By Karen Podorefsky
A group of 38 students from all over the U.S. began their summers with a newfound family and ten days of adventure.
Taglit Birthright Israel is a free trip to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26. Like many colleges and universities, Clark offers a campus trip for its students and other college students in the Worcester area.
Our Birthright family originated from all over. Twenty-one students on this summer’s Clark University Birthright trip were from Worcester area schools, including primarily Clark and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, as well as Worcester State University, Quinsigamond Community College, and Fitchburg State University. The other half of the bus came from areas around the U.S.: Maryland, Florida, and Indiana to name a few. We also had eight Israeli peers join us for seven days.
“Our Israeli peers, as well as our tour guide, really helped me feel connected to Israel. One of the Israeli peers was my friend Penina, who I had previously been with in USY [a Jewish youth group]. Getting to experience Israel with a friend who had made Aliyah [moved to Israel] as well as the other Israeli soldiers made me connect to Israel as a Jewish homeland. When you get to experience Israel with Israelis, it really helps you to be immersed in their culture,” said Harris Eidelman, a sophomore at Clark from Millis.
We were lucky enough to have a group of students who came from different Jewish backgrounds and upbringings. Students learned about Israel, Jewish values, customs, and their own identity from each other, traveling, and the holistic learning experience.
“The people on our trip came from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds, which created these unique and exquisite dynamics throughout our trip,” Eidelman added. “I think that the relationship of our trip and our community is two-fold. Not only did the common and communal experiences affect us, but we as a whole Birthright community shaped the experiences we had.”
Our first full day included an excursion to Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan near the city of Haifa in the north of Israel.
A part of my job as an IACT Coordinator through Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston and the Israel Programs Coordinator at Clark is to lead the campus Birthright trip. In doing so, I can request special additions to our itinerary, such as traveling to this kibbutz. This communal settlement is the epitome of a community in Israel.
Navee Cohen, 25, lives on the kibbutz and showed us around for a couple of ours after we ate a fresh, traditional Israeli breakfast in the communal dining area. He explained what life on the kibbutz is like as a young adult who has spent a majority of his life living there. We felt like we were part of the community for the morning and began to understand what it is like to live on a kibbutz. The majority of what members of the community need is there and is respectfully shared.
“The best part about Birthright was discovering a whole other world of Jews who didn’t care where I came from, how observant I was, or really if I was Jewish at all. They were open and happy to show me their home and their culture. When we went to Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan, I experienced the true giving nature of Israelis. They treated us like family because the way they see it, we are,” said Hannah Smith, a sophomore at Clark from the Portland, Maine area.
Every one of the approximately 2,000 contributors has a different specialty, yet a similar intrinsic commitment that allows the kibbutz to run successfully. “You give as much as you can, and you get as much as you need,” Navee explained while guiding us on the tour. On a smaller scale this, too, is what ensures the success of a Birthright trip.
Incorporating interests and knowledge of all participants, American and Israeli, two American staff, an Israeli Tour Educator, and Israeli medic/guard ensures the success of a trip. The ten days are packed with travel, speakers, activities, discussions, and cultural immersion in Israeli society. There is so much to absorb to maximize the amount of time we have. Even while we have meals together, participants are learning through casual conversation.
“Growing up, there were not many Jewish people who lived nearby, so I never thought that I could be part of a Jewish community. After having gone to Israel, I formed close bonds with those on my bus and the Israeli soldiers who joined us on our trip. These close bonds became my own Jewish community and made me excited to be a part of one,” said Maggie Kuck, a sophomore at Worcester Polytechnic Institute from Southbury, Conn.
Students bonded in the evening when they had a chance to reflect on the day in sessions led by the staff, and then after when they sacrificed sleep for spending time with new friends.
“We joked and had so much fun together while also experiencing a lot of Israel’s rich history. I couldn’t have imagined a better experience with a better group of people,” said John Roop, a junior at Clark from Arlington. “The trip really impacted me in a cultural sense. I never had a community like the one I experienced while I was in Israel. It made me feel like I had a Jewish family that I was a part of even without my religious background. Every one of our daily activities contributed to the group dynamic and it felt like each day we became more and more of a family.”
Many of the strongest memories are ones that happen organically. Yes, we went to specific locations: the Dead Sea, Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, a Graffiti tour in Tel Aviv, but many of the impactful moments occurred when we least expected it, such as on a hike in Ein Avdat in the Negev desert when our Tour Educator and Guide, Yotam, saved a baby bird that was hurt. He showed us what it means to love nature and love his country without a second thought. This small action said so much.
“I had thought that is was just going to be an amazing experience because I would be able to make new friends and see some beautiful places. Those things were true, but the trip was also a fantastic educational and spiritual experience that I had not expected at all. I got to learn about so many different kinds of people and ask questions and hear different perspectives on religion, politics, and people’s outlooks on life,” said Kuck. “Going on this trip made me see that a Jewish community is far more than just a group of people who practice Judaism, it is a community of loving and supportive people who I can relate to and grow as a person with. I’m so thankful that I got to go on this trip with Clark University because many of the people I met and became close with are right around the corner from me. After forming such strong connections in a relatively short amount of time, I am excited to make new ones and see my community grow.”
I observed and was a part of the family that formed from the start at the airport, as participants mingled among basic introduction conversations, to later on when they opened up about their background, interests, and information that they would often rather keep personal. Being in Israel as a group with leaders who encourage thoughtful and meaningful large group, small group, and one-on-one dialogue creates a strong sense of comradery. Ideally, these relationship building tactics and the friendships that were formed translate back to life in the US upon returning.
“I have no Jewish friends at home, so the trip really made me feel close to a Jewish community for the first time since my bat mitzvah. It was an awesome feeling to connect to others on that level, and have similar traditions and values,” said Vicki Cohen, a student at Quinsigamond Community College from Framingham. “Now that I’m home, I’ve been thinking a lot, and I’m looking at trips to go back to Israel. When the school year starts again, I can’t wait to celebrate Shabbat with my new Clarkie friends on Friday nights.”
As a staff, I saw one of the many reasons why Taglit Birthright Israel works, why Birthright has such a vast impact on the over 500,000 participants. Participants individualize their trip, in that they can each benefit in their own way. Interestingly enough, people on the same bus can have a drastically different experience based on their mindset throughout the trip. They see more than they can truly take in during the ten days, but what resonates most with them, they bring back home. Some feel more confident calling themselves a Jew or defending Israel, some turn to me to find another program to go back to Israel through, some have endless stories to tell their friends and family, and some feel a stronger sense of belonging in whichever crevice of their identity that relates to the world. And arguably most importantly, they learn that forty friends with one common bond can become a family.
Karen Podorefsky is Israel programs coordinator at Clark University in Worcester.