their Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, a free 10-day visit provided by the Birthright Israel Foundation, the Government of Israel, and Jewish Federations across North America, organized by JUF and other groups.
As we passed by the graves of 19, 20, and 21-year old soldiers who had given their lives in defense of the State of Israel, Amanda, one of the participants approached me, overcome by the gravity of a realization that was unfolding before her. The responsibilities confronting young Israelis, she declared, were far weightier than any problems she had ever faced. She felt she had to come back.
Amanda is one of over 500 college students and young adults from the Chicago area to experience Israel this winter season on a trip that connects young adults to the country, celebrating the beauty, excitement, and significance of Israel. Before leaving for my trip, I was overjoyed by the expectation that I'd be able to share with my bus all that I knew and loved about the country. I knew I'd be excited to talk to them about day-to-day life in Jerusalem; that I'd be thrilled to cheer them on as they climbed Masada at 5 am; that I'd feel that spark of emotion as they wrote notes at the Western Wall. But I could never have predicted the intensity of that "Ah ha!" moment as I realized the extent to which I had facilitated in a young adult's connection to Israel, her desire to return, and her sense of responsibility to the Jewish community.
Only a few days after we arrived in Chicago, Amanda expressed her desire to get back to Israel as soon as possible. She is now planning to return to Israel for a semester of study abroad this coming fall. I have no doubt that the experiences she will have and the relationships she will establish will leave a lasting impression on her commitment to the Jewish community.