For Rafson, Partnership-Sponsored birthright israel Trip Was Amazing

[by Phyllis Shaikun]

Twenty-four-year-old Melissa Rafson just returned from a birthright visit to Israel and could only say it was “beyond amazing.” Although initially fearful of traveling that far with a group she didn’t know, she forged ahead with the application process for trip and could not be happier that she did.

Rafson’s trip was made possible through a new program offered by the Dallas Jewish Federation’s Under 40 Jewish Connection. Regen Wagh, the program’s network director, explained that while Dallas and Austin have jointly sponsored birthright trips over the past decade or so, this is the first time the experience has been offered to young people from the entire Partnership with Israel’s Central Area Consortium of which Louisville is a part as well as from other areas around the country.

“There were 40 of us on our bus,” Rafson related, “and I basically made 40 new friends in just 11 days” (from July 7-18). The geographic range of participants went from nearby Indianapolis and Ohio to New York, Nebraska and Los Angeles. Their only cost was for one meal a day and a round-trip ticket to and from New York! Two chaperones from Dallas, six Israeli soldiers and an Israeli tour guide accompanied them on their journey.

Rafson was surprised to see that many of the young men who were comfortable wearing tefillin during morning prayers were equally at home at clubs in the evening. They were, she said, the nicest guys ever. She still keeps in contact with everyone through texts and emails and says her cell phone keeps dying from overuse.

Her excitement about all she saw and experienced was palpable as she ticked off the various activities – each highlighted with a superlative.
“We began in Tsfat (Safed),” she said, “which is a wonderful artist colony, but missed the planned stop at our Partnership with Israel area in the Western Galilee because of traffic problems.” She had been looking forward to volunteering there and was disappointed to have missed it.

The group did “lots of hiking,” and she particularly remembers their first one up Mount Arbel because everyone bonded. Their hike through the Jeedabon Creek featured a stream and waterfall and a breathtaking view of the Golan. They stood behind bunkers on Mount Bental in the area where Syria used to be and heard the story of Eli Cohen, reputed to be Israel’s master spy. They learned about the Yom Kippur War and could see the Syrian border. “Everything is green in Israel,” she says, “but that stops at the border.”

A highlight was the four-night stay in Kibbutz Deganiya in the north. They traveled to various spots from there and spent a spiritual Shabbat with the residents. A one-night stop in Tel Aviv included a visit to the spot where the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin died and then it was off to the Negev Desert to see the Midras Caves that date back to the days of Bar Kochba.

Riding camels, taking part in a Bedoin tea ceremony and spending the night in an open-air Bedoin tent were only part of the excitement. When she was awakened by the sound of gunfire and saw bullets whizzing by, survival mode took hold and she nervously woke one of the soldiers who told her it was just some M16s and she should go back to bed! She learned there was a shooting range nearby, but she notes it would have been helpful to have known that before the fact!

A 4 a.m. hike up Madasa and watching the sunrise was another unforgettable experience for Rafson, as was her trip to Eilat and the chance to swim in the Red Sea. To quote their guide, “you had to chance to swim in the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea and the Dead Sea.”
“We didn’t miss much,” says Rafson. They spent three days in Jerusalem and she was amused to find kippot with UofL cardinal birds and IU logos at a stand on Ben Yehudah Street.

Following their emotional tour of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, they climbed Mt. Herzl and heard about Michael Levine, a 21-year-old American IDF volunteer who lost his life during a Hezbollah anti-missile attack. He was buried there in 2006. They later hiked through the City of David and made their way through the Hezekiah Tunnel’s waist-high water.

At the trip’s end, participants were asked to express their “wow” moment during the past 11 days. “That,” she said, “was the most difficult part – everything was memorable and not to be missed.”

If you are 18-26 years old and would like to make your first-time peer group visit to Israel through birthright and would like more information, you can contact Regen Wagh, network director of the Dallas Federation’s Under 40 Jewish Connection via email or call (214) 615-5259. She says the consortium-wide program will definitely continue again next year.

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