Taglit Birthright Israel is a program that offers free trips to Israel to young Jewish adults between 18 and 26 years of age. Ottawa Jewish Bulletin summer intern/reporter Michael Aarenau, a Carleton University student, recently visited Israel for the first time on a Birthright trip and offers some reflections.
When I boarded the plane for my 10-day Taglit Birthright trip to Israel, I had no idea what to expect. I knew a fair bit about Israel, but had yet to experience the country personally.
In Israel, I met a lot of fellow Jews from many different backgrounds and with varying levels of religiosity. Some had parents from Morocco, while others had parents who had fled the Former Soviet Union. The one thing they had in common – that we all had in common – was a place of refuge, a Jewish homeland: the State of Israel.
To me, that’s what Israel is all about: Jewish security. In a world where Jews are targeted just for being Jewish, there is a need for a place in which we can seek refuge. While Israel is far from the safest place on Earth, it’s a place every Jew can call home.
I saw why so many people love Israel so much. Hiking up Masada to watch the sun rise, haggling with merchants in the Jerusalem shuk, walking through the crowded Tel Aviv downtown core at midnight, praying at the Western Wall, and tasting some of the most flavourful foods I’ve ever eaten, I saw how Israel truly offers something for everyone.
Unfortunately, though, it comes at a price. Since its founding, Israel has been attacked countless times by Arab neighbours who simply did not accept its right to exist. While some things have changed for the better – including lasting peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan – there are still many groups threatening Israelis and Israel’s very existence.
Near the end of my trip to Israel, we climbed up Mount Herzl, where I gazed upon the many graves of Israeli soldiers killed while defending the State of Israel. Many of them were just 21 years old when they were killed – the same age I am now – or even younger. There is almost nothing more sobering than realizing so many people never had a chance to grow up because they died defending their country’s very right to exist.
I also visited the grave of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister assassinated by a right-wing Jewish extremist simply for daring to work towards peace with the Palestinians. Between Israel’s occupation of the West Bank nearing the 50-year mark, with Jewish settlements continuing to expand, as well as the continued incitement to violence against Israelis by Palestinian leadership, and the Palestinians’ lack of acceptance of Israel’s right to exist peacefully, Rabin’s vision for peace seems like a far too distant memory.
On my last day in Israel, the Birthright Israel organizers asked what we had taken away from the trip. While the goal of Birthright is to connect young people with Israel and enhance our Jewish identities, I already felt that connection and had a strong Jewish identity before I left for Israel.
I was raised with a strong understanding of my Jewish roots. I graduated from Yitzhak Rabin High School and, as a vice-president of Hillel Ottawa’s Israel Awareness Committee, I already had knowledge of Israel that many of my colleagues were lacking when they boarded the plane for our trip. But the trip did afford me the opportunity to finally experience Israel personally – to see the sights, to experience the ancient and modern history, and to meet Israelis and hear their stories. So, while I had always felt a strong connection from afar, there’s nothing more eye-opening than experiencing the real thing.
Registration for winter Birthright Israel trips opens on September 12. For more information visit www.israelforfree.com.