By Joy Friedman, Lead Organizer, URJ Campaign for Youth Engagement
& Jesse Paikin, URJ Israel Programs Coordinator
There is a resonant story we hear from many Birthright participants throughout their experiences in Israel. Before coming to Israel, many feel nominally connected to Judaism and Jewish people, but by the end of ten packed, intense days most were lamenting the absence of Jewish community and connection in their lives back home. Wandering through the old city in Jerusalem, jam sessions with guitars extending late into the night, waking up together in a large Bedouin tent – so many experiences on Birthright solidify the group as a cohesive, supportive Jewish community.
One of the eight Israelis who traveled with our group shared the surprise she felt when she saw American Jews crying over the graves of fallen soldiers at Har Herzl; she couldn’t imagine Israelis doing the same at, say, Arlington cemetery. Clearly this group felt connected to Israeli soldiers and their mission, and that touched and awed her.
Birthright is an incomparable catalyst for young adult engagement. The experience of ten days in the Jewish country – developing deep relationships that only an immersive experience can allow – gives participants time to cultivate, and (for most) reengage with Jewish content and ideas.
We know that Birthright has immense potential to shift young adults towards greater Jewish connections. In fact, our group found the concept and term “kesher,” or connection, extremely apt. They used it often as a group and even considered getting tattoos with the word on our last night in Israel. Ultimately, they decided the relationships and photographs were indelible enough to keep the memories from the trip alive.
But what is it that makes the connections through Kesher different from some of the other Israel program options available? When asked by a number of our participants, here’s some of what we told them:
Kesher is a Reform Jewish experience. Out of the field of 16 different organizations running Birthright trips in North America, 10 are non-denominational, 5 are Orthodox, and only 1 offers a progressively religious trip: Kesher. Our Jewish background influences all that we do – from our pluralistic approach to Judaism in Israel; to our dedication to a liberal vision of Zionism; to encouraging a lovingly nuanced relationship with the State of Israel; to nurturing an active relationship with Jewish life upon returning to North America.
Kesher is more than just a tour. One of the strongest messages we reinforced is that Kesher is not simply a whirlwind ten-day tour of a foreign land, rather it is a pilgrimage to our homeland. The most moving and resonant expression of this ideology was framed through sharing with our participants that tourists walk through a land, however for those on a pilgrimage, the land walks through them.
With that sense of Reform Jewish community and pilgrimage in mind, one of our favorite experiences from this trip was the ongoing discussion of three concepts of community (tzibbur, kehillah, and eidah) introduced during our Torah Study for Shabbat Vayakhel-Pekudei. Listening to the way the members of our trip discussed what Jewish communities meant to them, as their feet pounded the pavement and paths of the Old City, the trail up Masada, and the cobblestones of Tzfat was astounding and breathtaking.
Over the past ten days, we were moved and rejuvenated as we watched a new community form, while the land of Israel walked through 39 North Americans and 8 Israelis in new ways – for them, as well as for us.