Real Stories - Changed Lives


Personal stories of lives impacted by the opportunities offered through JUF's Israel Education Center.

Real Stories - Changed Lives

Chicago Catholic High School teachers experience Israel

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by Lisa Klein

Seven high school teachers representing four schools are experiencing a whirlwind eight days in Israel. This is a joint project of JUF's Israel Education Center  and the Archdiocese of Chicago that has been generously funded through private donations.

When the teachers return to their schools they will integrate what they are learning into their curricula which ranges from art to history with the help of our Israel Educator. Yesterday took us through 2,000 years of history and our Jewish ties to the land. A visit to the Microsoft Accelerator showed Israel today at the forefront of technology and visits throughout the Galilee showed our ancient roots.

The trip goes way too quickly but we hope to spread before them the canvas that is Israel as well as an understanding of Jewish Peoplehood. The goal is that they will pass on this knowledge of our historical connections to the land of Israel and Israel's right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state to the hundreds of students who pass through their classes.

Drew Harweger, a World History teacher at St. Rita of Cascia High School said of the trip: "Modern Israel is a complex narrative the headlines paint with only a single brush. The beauty of this land doesn't necessarily lie in the ancient history, but in whom the storied past means something to today, the people. Israelis are an eclectic yet largely unified people whose story, which is absolutely resilient yet defiantly dogmatic in each their own right, deserves a multitude of brushes to paint their story."

We'd like to share from one of the teacher's blogs, Sean Sweany from Mount Carmel High School who is updating his students about his experience in Israel. You can follow the link below to track the teachers trip through Sean's perspective and read the most recent entry here:

 Busy day in Tel Aviv  

We had our first full day in Tel Aviv today and wow, what a packed day. After a quick run along the Mediterranean coast and nice healthy breakfast I was ready to see Tel Aviv. 


We started at Tel Aviv University, where we met with Professor Uzi Rabi of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, who talked with us about the Middle East situation. He eloquently and concisely summed up his thoughts in several themes: political culture, state vs. religion, artificially created states (Israel, Iraq, Syria, etc.), superpowers and their role in the Middle East, and finally, Israel itself. 


The situation is so much more complicated than the American media ever portray it to be. Professor Rabi had some interesting points:

Israel and its complicated story is only one small piece of the entire tale. It is religion that gives people their identity, not arbitrarily created countries like Iraq, Syria or even Israel. Given this, a new map (literal? figurative?) is needed to really know who is who. Nothing will ever be solved by two leaders sitting down to 'hammer things out.'  Really, there needs to be an educational resolution so that people in this region come to 'respect the other.' And that 'agreement' is a better, more feasible word than 'peace.'

It was a fascinating conversation that has created many more questions than it answered. I gained a new appreciation of how intricate the situation here really is and how difficult it is for leaders to address. 


After meeting Prof. Rabi, we visited the Yitzhak Rabin Museum, which details the life and assassination of the Prime Minister along with the history of the state of Israel. This was yet another exposure to the short yet busy history of this country, a theme which has not been lost on any of us. 

After lunch we toured the Peres Peace Center, a non-profit, NGO created by former Israeli President Shimon Peres dedicated towards promoting interaction between Israelis and Palestinians. One way they do this is to create sports leagues where Palestinian and Israeli children play soccer with one another, learning to develop relationships. The Center also coordinates medical care in Israel for Palestinians who either do not have access to or cannot afford treatment in Palestine. This was inspiring, to see that in spite of the anger, hatred and violence between these two parties, good relations can be had between them with the right attitude and dedication. 


We also had a brief visit to an art museum for one of the most famous Israeli artists, Reuven Ruben, who had some pretty wild stuff. 


After dinner in the nearby town of Jaffa, we celebrated the beginning of Hanukkah with Rachel Korazim, an educator who led us in a discussion of poems and stories that challenge perceptions of cities like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Israel as a whole. The interpretation of literature, rhetoric and history here was fascinating to me, as someone who geeks out doing this in a Latin or English class. 

After this we lit the first candle of the Menorah to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah, which commemorates the rededication of the Temple as described in Maccabees. We also had some awesome jelly donuts, as is the tradition. 


I am pretty exhausted, but it was a great day. Ready for another Caravan Tough workout tomorrow morning (maybe a mythological swim...more on this to come...) and then we are off towards the Sea of Galilee. 

A short introduction from the new Israel Fellow

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by Eyal Ben Zeev
Cross Campus Israel Fellow, Jewish Agency for Israel and Metro Chicago Hillel


When I left Israel the siren still went off every day, all day. Leaving your country in times of war is not an easy thing to do. My then-ninth-months-pregnant sister used to run, very heavily, a couple of times a day to the shelter. I was hoping that she would make it to her due date. Newspapers reported that the alarms and the stress of the war were causing women to deliver earlier than expected.

When the airplane took off, first to New York and later to Chicago, I had no idea where I was heading. Chicago, back in the 60's, was another word for "crime" in Israel. When you wanted to say how safe Tel Aviv was relative to other major cities, you would have said, "it's Tel Aviv here, it's not Chicago." That was what I knew, more or less about the beautiful Windy City. Oh, that and "The Good Wife," of course.

So what makes a 27-year-old man decide to pack up his life and catch a flight to Chicago to work for the Jewish People? I am not sure, I still ask myself these questions, but I can think of a few reasons.

I am a very political person. I have an opinion, and like any Israeli, I believe that if I were the Prime Minister, Israel would solve all its problems in a day. My political tendencies even led me to achieve a B.A. in Middle Eastern History, a degree focusing on the modern history of the whole region. My love for my country, therefore, has not been only an emotional thing; rather an outcome of a long personal and intellectual process I have gone through over the years.

Like most Israelis, after graduating from high school, I joined the army and following my three-year service, I took "The Grand Trip Abroad."  Unlike most young Israelis, I did not choose to go to South America, Australia or India. I did discover India but at a much later date, and it became a very significant place in my heart, but when I was 21, I chose to travel to Europe. My European trip started in the UK, specifically in the small University town of Oxford where I visited my beloved cousin. While I was there, the Gaza War of 2008-9 (Operation Cast Lead) broke and I found myself, reluctantly, trying to explain to people why it was happening, and what was the nature of our enemy, Hamas.

Everywhere I went during this time I could see huge protests emphasizing terrible lies about Israel, lies I could not understand how anyone believed. I will never forget a conversation with a PHD student, who did not fail to share her opinions with me. We were sitting in a pub surrounded by many people and she said to me, "For me, talking to you (me), considering the fact that you were just released from the IDF, is as if I am talking to an SS soldier." I was shocked and hurt. However, I am grateful to her, to this day, for helping me to realize the very hard truth about the way my country is perceived and broadcasted outside of it.

I did not fully understand how to deal with this "truth" until I worked as an educator (Middle East History, Arabic). Unfortunately, I and others like me cannot meet all the people in the world for coffee and explain Israel and the complex history that brought it to its present day situation. Even without taking on the whole world and only focusing on the importance of Israel to the Jewish people one might say that the attachment of the Jewish people to the state of Israel is becoming less strong over the years and this is something that is a potential risk to the existence of the country. This, perhaps, leads me to my main reason for coming to Chicago:  I can start somewhere, and I should start somewhere. 

Since I arrived in Chicago about two months ago and through the coming year, I am serving as the Israel Fellow for the Jewish Agency for Israel and Metro Chicago Hillel. Together with the amazing staff of Metro Chicago Hillel, I am excited to bring different sides of Israel to our campuses (this year I will focus mostly on: Loyola, DePaul, UIC and Columbia) and hold events and activities to show students that Israel has a lot to offer and by that, expose them to its lesser-known sides. From educational programs about the conflict to speakers on Israeli culture and Birthright recruitment - we are doing all we can, with the generous support of JUF's Israel Education Center, to make sure more people get to know the beautiful face of the state of Israel.

They say that young minds are more open to new ideas - so Chicago campuses, here I come.

Why we must stand up and speak up

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By Josh Cohen

As the dog days of summer slowly lumbered around me, I received a unique opportunity. It came nestled in an email filled with updates from Write On for Israel, the two-year Israel education and advocacy training program I've been a part of for the past year. We were being invited to lead breakout sessions during an upcoming Israel program for teens, co-sponsored by JUF's Israel Education Center and a long list of groups that work with Jewish teens.

I knew this was something I had to do.

I have always had a deep love for Israel, but before I became a Write On Fellow that love did not always translate into being an effective advocate. I had the passion and the willingness to speak, but I lacked knowledge and I did not know how to advocate effectively.

The first year of Write On's program was challenging, but it taught me more about the history of Israel than I thought there was to know. The program also honed my writing and debate abilities, while teaching me how to process and grow from ideas I do not necessarily accept.

After our two-week Israel trip last June, I felt confident that my factual and historical tool belt was diverse and powerful, and that I knew how to effectively use each tool to defend Israel.

So when I got that email, I paid attention because it offered me a chance to put everything I have been learning for the past year to use. Some of my friends could not understand how I could give up the last, precious hours of the golden days of summer, but I saw it as an opportunity to do something I loved, and I had the tools to do it well. While some people thoughts I was nuts, more than a dozen of my Write On peers also answered the call.

We all saw this as our best opportunity, so far, to advocate for Israel. Those who would attend the gathering were genuinely curious about the conflict and wanted to know the facts of the matter. This type of open-minded and intelligent crowd is exactly who we wish to advocate to, and the most important thing I can do is get our message to them.

Our first step was to determine the overall message of the night and what we would discuss in each breakout group. We chose "Free Gaza From Hamas" as our broad message, because it allowed us to humanize both sides of the issue while showing that there are oppressors in Gaza: Hamas.

Our group spent hours in the library crafting effective and powerful breakout sessions. There was a very special moment during that long planning session, one in which we all realized our own power. We had spent the past year, and arguably our whole lives, developing these skills and knowledge and here we were - using them for something we were deeply passionate about.

The night went very well, largely due to the efforts of my peers. Our presentations sparked discussions and ignited people's passion for learning. I hope the attendees came away with the realization that Israel is a very complex entity with roots in the distant past and ramifications that affect our future.

The only way to understand these conflicts is to acknowledge that no one side has all the answers, and that we must work to include the perspectives of all parties. This inclusion will lead to an onslaught of new information. Wrestling with these new ideas, from a vast array of sources, is a beautiful but challenging process. To fully grow from this process we must adhere to the truth, no matter where it leads, and arm ourselves with facts. Slowly these truths will accumulate a belief that must be advocated for and protected. However, we must be sure to test our discoveries with as much rigor, and as constantly, as the information we continuously digest. By being devoted to our beliefs and constantly testing ourselves, we will be the most effective advocates we can be.

Josh Cohen is a senior at Glenbrook North High School and a Write On for Israel Senior Fellow.

Israel on my mind

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by Tori Weinstein
Israel Education Center Lewis Summer Intern


There is a certain vibe that exists solely in Israel. It’s warm, comforting, and welcoming. I have heard people talk about Israel this way my whole life, but I didn’t understand it until I was finally there, able to see it and feel it for myself. You see the beaming sun reflect off the lime-stoned streets of Jerusalem on Shabbat afternoon, the freshly baked challah and rugelach from local markets; you see 4,500 square miles worth of beautiful desert sand in the Negev – you see it all. You see smiles on people’s faces, joy in their eyes, and love in their words.

As much as I looked like a tourist on Birthright with my three liters of water, an “Illini” hat on my head, and a hamsa necklace purchased on Ben Yehuda street, I could tell the local Israelis still wanted me here. They wanted me to experience all of Israel too and fall in love with her the way they had. The seven Israelis on our trip made me feel like I belonged. I came back from my trip inspired, so thrilled to be spending my summer interning at the Israel Education Center as a Lewis Summer Intern.

It was an ordinary summer day for me when I heard about the kidnapping of Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal. I was sitting at my desk checking my email when my Facebook newsfeed, usually filled with meaningless statuses, suddenly was overrun with posts linking to news articles about the boys. It’s hard to believe how quickly war can break out, how fast animosity can escalate to true hatred and violence. It’s hard to believe I was just in Israel on an amazing Taglit-Birthright Israel experience, unaware that the very streets I had just walked on would become dangerous territory in just two short months.  

A whole month after the teens were kidnapped and murdered, I sit at my desk listening to the sirens go off every few minutes from the Red Alert: Israel app on my phone and I can’t help but picture myself in Israel at this very moment. The app sounds a distinct alarm that mimics the emergency sirens going off throughout Israel when a missile is on its way. This app brings Israeli supporters together from all over the world; it makes you feel as close to Israel as possible, to share in the fear experienced by Israeli citizens every day, without experiencing the actual danger faced by them.  

I first feel immense sadness when I hear this alarm on my phone. I think about my friends spending their summers in Israel on a Hasbarah Fellowship or as a camp counselor at Kefiada with the Partnership Region of Kiryat Gat, Lachish and Shafir. I think of my dad, who is leading a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip right now. I think about my best friend Roye, one of the Israeli soldiers I met on my trip who is a combat soldier fighting in Gaza right now. I also think about the other six Israeli soldiers who were on my bus.

Whenever I hear my alarm go off on my phone, I immediately pray for the protection and safety of everyone under attack. Within 15 seconds, the sirens are blaring followed by a boom. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a country where you could find yourself in mortal danger in need of immediate shelter within seconds.

People here have adapted to a way of life that seems almost incomprehensible to those living in other parts of the world. They’ve swapped their leather loafers for sneakers and day camps and work days for bomb shelters; those sharing shelters have learned to sleep in their clothes, and long, warm showers turn into short cold ones. Worry and fear has become as mundane as brushing your teeth.

My dad likes to refer to this whole conflict as “mowing the lawn.” We are hoping that these occasional large-scale operations like Operation Protective Edge or Operation Pillar of Defense back in 2012 have a temporary effect to create periods of quiet along the Gaza border. However, just as freshly cut grass doesn’t last forever, I don’t expect quiet in the Middle East to last forever either.

Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal were kids my age, kids I could relate to. Being an innocent civilian living in Israel during this horrendous time, however, is something that I can’t relate to. As I vaguely tell my 10-year-old brother about the situation going on in Israel, he tries to relate to the innocent children living in terror. He confesses,

“Truly, I feel sad for all the residents and army workers living in Israel, especially the kids. I’m confused why there has to be bombs and wars in Israel. It’s not very difficult to throw away your missiles and live in a peaceful world. Why can’t there be peace?”

Amen brother. 

From Magical Ideal to Multi-Dimensional Reality

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By Joshua Hoffman  

WOFI blog

The 2014 Write On for Israel Fellows at Independence Hall in Israel.


When I was entering third grade, I visited Israel with three other families and my own. In a word, the trip was magical. I later visited Israel in eighth grade and again, in a word, the trip was magical.  

Both trips were truly just magical – though nothing more. I was only given a heroic and romanticized view of Israel. These perfect experiences did make me want to make aliyah, but they were not a full view of Israel. They were just one side.

Last Friday night during our first Shabbat dinner in Israel as Write On for Israel Fellows, the public saw a rally in Gaza that supported the abduction of the three Israeli teens.

When the news of the rally broke, the host family I was staying with was livid. A guest of my host family, a 20-year-old Israeli who was serving in the Navy, took me outside and asked what I thought about Israel. I instinctively responded, "I love it." He then rhetorically asked, "even though three teens were just kidnapped and you are always waiting for some terrorist to strike?"

I was caught dead in my tracks, and the magic of Israel had disappeared, replaced by a multi-dimensional one. Israel suddenly became a country with security threats and a society that views missile attacks as a norm. Simultaneously, it became a country where I can still easily talk to a 20-year-old soldier who lives halfway around the world.

I also know, however, that this threatened nation still has that magic thriving alongside every fear and threat to society. During my weekend in JUF's Partnership Together region, Kiryat Gat, Lachish and Shafir, Israel became real. It became a tangible reality with people who must not be overlooked when we make generalizations about a country. I now know that when I advocate for Israel I will not only be advocating for the magical place I saw as kid, but also for the 20-year-old soldier – the one who was pissed off by what he saw on TV, who still loves Israel in the wake of an act of terror.

Joshua Hoffman is a rising senior at Highland Park High School and a Write On for Israel Fellow. He is currently in Israel with his Write On cohort, and his stay in JUF's Partnership Together region, Kiryat Gat, Lachish and Shafir, was part of the experience. 

Write On for Israel is a project of JUF’s Israel Education Center.

How to turn DePaul Divest towards peace

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By Matthew Rudolph
Law Student at DePaul University


I wrote the following article after years of tracking the motives of several Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns. It became clear to me that their movement was designed to intimidate students simply on account of their support for Israel. Their campaign causes miniscule damage to the Israeli economy and, hence, their only practical effect is to have bullied pro-Israel students on campus.  In the past, specifically when I was in undergrad, I was less inclined to speak out. Since then I have spent over a year in Israel, where I worked for several NGOs, interned with a Member of Knesset and staffed five birthright trips. When I returned to Chicago in 2011 to begin law school at DePaul University, I promised I would not sit quiet when and if BDS appeared again. Over the past few months, I have teamed up with Blue Demons Against BDS at DePaul - an admirable group of undergrad students who are unafraid to take a stand against BDS. The following article appeared in the DePaulia, the student newspaper at DePaul. It is a direct response to several op-eds written by BDS members. 


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"I have a challenge for groups like Demon PAC: Please explain how, if we do not engage in BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions), we are to take direct action against Israel's human rights violations. 'Dialogue' is not direct action."

To DePaul Divest, the above-cited challenge apparently presents an impossible predicament. They ask how can one untangle the Israel-Palestinian conflict if not by belligerent rhetoric and calls of resistance. Significantly, they present their abrasive approach as the final available alternative, as if all reasonable options had already been exhausted. I can say with confidence that DePaul Divest has not exhausted all options.

I offer a one-step cure for DePaul Divest. The cure can revamp DePaul Divest from the bottom up and align it with a far more constructive initiative. This one fundamental step has the ability to trickle down and deter their crusade against those that support a peaceful narrative.

The cure? I ask, not challenge, DePaul Divest to openly accept that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish State alongside a future Palestinian state. To make things easier, I'll take the first step and openly accept and support the Palestinian right of self-determination and their right to a sovereign state for the Palestinian people. Unfortunately, DePaul Divest cannot return the sentiment.

To the uninformed reader, this admission seems commonsensical: Israel, like all sovereign states, ought to be assured that its cities, markets, schools, museums, highways, holy sites, neighborhoods, courthouses, daycares and passport stamp will exist beyond any resolution. To the informed as well - including Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama - a two state solution was and is regarded as morally imperative. Then why, as I exposed in my previous letter, does DePaul Divest insist on a one-state solution, in which each blade of Israeli grass becomes Palestine? More to the point, why on earth should DePaul University assist an organization that seeks one future state for one people instead of two future states for two people?

If adopted, the one-step cure would influence DePaul Divest in each facet of its agenda. Here's how:

If DePaul Divest wanted a solution for two states: DePaul Divest could lobby Palestinian leadership to accept one of several previously offered two state solutions. It is historical fact that on at least four occasions the Palestinians could have negotiated for statehood. In 1936, the Peel Commission's Partition Plan, led by Lord Peel of Great Britain, was accepted by Chaim Weizmann and the Jews but rejected by Hajj Amin al-Husseini (who subsequently went on to befriend and assist Adolf Hitler). In 1947, UN Resolution 181 provided sovereign borders for Jews along Arabs, again accepted by the Jewish Agency and rejected by the Arab Higher Committee. In 2000, Yasser Arafat turned down Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's two-state solution, to the dismay of President Clinton. In 2008, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert the same response to an even more generous offer. Prior to the most recent round of negotiations, Israel released 78 Palestinian terrorists with blood on their hands as a precondition to merely negotiate a two state solution. This gesture was ignored and on April 24, only a few days ago, President Abbas entered into a unity-agreement with Hamas, a globally recognized terrorist organization openly committed to the extermination of the Jewish people.

If DePaul Divest wants to end the "occupation" of Palestinians and stymy alleged human rights violations, would it not be logical to ask Palestinian leaders to accept a negotiated deal and take sovereign control over the Palestinian people? To DePaul Divest the answer is a resounding no because a two state solution cannot be reconciled with their premise that Israel must not exist. Consequently, one can deduce that to DePaul Divest it is more important that Israel not exist than it is to end the plight of Palestinians.

If DePaul Divest wanted a solution for two states: It would condemn statements made by BDS founders and representatives that promote the opposite. DePaul Divest would distance itself from BDS leader Omar Barghouti who has called for the "liberation of every inch of Palestine," and to continue fighting the "Zionist enemy." Likewise, it would distance itself from notable anti-Semites that have identified with BDS, for instance David Duke.

If DePaul Divest wanted a solution for two states: It would lobby Palestinian leadership to distance itself from Hamas and not link diplomatic arms with an organization committed to Israel's destruction. DePaul Divest would do this because their recognition of Israel's right to exist would be irreconcilable with the Hamas Charter's expressed mission to exterminate Jews and eliminate Israel.

If DePaul Divest wanted a solution for two states: It would not delegitimize Israel's security concerns. In DePaul Divest's previous letter it mocked Israel's development of a security barrier between areas of Israel and Palestinian territories. In 2002, the year before the security barrier was erected, Palestinian terrorists routinely crossed unguarded city borders and murdered 457 Israeli civilians by bombing public buses, family restaurants and teen nightclubs. After the security barrier was completed in 2009, only 8 civilian casualties were counted. If DePaul Divest recognized Israel's right to exist and, hence, the necessity to protect its civilians from unconscionable terror attacks, it would not deride this security measure.

If DePaul Divest wanted a solution for two states: It would see Israel as a key future ally and would work to promote viable partnerships. DePaul Divest openly ridiculed Israel's accomplishments in high-tech, pharmaceuticals, and agricultural desert development. If DePaul Divest valued a future two state solution, it would work to enable partnerships between Palestinian and Israelis and bridge efforts to bring Israeli technology into future Palestinian cities. Instead, it actively tears any budding cooperation at the seams, which only hurts future Palestinian advancements.

If DePaul Divest wanted a solution for two states: It would ask Palestinian leadership to study Israeli democracy and to implement said features in a future Palestinian parliament. DePaul Divest would actively promote the fair treatment afforded to Israeli minorities like Israeli Arabs and Druze, as well as ask that a future Palestinian state reciprocate these values. If DePaul Divest believed Israel should exist, it would not demonize a model for its future civil constructs.

If DePaul Divest wanted a solution for two states: It would not subject all the wrong people to the bite of BDS. It would accept Israel's potential role in future Palestinian prosperity and work accordingly. To that end, Palestinian President Abbas announced that he does not ask "anyone to boycott Israel itself. We have relations with Israel." Abbas reflects the fact that BDS only harms those Palestinians that would lose their jobs when sanctions are imposed against Israeli companies that employ these workers.

If DePaul Divest wanted a solution for two states: It would look to cease publication of Palestinian school textbooks that remove Israel from maps and vilify Israel and Jews as descendants of pigs. If DePaul Divest wanted a solution for two states, it would seek to eliminate funding to Palestinian schools that breed hatred during their years of vulnerability. It would, instead, ask to follow the Israeli educational model where a narrative of peace is inherently promoted.

If DePaul Divest wanted a solution for two states: It would condemn President Abbas' use of US foreign aide, in which families of incarcerated terrorists receive financial awards for their alleged sacrifice. DePaul Divest would look to preclude this overt cycle of violence and instead revert funds to organizations or programs that do not incentivize terrorism.

I do not expect DePaul Divest to listen. DePaul Divest has been marinating in Israel-hatred for too long to suddenly reverse course. In fact, just yesterday its sister chapter at New York University was found distributing mock eviction notices to Jewish students in a campus dorm. An agenda founded on such animosity has no place on a university campus. Students of DePaul University should work hard to ensure DePaul Divest does not hijack our pursuit for peace.


Students explore their Jewish culture on Taglit Birthright Israel

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By Jessi Barnes
Israel Education Center/Hillel Israel Intern
DePaul University 



I got the e-mail during finals week Winter Quarter of 2013. It was now official, I was accepted and heading to Israel over the summer on Taglit Birthright Israel (Birthright) - a free, 10-day experience of a lifetime. My mind was almost instantly flooded with a mix of emotions. I was ecstatic, for one, but I was also absolutely terrified to spend 10 full days in a foreign country with a group of 50 strangers.

But, I took the leap. And, if I had not faced my fear and anxiety, I am absolutely certain that I would not be where I am today. Going on Birthright has brought me a deeper connection with my faith, a brand new family of friends, and, of course, a severe case of wanderlust. Birthright can be summed up into a fascinating; unimaginable; and, admittedly exhausting, 10-day excursion across Israel with a group of young adults who quickly transition from strangers to family.

The Taglit Birthright trip has an outdoor adventure focused itinerary, while integrating the historical and cultural aspects of the beautiful country of Israel as well. There was acceptance of any and all beliefs, which was a breath of fresh air. It is an exceptionally welcoming experience to each and every participant.

Being thousands of miles away from home with a group of 50 strangers in a foreign country may seem terrifying to some. I know it was for me. So, why take the chance and go on a Birthright trip? Jordan Gold, junior, went on Birthright because he felt he "needed a new perspective" and wanted the chance to "visit the roots of my religion."

Curiosity about your background, heritage and faith is common among young adults, and going on Birthright can help hash out some of the difficulties that come along with the "finding yourself " stage of life. I was in the same boat. I applied to Birthright with the intent of learning more about myself and my heritage. And, what better way to do that than to spend 10 days in beautiful Israel - the homeland of the Jewish people?

The number of reasons to take this trip are absolutely infinite. Allie Kahan, freshman, took a trip this winter to "break up" the monotony of the six week break. Cameron Erickson, junior, explained that he "wanted to see firsthand why a strip of land smaller than the state of New Jersey was in the news so often."

Bringing together the various motives for taking the trip and the wide-range of backgrounds truly enhances the Birthright experience by granting so many more opportunities to learn and grow. The 10 days are spent traveling all over Israel, from the Golan Heights in the North, to the Negev Desert in the South--there was never a dull moment. The first question anyone asks when you return from Birthright is about your favorite part ... which is extremely frustrating, seeing as it is nearly impossible to narrow it down to just one moment.

Matt Weitz, junior, said that he "will always remember watching the sun rise on top of Masada and riding camels during sunset the night before." Floating atop the Dead Sea fully caked in mud, kayaking along the Jordan River, wandering the Shuk marketplace in Jerusalem and spending time on the beach in Tel Aviv are among the many other enjoyable experiences.

Of course, there are many sentimental moments woven into the midst of all of the fun. Visiting the Western Wall for the first time can be an extremely, and usually unexpectedly, emotional experience for many participants, including myself. Personally, I was not very religious before my trip to Israel. However, being at the Western Wall was an extremely intense moment for me. Witnessing firsthand all of the notes stuffed into the cracks of the ancient wall, and realizing that each of those notes represented an individual's gratitude, hopes, prayers, dreams or wishes, hit me extremely hard.

Kahan explained the experience at the Wall as being "the most powerful" moment of her trip. Gold even admitted that he "bursted out into tears," while visiting the Western Wall.

"At first, I didn't think it was anything that special," he said, "and then it hit me out of no where."

Regardless of motive to take the trip, most, if not all, Birthright participants come back home with an overwhelmingly positive attitude - about all aspects of their adventure throughout Israel. Christie Lacey, junior, perfectly explained that Birthright "not only helps you appreciate all you have, but, also teaches you to be a more accepting and tolerant person" and that Birthright has helped her "grow so much as an individual."

Birthright gave me so much as well. Most importantly, I gained a group of friends that I can call family and a fresh perspective on my heritage. Birthright also led me to many exciting opportunities, including my Israel Internship with the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation's Israel Education Center today.

Recently, with much excitement, Birthright expanded their eligibility requirements. Teens who had previously gone on an educational trip to Israel during high school are now able to participate. So, if you are Jewish and between the ages of 18-26, you are eligible to take this amazing opportunity to travel to Israel. Interested? 

Eligible to go? Registration for Summer 2014 trips is now open.  Register at