Like most first time travelers to Israel I expected some sort of spiritual epiphany to happen when I stepped off the plane. I expected to hit in the face with so much spirit that I would cry my brains out and kiss the floor as if it were my wife on our wedding night. That never happened, in fact when facing the Kotel on birthright, all I could think of- was its just a wall I don’t understand what the big deal is, and yes I placed my note inside its soggy note laden walls and asked for brachos for myself and my family- but I didn’t feel anything. Maybe I didn’t feel anything because I was expecting this beautiful event and all I got were wet feet and hunger pains.
That is not to say that I did not have a good time, I had a great time, in fact I wonder how anyone of age could not go on birthright, it’s a FREE trip to Israel, this is not a free concert in the park. This is the real deal, the whole shebang, the whole megilla, etc… and you can just stay forever afterwards, extend your flight go to yeshiva, join the army, live in caravan with a women who doesn’t speak English, stay on the beach, eat marzipan and get fat for a year, whatever you want- and still I meet people who just didn’t have the time- 10 days that is- to eat and stay for free- and its not even Holiday Inn.
The downsides of the trip had nothing to do with Birthright itself, it had to do with my lack of research, I probably shouldn’t have went with Hillel of University of Rochester- I just didn’t fit in, it was a bunch of wealthy secular kids from Long Island and yes they were very materialistic and Jappy- for instance many girls would not go into the dead sea because “eww its disgusting”- welcome to Long Island folks, some girls wouldn’t do the mini archeological dig either- but they did climb the Masada so at least I’ll give them that.
I have a lot of respect for Birthright, I don’t believe for a second that Michael Bronfman is an Atheist, to me its all for attention- for controversy which people love so much. Atheists don’t do what he’s doing, this project, this insane far reaching project is one of of the greatest in Kiruv around- unless he himself is an Atheist but wants others to become religious, which is what Birthright undoubtedly does, it makes people culturally and religiously aware- while at the same time it makes Long Island Jappy girls realize that they can play in the dirt and it wont be that bad.
So what I remember most from my birthright trip are several things. I do remember this one dude from Colorado who was my roommate, thinking that I was shooting up heroine because he had never seen tefilin before, I also remember the food- the food was amazing and although they didn’t let us roam Jerusalem- which sucked by the way, my buddy Mermal came to pick me up and show me around the cool parts of town- I had to leave a speech being made by Ariel Sharon to do that- but it was well worth it.
We ate all these crazy meals at random Kibbutzim- and if for nothing else, I would go back for the food. I had no spiritual connection to the land and that bothered me immensely, I think that it may have been that way because I was on secular trip- we really didn’t do anything of religiousness, we went to the Kotel, only after all these girls refused to put on skirts- which I found ironic because everyone was so “liberal” and “tolerant” but still they felt it was demeaning to women or shall I say “womyn”.
Other highlights of the trip were shabbos in Zichron Yaakov of all places- random I know. The dead sea of course, some hot springs up in the Golan, Zfat- by far the coolest town in Israel- besides Chevron maybe.
I did get my spiritual epiphany a few years later when I went to Ohr Someyach for 6 months, but that’s for another time. It was enough to make me realize that I would like to live in Israel some day in the near future- and that feeling never died. For all of you birthright alumni who are thinking of making aliyah, I just found out that Nefesh B’Nefesh is offering increased grants for birthright alumni– now that is cool- because most of the folks I know that made or are going to be making aliyah- most of them went on birthright at some point- and now they can get more moola for doing so.