As I will extensively mention, this summer I participated in a program called Birthright – which sponsors free 10 day long trips to Israel for young adults of Jewish heritage. I always knew about the opportunity, but the option became more realistic during my sophomore year of college. At that point I had been away from home for the majority of the past two years and had greatly lost touch with my temple and simply celebrating holidays with my family. It was when in conversation with two of my best friends from home (both Jewish, obviously) that we realized we all had availability in our summer schedules and that it was time to take advantage of our birthright. So, I started to do my research and Birthright brands themself as, “To ensure the vibrant future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and connection with Israel.” I read through the organization’s goals, stories from former participants and browsed through pictures – and damn did it look like an amazing experience. As the months then weeks then days wore down, I was excited for all the adventures I was about to partake on, but I was also anxious to make sure that I made the most of my once in a lifetime, right of birth opportunity.
I took part in a trip program called Shorashim, which organized a traveling bus group of 40 American kids, 7 Israeli kids and 1 Israeli tour guide. Upon arrival to our first kibbutz of the trip, we spent that night together participating in get to know you activities to reduce the nervousness but also to cut the cultural divide between all these people from 2 different countries. It was on this first night when my tour guide, Adi, brought to our attention that this program is communal between the 2 countries but is marketed in different ways. Basically how I had always known it to be Birthright, the Israeli participants refer to the program as Taglit – the Hebrew word for discovery.
For the 7 Israelis who had the opportunity to spend those 10 days of Taglit on our bus, it meant they had a break from the army at that time. In Israel, service to the Israeli Defense Forces is required for all citizens above the age of 18. After a placement exam citizens are assigned an area of service, such as the navy, air force, border patrol, combat and more. Ultimately, females are required to serve for at least 2 years and males for 2 years and 10 months.
At this moment I realized what different lives we all lived even though we were the same age. While at 18 years old I was preparing to move onto higher education, these 7 strangers were subjecting themselves to service with no thought of further education. I also realized that even though we were in their own country, Taglit really was an opportunity of discovery for them. It allowed them to tour historical landmarks and hiking trails they still had never seen before. To not only hear stories about America, but hear stories about their own country and the IDF from the other Israelis that were strangers to them.
All in all, from the first night to the last and to now, I still reflect on the differing campaigns between Birthright and Taglit. I felt like it was my job to have to partake in this experience at some point and take in as much culture as I could in 10 days. But for the participants touring their own country that they give an abundance of service to already, it was humbling to meet each one of them and see how excited they were to be on this journey of discovery as well.
The friendships and memories I formed with the Israeli soldiers of Bus 13 were much stronger than the cultural barrier between us, and I am so honored to have gotten to know Maya Byle through this experience. Check back to Hummus Where the Heart Is next week as he shares some personal thoughts on his time in the IDF.