I embarked on my Taglit-Birthright Israel trip on May 10. I was one of about 10 people from Ottawa in a 40-person contingent from Ontario experiencing this free, 10-day trip offered to young Jews in the Diaspora between the ages of 18 and 26.
Before my departure, I was repeatedly asked, “What is Birthright?” For me, the answer seemed apparent: it is the birthright of Jewish young adults outside Israel to experience our homeland.
During the trip, another question occurred to me: “Why are we acting like tourists in a place we call home?”
We used selfie-sticks at the Kotel, posed with our shawarma before we devoured it, gawked at soldiers passing by and used the Hebrew we still remembered from school. With the undeniable sense of coming home, our touristy behaviour and the sheer wonder of those experiencing Israel for the first time, I thought about the question. I was perplexed trying to understand why a placed so foreign could feel so familiar, all the while wondering whether it was even possible to not act like a tourist in a place you’ve never lived.
The gap between tourists and Israelis, homeland and home, became more apparent, yet was somehow erased during our five days of mifgash (encounter) with eight Israeli soldiers. During the mifgash, we learned to experience both the land’s many historic sights – and Israel’s people.
Those five days made me rethink my definition of birthright.
As young adults, those of us on the trip had similar personal lives to our new Israeli friends, yet our lives were also very different. The meaning of words like “responsibility” varied for reasons beyond language differences. However, the time spent together and the stories we shared fostered something more than new friendships – it gave us a new outlook on life. We were bound together by shared memories and made inseparable by shared experiences. But, then again, hasn’t that often been the case throughout Jewish history?
I now realize that our actual birthright is not bred of entitlement toward Israel, but, rather, obligation. The birthright of Israelis is to serve and protect. The birthright of Jews in the diaspora isn’t as simple as the gift of a 10-day trip. Our birthright, beyond calling Israel our homeland, is to educate ourselves on Israeli affairs and issues, to invest in Israel’s future, to nurture her innovation, and to establish personal connections with Israelis.
When we arrived in Israel, we met with Noam Arbel, the Canada Israel Experience program director.
“Welcome to Israel,” he said. “During these next 10 days Israel will be yours to experience, to find what you identify with and what it means to you. What you decide to do with that on the 11th day is up to you.”
After 10 days of inspiring hikes, swimming in the salty water of the Dead Sea and the Red Sea, and visiting surrounding borders, I realized what Israel means to me. On the 11th day, still entranced by all the wondrous sights, people and adventures, I wrote this article now understanding that it was only the beginning of my birthright experience.