The late Yitzhak Shamir said it best: "All of the land of Israel is ours." And no other place on earth has truly given me the indescribable connection that I felt in Israel.
The Birthright experience was truly magical from the moment it began. An hour into the flight to Israel, I wrapped tefillin with a religious man at 37,000 feet in the air. That's when I knew I was in for an experience of a lifetime. I felt as though as I was stepping into another world already, and I was only on the airplane.
The moment we landed, we were still flying, as the pace picked up to begin all of the movement ahead. We immediately formed a circle, holding our new brothers and sisters by the shoulders, screaming and shouting "achim," which means 'brothers' in Hebrew in the Ben Gurion Airport. It was at this point after yelling at the top of my lungs in a crowded airport that I absolutely knew that this was going to be something truly special.
From then on everyday was a blur, we went a thousand miles an hour, and I didn't even want or care for any down time. I yearned to keep seeing more and more of the beautiful country I was being gifted. Everywhere we visited I felt truly connected to, and I felt this absolute feeling of belonging throughout the entire country, and never once did I feel unsafe.
Though even more than all the sights I was seeing, I felt connected to the people I was with. I believe everything happens for a reason, and all the people that I was with couldn't have fit more perfectly for a trip of a lifetime. We had laughs, tears, more laughs, and religious awakenings, and the Israelis on our trip were 10 people of whom I have the utmost respect for. The Israelis were a special group of people who were serving their country with a level of dignity and eminence that is just unmatched.
Every day was something new, but the experience that I feel I must share took place at the Western Wall. Arriving into Jerusalem, we first went to an overlook where we were able to see the entire Old City. It was just breathtaking; I couldn't believe that before my eyes was the center of the world. We then drove down, and found ourselves outside the gates, and stepping in, I felt like I was stepping into a time machine. All I could think about was the wall and before we knew it, we were standing in front of it.
I briefly spoke with a Rabbi, who knew very well of the Skokie area, what a surprise! He had me wrap teffilin, and told me to go up to the wall and speak to it. I will admit that the three minutes I had the teffilin on were not enjoyable, and I couldn't focus on the wall at all because I felt like my arm was about to fall off. I took it off, and he smiled at me, and told me, "now go to the wall, talk to it, get to know it, touch it, embrace it."
I did exactly what he told me, and 15 minutes later I was a new man. I felt a spiritual awakening that I cannot even describe. I felt as if God was flowing through my veins; I had never had this feeling before and had never felt so connected to God. From then on, my faith had truly been confirmed, and I am forever grateful to Birthright for giving me the most amazing gift I have ever been bestowed.
Being on Birthright's Bar/Bat Mitzvah was a true blessing. I barely even remember my own Bar Mitzvah, but being a part of this experience opened new doors for me. Seeing the homeland showed me that there is a place on earth where we can truly feel an absolute connection to God. Thank you, Birthright.
Jake Counselbaum lives in Chicago and attends Roosevelt University.