Monday, January 15, 2007

First One's Free - Final Thoughts from Israel

Not all free trips to Israel are created equal. While the Birthright program takes away the burden of cost, it does not take away a number of decisions regarding trip provider, trip dates, etc.

There are over 20 different trip providers under the Taglit Birthright umbrella, all with different missions, trip options, experiences, and agendas. I chose Israel Experts because they offered a trip for people age 22 and up, and this turned out to be a great decision. I've written a lot about how special the people on this trip were and are to me, and part of what made them so special is that they are all passionate, intellectual young adults old enough to appreciate the Birthright Experience and make the most of it.

What I also like about Israel Experts is its mission. Never on this trip did I feel like I was being imposed with a strong religious or zionist agenda. Nobody was forcing me to put on tefillin or even eat kosher food (though it's hard not to eat kosher food), nor was anyone pushing me to drop everything and move to Israel. Israel Experts' mission was more like "We love Israel. You will too. See for yourself."

Left to see for myself, I was able to explore my connection with Israel and Judaism and discuss it comfortably with people from all walks of Jewish life. I was able to draw my own conclusions.

I get it now. I understand why rabbis and cantors and Nancys have been pushing visits to Israel as long as I can remember. I get why its important to support Israel, if for no other reason than from the moment I got there I felt like I belonged there, that in spite of the fact that often I didn't know where I was, I felt like I was in a familiar place. I have an address.

From home, I want to maintain my newfound connection to Israel. One way I can do this is to keep in touch with everyone I met there. This is already happening, but the key is for it to continue.

I also want to make a more concerted effort to keep or at least acknowledge Shabbat, and I believe there are many ways this can be done. Observing Shabbat can be as simple as calling up friends and wishing them Shabbat Shalom. But I'd also like to make an effort to have more Shabbat get-togethers with friends and family, the type of gatherings that make Friday night special from all other nights of the week.

The Shabbat thing isn't all about Israel, but its observation as "something Jews do" around the world singles us out, in a good way. There's an old story, maybe it's from a movie, maybe I saw it on West Wing and somehow can't remember the exact episode, but there's an old story: an inmate at a concentration camp sees a man saying his morning prayers and asks what he prays for, what's the point? And the man says "I wake up every morning and thank God for not making me one of them."

100 years ago, Israel was a swamp and a desert, and Tel Aviv didn't exist. Today, Tel Aviv is a metropolis, the swamp is dry and grows bananas and oranges, and the desert blooms. Israel has a diverse, vibrant population and for the first time in thousands of years there are more Jews there than there are in any other country. Israeli society is based on great education, cutting edge technology, and the value of all human life.

I do believe that the majority of Palestinians and Arabs want to live side by side with Jews in peace, and that they hope for peace. But the people in power in the territories and in many of Israel's neighbors supress education, mislead their people, and are willing to kill innocent people, including their own, to reach their objectives. And I thank God every day for not making me one of them.

And I hope there will be peace, too. One of the most striking features of Israel is its obsession with hope. The arab Israeli girls who give peace a 20% chance have hope. So does the guy singing "Every Little Thing's Gonna Be Alright" at the bar in Tel Aviv that has been hit at least once by a suicide bomber. And the bar's manager who plays "The Times, They are A-Changing" when the guy singing goes on break. And there is hope in our voices when we sing "Imagine" in Rabin Square. Literally, the national anthem of Israel is Hope.

10 Days is not enough. I know I have only begun to understand this amazing country and it's inspiring people. Which means, of course, that I have to go back soon, and I'll be thinking of Israel every day until I'm there again. And after that.

One last thing that struck me about this deliciously complex and beautiful country was the graffiti. Everywhere - on bus stops and overpasses I kept seeing the same hastily-spraypainted phrase - Am Yisrael Chai. The rebellious, defiant vandals of the State of Israel take the time to announce "The Nation of Israel lives." Israel is on the front lines of the latest attempt by others to eradicate the Jewish people. So far, in over 5000 years, nobody's been sucessful.

Back home, I see bumper stickers and facebook groups proclaiming "wherever I stand, I stand with Israel." I know what that means now, and I do too.

May God bless Israel, and may I return there soon.

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