From March 4-14, Rabbi Avrohom and Goldie Litvin led a Birthright Israel trip of young adults to Israel for a 10-day learning experience.
Birthright Israel is an organization that seeks to change the course of Jewish history by strengthening the next generation’s Jewish identity and connection to Israel. Over the past 13 years, they have sent over 350,000 young adults to visit and learn about Israel.
Birthright is more than just a trip or a tour. It was a journey in which most every participant, including the Rabbi and his wife, re-connected and grew as friends, Jews and part of Am Yisroel – the Nation of Israel.
The participants in the group came from across the United States, from New York to Alaska and Arizona to Florida. For the most part, they seemed to be just a great group of normal American young adults who “happened” to be Jewish. The vast majority were not connected with any synagogue, temple or Jewish establishment.
Before leaving New York, Rabbi Litvin suggested to the group that they were going to the “Holy Land of Israel” and they would therefore have two choices. They could simply see the sights and have a wonderful and fun 10-day vacation, or they could actively seek to “open their eyes in the land of miracles” and hope to experience a deeper connection with the history and meaning of being part of the nation of Israel.
Each participant was remarkable, but one young woman was especially worthy of mention. As she went through customs in JFK Airport, the El Al security people asked her if she could tell them her Rabbi’s name, which temple she was affiliated with, something about the Jewish holidays. She could not answer any of these questions and was in fact held at security for quite some time. Happily, they let her pass and she rejoined the others.
The group landed in Israel and journeyed to the north. They climbed Mount Arbel and Rabbi Litvin led them in a meditation atop the mountain about each person’s place in the long, glorious chain of Judaism. The group hiked along the waterfall at Banyas and visited the ancient synagogues in Tz’fat.
On Friday, the group visited the Yad Vashem Memorial for the millions lost in the Holocaust. That night, they celebrated the Shabbat at the Western Wall, dancing and singing with hundreds of other Jews from all walks of life and many Israeli soldiers.
On Sunday morning, the group went back to the Wall and each of them had a few moments to “talk to G-d” and put notes between the stones of the ancient Temple. At that time, Rabbi Litvin formally gave a Hebrew name to four of the participants in the group who had missed receiving a Hebrew name earlier in life. The young woman mentioned earlier chose the name Elisheva and this is what she declared to the group standing in front of the Western Wall:
“As I begin thinking of what to say during this special moment, I am listening to Rabbi Avrohom educate and engage us, while staring out the window of our bus at a gorgeous view of the mountains and the sea. I am sitting next to an Israeli and am totally and completely absorbed and in love with the feeling of this experience.
“It’s hard to believe that a few short days ago I was in my normal life in a loud and noisy city, dealing with the stress of bills, chores and my job. My to do list seems never ending at times. Leaving all that behind and embarking on this journey I was given a chance to discover a new part of myself. I think in a way I was meant to be named here, in this moment, with all of you former strangers who are more like family to me now.
“I always knew I was Jewish and have been proud of that fact. But I also never fully knew what being Jewish meant to me aside from a label, an identifier that I became used to sharing with others.
“I feel like being Jewish has meaning to me now in a way that it never had before. And I am making the commitment, here at the wall to continue to strengthen my relationship with God and to Judaism.”
The trip not only affected the participants, it deeply resonated with Rabbi Litvin and his wife as well. Upon his return to Louisville, Rabbi Litvin challenged his synagogue to become more open, welcoming and outgoing and to make a concerted effort to find the hundreds of similar youth in our community and invite them back to Judaism.
Rabbi Litvin acknowledged that too many synagogues and temples, including Anshei Sfard, focus on a narrow group of like-minded people and by doing so forget, by omission or commission, the younger generation, which represents the future of Judaism. He shared that he felt it was the responsibility of the synagogue and the community to reach out to the entire Jewish community without being judgmental and invite them warmly and enthusiastically to connect to G-d through Judaism.
On April 5 at 7 p.m., Congregation Anshei Sfard and Chabad of Kentucky will offer a merged service followed by a free dinner to the entire community, which hopefully will be a small step in this direction. The entire community is invited to attend, although reservations are required and may be made by calling the Synagogue at 451-3122.
Later this year, Rabbi Litvin plans to lead another Birthright Israel trip open to all Jewish young adults. Email him for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.