A Lesson of Traveling and Thanks: What I Learned from my Students on Taglit-Birthright Israel, Hillel
By Jason Levine
“Rabbi Hanina taught: ‘I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but from my students I have learned most of all.’” A few days ago, I had the honor of serving as a staff member for a group of 40 college students from the Hillel Foundation at Miami University and UConn Hillel on a whirlwind 10-day journey with Taglit-Birthright Israel. While the students had a tremendous time, I want to assure them and all others that they taught me far more than they realize.
“May it be your will, our God and God of our ancestors, that You lead us in peace and help us reach our destination safely, joyfully, and peacefully. May you protect us on our leaving and on our return…” With these words from the Traveler’s Prayer ringing in our ears, we journeyed from the Golan to the Negev, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. We traversed the Jewish homeland, taking in its many sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. I knew our students were in for a feast of the senses and the spirit as I shepherded them them from place to place, from one experience to the next. I did not know which moment would touch one student over another so they were exposed to the many sides that create Israel. After all, our “destination,” as stated in the Traveler’s Prayer, was indeed Israel and all it has to offer. Wasn’t it?
Jeremy Leigh, in his book “Jewish Journeys,” reminds us that travel is both toward places and also within ourselves. As our 10-day trip progressed, the concept of travel itself changed. So often travel implies a set destination and a journey toward it. Even the commonly used cliché “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” implies that there is an endpoint in mind. However, what if such an arrival point does not actually exist? What if the journey is the entirety of the experience? There truly are no strict end goals or conclusions in one’s Jewish journey. Traveling toward a destination sets you in the driver’s seat; it is something that we create. Traveling with only a journey ahead leaves one wide open to the events that lie ahead, ready to be mystified, energized, and challenged. Perhaps “destination” is idiomatically the wrong translation for the phrase “michoz chaifeitz” in the Traveler’s Prayer. Instead, the literal translation, “a wishful place” is more apt. For in a wishful place, in this journey, in this travel we have no end, only the desire to keep going.
This is the lesson my students taught me, and for this I offer them thanks. These students amazed me with their grace, their insight, and their openness. The journey overtook them like a whirlwind and they never fought against it, never held back. College students can sometimes be perceived as needing direction, a push down the right path, or even a bit of handholding. We may attempt to create moments artificially—with a wink and a nod to what we hope they may learn or internalize. While I do not deny the experience and knowledge we can impart on the college-age members of the Jewish people, this 10-day experience with Taglit-Birthright Israel gave me pause. I am not their shepherd; I am their passenger. Their journey will inspire us to see with new eyes, revisit old ideas, regain a bit of long-lost idealism, and even awaken a dormant voice in our soul. From now on, when I travel, I will not seek out places or moments like lit-up trail markers. I will follow the lesson of my students and allow the journey to overtake me.
Traditionally, upon arrival at one’s destination, you are to recite Birkat HaGomeil, a prayer for thanksgiving. The Talmud restricts the recitation of this blessing to those who have been in dire peril, fearing their lives. However, with my students’ lesson in mind, that destination does not exist and the journey is a reward of its own, I proudly thank them for their wisdom and inspiration through the recitation of Birkat Gomeil, thanking them for the journey they took me on:
“Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has bestowed every goodness upon us.”
With a readiness for the next step, I follow my students, our young people, and let them show me the way, through Israel and through our personal Jewish journeys. I thank them, and all young people, for their willingness to travel on the journey alone and their willingness to teach us.
Jason Levine is a rising fifth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. He currently serves as the student rabbi of the Hillel at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He previously served congregations in Pine Bluff, AR, and Bristol, TN, and as the Assistant for Jewish Life and Learning at URJ Camp Harlam, as well as the rabbinic intern at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah