No matter how many times you have been there, traveling through Israel is always filled with new experiences. Whether you are walking through a shuk (open air market), hiking a trail in the desert, or touching the stones of theKotel (Western Wall), there always seems to be a new twist in the experience to make it feel like it’s your first time. This past month, I had the opportunity of seeing Israel for the first time…again! You see, I am writing to you as I am recovering from my jetlag from leading my first OU Israel Free Spirit Birthright trip.
This trip, as many of you already know, is an incredible opportunity that has been gifted to Jewish people around the world from an organization called Taglit Birthright Israel. Birthright is an all expenses paid 10-day tour of the land of Israel. What many don’t know is that Israel Free Spirit (IFS), the Orthodox Union’s Birthright branch, is one of the largest partners that Birthright has in making that experience a reality. I was privileged to staff one of the 45 buses that IFS sent to Israel this past year and it was an experience of a lifetime. (That's me in the green!) Even though I had been to a number of the sites on the itinerary on previous occasions, this time was a totally different experience. The richness of this trip was overwhelming, but to see Israel with 40 young men and women who had never been to “the land flowing with milk and honey” before gave me the opportunity to see Israel for the first time again, through the eyes of these participants!
The camaraderie that was built during these 10 days was unlike any group dynamic that I had ever been a part of before. There are thousands of Birthright alumni, so what are the special ingredientsthat made this busload of 18-26 year old Birthright-ers different than all the others? Perhaps it was that instead of seeing Israel in the typical fashion, exclusively through the windows of a coach bus, our group strapped on helmets, stretched our legs and jumped on to a bunch of off-road dirt bicycles! This Taglit trip was a specially developed niche trip that traveled through the land of our forefathers on the back of mongoose style dirt bikes! Couldn’t you just see our Avot (forefathers) trading in their donkeys and starting to peddle through the Golan Heights in their tunics? This is the real way to see Israel! This sort of cycling, which happens to be one of my hobbies, was not pavement style racing, oh no. This was off-road cannon style biking! It was a rush that I hope to experience again soon.
However, as great as the biking was, and it was pretty awesome, what was even more fascinating were the participants of the trip. There are dozens of stories from this group that I could share with you, however, I am going to pick one—Mike from Burbank, California. Mike had next to no Jewish background. In college, Mike had studied the Islamic, Turkish and Russian cultures and he was excited to see the Middle East up close and personal. Mike arrived at JFK airport in New York and was pumped and ready to start the trip. While we were still in the airport he fired questions at me rapidly. Questions about Judaism, Israel, Kibbutz life, regional politics, you name it, he was asking it— and we hadn’t even boarded the plane yet! Throughout the trip all of the participants were asking countless questions, but Mike’s were different, and the seconds immediately after his questions were even more different. Mike’s questions were a little more probing than the rest of the groups’, but he would listen attentively during the responses and write down what he had just learned on a pad of paper that he kept with him at all times throughout the trip. Mike wasn’t satisfied with merely asking questions about Judaism and Israel; he was really interested in learning and understanding. Mike approached his trip using the key elements that Jewish people, the “People of the Book,” have always been known for: questioning, asking and listening! He had a thirst for knowledge that grew the more he asked and learned. The story continues that now that the trip has ended, Mike has dedicated himself to continuing to ask, listen and write by attending classes on Judaism in Israel. Mike is just one superstar from this amazing trip and one inspiring story among many from all of the trips that took place this past winter season.
The feedback from this bike trip was so incredible that Birthright has agreed to run this special trip again for the upcoming summer season! If you know anyone that is interested in such a trip, or a standard fantastic Birthright experience, this summer, click here.
Registration for Summer 2013 Taglit-Birthright Israel trips opens Wednesday, February 13, 2013 @ 10am EST for new applicants. Please keep in mind that the registration period is only open for a short time.
Have a great month,
Rabbi Yehoshua Marchuck