By Jessica Ost
Engagement Associate, Hillels Around Chicago
As students return to school after winter break the first thing they will ask each other is "What did you do over break?" Many students will tell their friends about the relaxing time they had at home, the places they traveled to or the job they got to help out during the holidays. Nearly 200 Jewish college students from Chicago will proudly be able to say that they had a life-changing experience in Israel—they traveled to their homeland on Taglit Birthright Israel. I had the honor to staff a Birthright trip this winter with JUF/JF's Chicago community trip provider, Shorashim, and I got to see firsthand how this experience affected each one of the participant's lives.
These Jewish students from Chicago will come back from winter break having made over 40 new close friends, American and Israeli alike. Some of the friends they made live in the dormitory next to them, others may be in the next town. Several of the friends that they made live in Israel and are completing their service in the Israel Defense Forces. Despite the physical distance that exists between the American students and their new Israeli friends, the bond created over 10 consecutive days together is unbreakable.
The Birthright participants will also tell their friends that they went to Kiryat Gat- Lachish-Shafir, JUF/JF's Partnership Together region, where they helped build a traditional Ethiopian house in a community garden and baked Ethiopian bread with locals. Prior to arriving at the community garden, the students learned about the multiple operations implemented to save over 14,000 Ethiopians by airlifting them to Israel, proving to these students that Israel cares about Jews all over the world. While building the house and baking bread with this community in Israel, students were able to hear some personal stories. They will recall that not only were they able to help the community in Kiryat Gat-Lachish-Shafir, but in return they were warmly welcomed despite the language barrier—friendly smiles and warm embraces are the universal language that everybody understands.
One of the most anticipated places that the participants will talk about was the Western Wall. As we approached the Kotel, Anna Wolfe, a sophomore at Columbia College, told me that she was nervous because she did not have a "plan" for when she walked up to the wall. My response to her was to do exactly that: don't have a plan. I told her that when she approached the wall her heart would take over and she would know what to do. Not having a plan proved to be extremely moving for Anna. "The second I put my hands on the wall and felt the coldness of the stone I felt an extremely strong emotional connection to the Wall. I started to cry, and it wasn't because I was thinking of anything sad or emotional. I just felt like something very spiritual was happening while I was touching the Wall. I said the Shema, read my note, and then put the note in the wall. Finally being there and feeling the emotions that millions of Jews had felt before me, made me feel connected to all of the Jewish people. Being in the place that I had turned towards every time I prayed in school or at temple and seeing the people around me who all felt safe to pray and let go of emotions gave me a strong sense of pride for my religion." Seeing all of the participants' expressions and demeanor after leaving the Kotel showed me that Anna was not the only one in the group who was extremely moved.
These are just a few snapshots of our experience in Israel over the winter break, and although our Birthright trip has ended and the students are back at school, each participant's journey has only just begun. For this next generation, the experiences and friends made during the 10 day adventure in the Holy Land will last a lifetime.