A few days ago, I had the chance to sit down and talk with two of our JFFS staff members about their recent Birthright Israel trip. (Birthright is a free ten-day trip to Israel for young adults of Jewish heritage, sponsored in part by our local community; learn more HERE). Still tanned and breathless from the experience, it was invigorating to hear their impressions of the trip and the impact it had on them and others.
For Erica Evans, our NextGen Outreach & Engagement Coordinator, this was her second Birthright trip and her first as a leader. Arielle Roude is a JFFS Campaign Associate who experienced the Birthright trip as a participant. Beyond the camel rides, dips in the Dead Sea, and Tel Aviv nightlife, they saw their fellow Millennials’ eyes opening at the reality of Israel’s proximity to Lebanon and Syria when they visited a U.N. post at Mt. Bental. They saw emerging adults like them exploring their Jewish identity while exploring the actual land of Israel. In fact, they told me about one of their trip mates who needed extra time at the Kotel (the Western Wall) when he decided to wrap teffilin. He’s young man who has a Jewish mother and had a bar-mitzvah – but he hadn’t felt a strong connection to Judaism until Birthright. Now, after 10 life-changing days in Israel, he was on the phone with EL AL Airlines as they rode to Ben Gurion Airport for the flight home, frantically trying to extend his stay in Israel to join other friends who had. He is “all in”, as they say, completely and utterly enamored by Israel and inspired by his renewed connection to Jewish life.
The trip was also special because they saw first-hand connections between Orange County and Israel. They visited our sister city of Kiryat Malachi and Beit Samueli, a Reform congregation in the city of Ra’anana that was founded by the OC-based Samueli Foundation. There, they engaged in a special and meaningful conversation with Rabbi Daniel Meyer about pluralism and the Israeli Jewish ideals of freedom and equality. Arielle told me, “I didn’t realize that the reform movement and progressive Judaism exists in Israel, and that it’s challenging for them. It meant a lot to them that our OC community has such an investment in them.”
Erica and Arielle were especially excited that a dear friend from their high school days in OC was part of their Birthright bus. Gal is an Israeli young woman who had been in OC for high school and went back to Israel to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Now that’s she’s finished her military service and is studying at Ben Gurion University, she seized the opportunity to experience Israel though the eyes of American Jews. In fact, Gal was one of 7 Israelis who were able to share native insights and flavor with the 40 Orange Countians on “Shorashim Bus 111”. Since she’s back in OC for a few weeks before her university classes begin, she’ll be hosting a reunion and Shabbat dinner for their bus at her parents’ home in Irvine – keeping the spirit of their trip alive.
Both Erica and Arielle were amazed at how strong the bonds are that they forged with this Birthright group. They’re continuing to stay in touch, sending WhatsApp (text) messages to each other daily and keeping their haverim (group of friends) connected. The trip was most definitely not a “one-off” experience. Rather, it was the spark for something more, something much bigger than 10 days, since a Birthright Israel trip touches its participants in all the ways we hope and dream as a Jewish community. Indeed, our investment in the Birthright Israel program – which has now touched over 500,000 young people from 64 countries since it began in 1999 – is truly worth its weight in gold… Because it inspires participants to discover new meaning in their personal Jewish identity and deepens connections to our history and culture. It brings OC to Israel and Israel to OC. It strengthens our community.
Wishing you inspiration and new meaning this Shabbat,
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