Back from Birthright Israel Blog

Back from Birthright Israel Blog

Meet an Alumnus: Caitlyn Boylan

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Caitlyn B
 Birthright, to me, encompassed so many firsts, including one for my entire family. While many of my family members had been to Israel in the past, I was the first one going as a Jew. 

July 5th, 2014—Birthright Day 6: My roommate woke me up by saying, "Dude, you're getting bat mitzvahed in like, 20 minutes. You better get up!"

This was the day that anyone who hadn't had a bar/bat mitzvah or wanted to have a second one in Jerusalem was able to do so. I had grappled with doing it, but after spending six days straight with my Birthright bus, I found that I was more than willing to open up and be vulnerable with them. So, I decided to take advantage of a moment that I would surely regret if let pass by, and have my first and only bat mitzvah—in Israel, in Jerusalem.

You see, I was not born Jewish. I actually converted to Judaism on June 12, 2011. I had wanted to for a decade, and finally did it after college.

As a child, I had a decent amount of exposure to Judaism. In addition to close family friends who were Jewish, I grew up hearing stories of my dad's childhood in Lincolnwood, and the time he spent living in Israel on a kibbutz. My inclination towards Judaism had always been like a gut instinct, but I was young. So, I waited to confirm it wasn't a phase and that I was sure.

After 10 years of learning about the religion and growing up, finally converting felt like I was returning home. Everything about Judaism felt familiar, and I've never once doubted my decision. It's no coincidence that my Jewish name, Bara, means "to choose."

Proud as I am about my decision, I'm not always quick to tell people that I am a Jew by choice. I'm worried about being judged, or people jumping to conclusions about my motivations.

For example, to those who know me, it makes complete sense that I am now in a serious relationship with a Jewish man. But when I anecdotally tell people I converted, they tend to assume it was because of him. Now don't get me wrong, converting for a partner is a completely legitimate reason to convert, but it's not my reason. And to top it off, my conversion is the culmination of a long, personal journey that defines some of the core elements of who I am. So until I refine my "elevator speech," I tend to just keep quiet.

Of course, my worries about being "outed" as a Jew-by-choice followed me on Birthright. I had been worried that if I told the group I had converted, I would somehow come off looking like fraud-an outsider trying to weasel my way into a culture that I didn't belong to. But rest assured, it's all in my head.

No Jew I've encountered has given confirmation to my insecurities, and this group was no exception. After telling my story and being bat mitzvahed, I was once again welcomed into the open arms of the Jewish community, by way of this wonderful group of people—my first real Jewish community of peers.

I returned home with the memories of the incredible encouragement, hugs, tears, and love that I received, which will forever serve to bolster myself whenever I feel insecure again. I will always be grateful to this specific group of people for teaching me that honesty and revealing my true self is far more rewarding than trying to fit in, and hiding my history. If any of you are reading this, thank you so much, you have no idea how wonderful you made me feel. If any of your parents are reading this, congratulations—you raised some awesome people.

The bar/bat mitzvahs took place in nearby park, and sitting in the shade of the park's greenery, feeling the calm Jerusalem breeze right after my bat mitzvah, was truly one of the most contented moments of my life. None of this would have been possible without Birthright.

Reflections on an Amazing Experience by Geoff S

(Trip Blog) Permanent link

Bus 217

I was really hesitant about the trip I took to Israel. First, for safety reasons. Secondly, for meeting so many new people and spending 10 days with them. Group dynamics are a tricky thing and can make or break an experience. It is with these hesitations that I boarded a plane to journey to a place I've never been across the sea. It is important to note, I was so wrong about both of my previously held concerns. Despite western media, Israel is no less safe than Chicago.
I believe that with Taglit-Birthright Israel & Shorashim you put into the trip you get out of it. I didn't hold back, and for that I can say I experienced more than I could have ever expected.

The 49 individuals I traveled along with made this journey something truly special. They accepted me, allowed me to grow, challenged my perspectives, and were open to new ones as well. Truly, some of the most delightful people (and jews) I have ever had the privilege of meeting. My only regret is that you all don't live in the country of Texas, but I know I will see you all for a drink before you know it. We may lives states away, but I have a feeling (or at least a hope) that we will be friends for a very long time.

The land of Israel was everything I hoped for and more. The history, the culture, and (oh my g-d) the landscape: BEAUTIFUL! I climbed streams and valleys, mountains and grasslands. I touched this land that, for so many, was only a distant dream or memory. I have so missed the feel of Israeli soil under my feet these past four days, but I know I will be back someday soon.

Israeli's, I will never forget you. Though our time together was short, I felt like it lasted years. Getting to know you was a lot of fun. Your humor and sarcasm is unparalleled and will be greatly missed. Traveling through Israel with you by my side helped me to better understand the world around me. You give me hope for a better world and a better tomorrow. I hope I see all of you the next time come to Israel, especially you Nitzan Mulay.

I truly feel this experience has impacted me for the better. In 10 short days, this journey helped me better understand Judaism and where it fits into my life. It helped me more clearly see the struggle both today, and in the past, that the Jewish people had endured. Lastly, it has instilled a new sense of pride in me and my heritage.

I don't think I'll ever be able to say enough positive things about my experience or the people that made it so incredible. I am so blessed to have so many new friends and memories. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for everything. It has meant the world to me.

To conclude, I want to send a special thank you to Yossi. Before we left, Rebecca Gold said that to be a story teller is a true talent and I could not agree more with that statement. To take something, especially something that you are so well versed in, and turn it anew. Well that is truly something masterful. I believe that had it not been for you my experience would have been vastly different. Thank you for your time, and your wisdom. You rekindled a long lost flame for me, and though we said goodbye on Sunday I am sure we will see each other for falafel and conversations again. Toda Raba!

Geoff and soldiers

Tel Aviv and Jerusalem by Kayla

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Bus 217 

After a wonderful night experiencing some of the night life in Tel Aviv, we were on our way Monday morning. We headed out to Rabin Square where Israel's former prime minister was assassinated. Here, we had the opportunity to speak to some of the local Israeli's to hear about their experience during this time. For me, it reminded me quite a bit of the reactions toward the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. The main reactions my group heard were in regards to the thought that it happened once, so it can happen again. It was incredible to hear different points of view and how it effected everybody.

We were then off to Kiryat Gat. There, we had the opportunity to spend time with Israeli youth who lived in an agricultural village. We spent time in some of their green houses and then went back to their facility for a Hanukkah party. We made cheese latkes, ate sufgoniot, played games and lit the Hanukkah candles.

We then departed for the Old City in Jerusalem. On the drive there, I had the opportunity to speak to some of our Israeli peers in regards to their experience in the army and especially what they experienced this summer. The common theme I felt from each of them was their pride in serving their country, not because they had to, but for us. As I began to ponder and piece together some of my experiences thus far, I began to realize the reason I'm on this land right now is because of those fighting for not only the land of Israel, but for the Jewish people everywhere. As I continued to listen to their stories, I asked myself, am I fulfilling my ancestors' hopes as a Jewish person? What is it that they would want to me get out of this experience?

With these thoughts in mind, we traveled into the Old City and blasted "Jerusalem" by Matisyahu on the bus. His song states "Jerusalem, if I forget you, let my right hand forget what it's supposed to do." And that is exactly what I presume my ancestors felt. Jerusalem, the most holy place for the Jewish people, the place that they only imagined of being able to see, I was about to walk the ground of. I was walking the ground of the most important place in the world to Jewish people.

Recently, I lost my Bubbie and with every step I have taken these past few days I have had her in my heart. I found it no coincidence that the day we were in the Old City would have been her 83rd birthday. Judaism was very important to my Bubbie. She raised three children with strong Jewish values who all passed those same values onto her six grandchildren. At every Jewish holiday, Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and any other event she gleaned with pride over all of us. She felt a strong connection to Israel and while walking the steps of the Old City I felt her presence with me. As we approached the Kotel all I could think about is that was about to touched the wall that she once touched and only hoped that I would be able to touch as well. I recall her numerous times sharing her experience when she had the opportunity to visit Israel and how important her Jewish identity was to her. When I was up to the wall I began to ponder: I was standing in front of the single most important thing to the Jewish people on the day the woman who has taught me everything I know was born. The woman who despite immigrating from Poland and experiencing a significant amount of anti-semitism still wanted her family to continue to pass on Jewish values. As I walked away from the Kotel, I only hoped that I had fulfilled her wishes and I continue to carry on her legacy.

After this very moving experience, we headed back to the hotel for the night. Before bed we prepared for Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum. We all shared our experience with we have encountered with the Holocaust.

Putting all the pieces together from today and this incredible experience, I hope my peers are able to take away the same thing I am. We all come from very different walks of life, encountered different things, and have had different hardships. Regardless of that, we share the same bond, being Jewish. I feel incredibly fortunate to be here with all these beautiful people and could not feel more proud to be a Jewish person.

Kayla Yad Vashem

Kayla Group

Tzfat by Kate G

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Bus 217

 On Monday, we traveled to the mystical city of Tzfat. Our first stop was to visit local artist Avraham Loewenthal who is originally from Michigan and went to school at the Art Institute of Chicago. Avraham was, at that time, not very interested in his religion until someone gave him a book about Jewish meditation that changed his life. From there, he discovered Kabballah, which is the study of Jewish mysticism. Avraham later moved to Israel to devote his life to Kabballah and now lives in Tzfat with his wife and kids and sells his beautiful Kabballah inspired art. He told us of his tranformative journey and his many amazing experiences. Many of us, myself included, were very moved by his stories and his passion for Judaism and Kabballah.

After leaving Avraham, we stopped to listen to some traditional Israeli music played by Agadeta on beautiful ancient intrusments. Then we learned about the War of Independence. This was a war in which the 10% of Jews won control of Tzfat from the 90% of Arabs. We walked by buildings riddled with bullet holes on our way to lunch. Yossi brought us to his favorite falafel place before we split up to go explore this ancient city. We walked the stone streets looking through shops full of amazing jewelry and art and took a tour of a unique candle factory. We then piled back on the bus to head to Tel Aviv.

When we arrived in Tel Aviv, we went to Independence Halll where we stood in the exact spot that David Ben Gurion declared the creation of the State of Israel. That night, we were treated to a concert by Maytal and Etzion, two contestants on Israel's version of The Voice. After, we went out for a night on the town in Tel Aviv. It was an especially exciting night because we were celebrating one of our Birthrighter's birthday, the lovely and newly 26 year old, Erin. We ended the night on the roof of the hotel, overlooking the beautiful city of Tel Aviv.

It was a very full, very exciting and educational day that will stay wiith us for the rest of our lives!

Day 1 By Taryn R

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Bus 217

Have you ever been welcomed at the airport with song and dance? Shorashim Bus 217 can say they were!

Within moments of meeting each other, 48 American and Israeli participants were arm and arm at Ben Guiron Airport singing songs of brotherhood and sisterhood, guided by tour guide legend, Yossi. It was in true Birthright fashion to skip the introductions and go right to singing and hand holding!

Awaited by their bus driver, they hopped on board Bus 217 en route to Kibbutz Degania in Galilee. Hunger, fatigue and 3 out of 3's on the emergency bathroom scale struck, and the crew kissed the ground when they reached their final destination. Nothing could be accomplished until a much anticipated Israeli meal was eaten, but shortly after, they were arm in arm again to light the Hannukah candles.

Excited for the upcoming days ahead, guides Rebecca and Sammi laid down some of the Shorashim ground rules, amongst them: have fun! We began with an incredible hike of the Zavitan in Golan Heights. Though challenging and muddy, the pack enjoyed breathtaking views of the streams and waterfalls in the Golan while learning about it's rich history. All in all, everyone left with soggy socks and amazing pictures (to follow).
On their way back to the Kibbutz, the team walked around old war territory in the Golan. With close views of Syria, they briefly discussed current events in Israel from the perspective of the Israelis.

As the team prepares for the Shabbos, they want their parents to know that they love them and that they're having a wonderful time. If they haven't had any life changing moments yet, they will shortly!