By Efrat David
Jewish Agency Cross Campus Israel Fellow
Hillels of Illinois
Efrat and a student on Birthright: Enjoying Pomegranate Juice in Mahane Yehuda Market-Jerusalem
In two weeks I'll be heading back to Israel, leading my fourth Birthright trip starting June 19 with Newberger Hillel at the University of Chicago. The upcoming trip makes me think about my first experience on Birthright. You'd be surprised! No it wasn't a year ago when I staffed my first Birthright trip, but EXACTLY 10 years ago in June of 2003 as an Israeli peer on the trip.
Back then I was a young soldier about to start seven long months of officer training. Birthright was still considered a new project and getting a spot on the trip was really hard. You needed to be recommended by your commanders and interview for the position. When I got a spot I was thrilled.
I still remember that trip. I remember the first day when my fellow peers and I (all of us from the same unit) were waiting for the bus to pick us up somewhere in the north excited and not knowing what to expect from the trip. We knew little about the life of American Jews, and at the time did not fully understand what this trip would mean to them.
I remember hiking in the north, riding donkeys at Kfar Ha'Nokdim, having group activities at night and walking around in the old city. BUT the most clear and vivid memory I have from that trip was our bus ride to Jerusalem or to be more accurate--what happened while we were slowly driving through the Jerusalem Hills and entering the city. In the background the "Jerusalem of Gold" song was playing and our tour guide explained that we were about to enter the city. There was silence, no one was sleeping and everyone was shifting in their chairs trying to get the first glimpse of Jerusalem. When the city was revealed to us almost everyone on the bus started to cry! They were tears of joy. Although my fellow Israelis and I knew that they were excited about it we were completely shocked and at the same time so moved to be able to share the experience of entering the holy city they had heard so much about but never had seen before, that we cried with them. This one amazing moment; a mixture of tears and joy, complete happiness and longing--is one of the most powerful moments I will always carry with me.
I am one of the lucky people that had the opportunity to experience both sides of the trip, as a participant 10 years ago and today as a leader. I carry with me my own Israel that is the total experience of my life as an Israeli, but I also carry with me another Israel, the one that I get to discover every trip through students' eyes. I get to bridge the gap between two worlds and although these worlds are so different we are still so much alike. I know for a fact that this mutual experience is not only meaningful for students but also is significant for the Israeli peers as well.
I stayed in touch for some time with the students from this trip, but 10 years ago we didn't have Facebook, Skype, the convenience of social media, and long distance calls were still very expensive. I wish we had the technology back then to keep in touch with my friends from the trip and continue to share our experiences and life in general. Today, I see how students are able to benefit from staying in touch with their Israeli peers from the trip on a daily basis--and some even go back and visit them in Israel.
Ten years after my first trip, I can't stop thinking about how lucky I was to see the complete picture--and experience both sides of the trip. Ten years after, I wonder where the students from my trip are today in life and in their own Jewish journey, and what was their meaningful moment from the trip that they still remember? Ten years after, I wonder if not for that one meaningful moment that opened the door to a world I never knew before and was about to discover, would I be here today? Would I be here today about to begin not my first, not my second, but my third year as a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow on Illinois college campuses?
I really do believe that one single moment can begin a journey down a path that can stretch into the years ahead--10 years ahead in my case. At the time I didn't know that this would lead me to take my journey one step further, and two years ago I was accepted for the position of a Jewish Agency Shliacha (Emissary) for JUF's Israel Education Center to work with the Hillels of Illinois. My hope is that during my time here, I'm able to create these kinds of meaningful and powerful experiences for students so they can begin their own special journey, and also to help them develop the courage to take their journey one step further.