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Taglit-Birthright Israel trips are for young adults

Experience includes a wide variety of activities all across Israel

[by Shiela Steinman Wallace, Editor]

Trips to Israel have long been recognized as important building blocks to Jewish identity, so through Taglit-Birthright Israel, the Jewish community offers a free trip to Israel to young adults who have not been there previously on a peer trip. This summer, three young adults from Louisville, Heidi Bennett, Katie Moss and Ari Sabes visited Israel on Birthright trips.

“When I signed up to go on a Birthright trip to Israel, I wasn’t really sure what to expect,” said Moss. “As a recent convert to Judaism, I wasn’t sure if I would truly fit in with the others on the trip. I already knew that I love Judaism and support Israel, so I wasn’t sure if the trip’s main objective would really have an affect on me. Despite my fears, I still signed up and added my boyfriend, Ari Sabes, and my good friend Heidi Bennett as my trip companions.

Moss and Sabes wound up on the same trip and signed up for the “Search and Rescue” extension since Sabes has a background in firefighting. Bennett traveled with a different group.

“The closer we got to the trip, the more excited I got,” Moss said. “Israel has held a very special place in my heart since I started to become interested in Judaism. I am one of the founding members of the Cards for Israel group at the University of Louisville. So naturally as soon as our plane landed in Israel, I began to cry. I looked out the plane windows and felt overwhelmed with a sense that I was finally home.

“When we exited the plane, I was so excited to try and read all the Hebrew signs that surrounded me,” she continued. “I had taken 3 semesters of Hebrew at the university and I was anxious to show off my skills.”

Their first stop was a kibbutz in northern Israel. “There were a school, a grocery store, a cafeteria, a pool and many other buildings,” Moss said. “Everywhere you turned there were fruit trees and flowers. This was truly an oasis.”

“One of the most interesting parts,” she added, “was going inside one of the many bomb shelters that were located on the kibbutz. This kibbutz was located very close to Lebanon and Syria, therefore they had experienced missile threats in the past.”

A stop in Tzfat to learn about Jewish mysticism was a mixed experience. A scheduling snafu kept the group from meeting with the rabbi and seeing the shul they had been scheduled; however, “we did get to see some really cool shops and some very interesting people,” Moss observed. “We encountered many people claiming to be poor or homeless asking for money. We also ran into many people asking the men on our trip if they had wrapped tefillin today.”

On Friday evening, the group led their own traditional Friday night service that Moss described as beautiful and fun, if somewhat confused. It was designed to accommodate the different levels of observance the group members practiced.

As a vegan, Moss had some difficulty finding appropriate food throughout the trip. She soon “made friends with the other vegan on the trip, so we pretty much stuck together for all food outings.”

A trip down the Jordan River on a raft was one of Moss’ favorite parts of the trip.”It was a perfect day and we had such a fun time trying to steer the raft and splashing each other with the water.

“After rafting, our tour guide took us to this huge underground crawling cave system,” she continued. “This scared me a lot, and there were a lot of girls on the trip that refused to go in the cave. I decided to go in anyways. It was one of the hardest and scariest things I had ever done in my life.

“It was almost a mile of me dragging myself through a dusty tunnel that was pitch black,” she added. “Luckily I had my new friend Stephanie in front of me, preparing me for every upcoming twist and turn. When I finally made it out of the cave, I was drenched in sweat, but I had a whole new respect for myself. I accomplished something I never thought I would be brave enough to do.”

Moss found a trip to S’derot unnerving. Located near the Gaza Strip, this small town often finds itself under attack. Graphic videos drove home the message that the “Tzeva Adom” (Code Red) warning gives residents only 15 seconds of warning to reach safety before the rockets hit. “I held onto my boyfriend’s hand and wouldn’t let go for the entire time that we were in Sderot,” she said.

“The Israeli government has done a lot to protect these people,” she noted. “They have required that all houses built in this area have a bomb shelter attached or very near to their home. They have also sanctioned the building of bus stops, playgrounds, restaurants, bathrooms, and many other structures that are designed to act as bomb shelters.”

The residents make the best of the situation, even crafting “beautiful metal flowers” and other works of art from the remains of the missiles.

The trip also included a stop at an “amazing farm in the middle of the desert,” Moss said. “We got to dig up carrots and pick tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers to eat. We also got to see some trained carrier pigeons used in aiding the army.”

A night in a Bedouin tent camp was a highlight for Sabes. “I liked sleeping in Bedouin tents then climbing Masada at sunrise,” he said. “I’ve never camped a day in my life,” so sleeping in a tent was new experience.

Both Moss and Bennett had a difficult time with the climb up Masada. For Bennett, her discomfort was increased because her group made the climb on Tisha B’Av and she was fasting.

As Sabes has had back surgery, he was also pleased that he was able to climb the rocks “all the way to the top and see the sunrise and take pictures. It was special.”

He also had the opportunity to speak with a young Israeli. “He explained to me a lot about how life is in Israel – being in the IDF, how he lives his life and how hard it is to live in Israel financially.”

Sabes said he is interested in returning to Israel in the near future, perhaps as a volunteer in the IDF while he learns and studies there.

“My trip to Israel was one I will never forget,” Moss said. “I have made friendships that will last a lifetime. I am very grateful to the people that made it possible for me to go, and I am very anxious to get back to Israel and explore on my own. I would even consider moving there someday. I am truly in love with Israel and I will continue to support Israel in any way that I can.”

“Birthright was right trip for me,” Sabes added. “I enjoyed it. I didn’t expect as much hiking as there was, but I enjoyed being able to do whitewater rafting, interacting with other people and making new friends. I’m still in touch with other people. It reminded me of USY.”

Bennett found herself on a very secular trip designed for groups of families and friends. Since she considers herself a religious person and was not traveling with people she knew, the group wasn’t a good fit for her; however, she still had a positive experience and learned a lot.

“The Western Wall was quite meaningful and a very profound experience,” she said. “Being new to the Jewish community and newly Jewish, being at The Wall made me feel more connected to our ancestors.”

The same day, her group went to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Museum. “It was a huge emotional experience that made me feel more connected to the Jewish people,” Bennett said.

“Israel is a gorgeous country,” she said, “and the Western Galilee is breathtaking.” She particularly enjoyed a stop at a lookout point, where the migrating birds pass.

Since she keeps kosher, Bennett enjoyed being able to eat meat wherever she went.

She also enjoyed visiting the shuk (open market) on Friday afternoon when people were getting ready for Shabbat. “That was a joyous feeling,” she said. “Kids were running around happy and everyone was buying challah. It was good.”

She described the Israelis who accompanied her group as “fun and very vibrant.”

Bennett, too, would like to return – next time with her boyfriend – and maybe to experience Israel on her own. Following the trip, she said, “I feel more connected to the global Jewish community,” she said.

The idea of providing the gift of a trip to Israel was initially endorsed by the philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, who shared the belief that it was the birthright of all young Jews to be able to visit their ancestral homeland.

Since its inception in December 1999, Taglit-Birthright Israel has sent nearly 300,000 Jewish young adults to Israel. They come from 60 countries, all 50 U.S. states and Canadian provinces, and from nearly 1,000 North American colleges and universities.

The gift of a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip is made possible thanks to the generous support from many sources, including parents of trip participants, alumni of the program, the program’s founders and other philanthropists, the State of Israel, the Jewish Federation system and Keren Hayesod, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and thousands of individuals donors from around the world.

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