Real Stories - Changed Lives

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

Real Stories - Changed Lives

Students explore their Jewish culture on Taglit Birthright Israel

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

 

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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  www.israelwithisraelis.com

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