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February 26, 2013

Thoughts and Pictures from an Incredible Israel Taglit Birthright Trip

12 days before she was scheduled to leave on Birthright, my cousin Adrianne posted on Facebook that, at the last minute, there was an open spot on her trip. “Well, it’s cold and miserable here in Chicago and the weather in Israel is much nicer,” I thought. “I should do this.”

In retrospect, I wish that I had more legitimate motivation to go on the trip — the education, the spiritual fulfillment, the dozens of close friendships that I expect to last the rest of my life — but I would be lying if I claimed that were the case.

I emailed the necessary people and filled out all the paperwork. Five days later, I had confirmation for what would end up being one of the most wonderful trips of my life.

***

To quickly summarize: Birthright is a free trip to Israel for Americans of Jewish descent. It’s sponsored by the State of Israel and contributions (both direct and indirect) from American donors. This one was paid for in part by the Jewish Federation of Washington DC. Practicing the religion is not necessary to qualify for the trip. From what I observed, the underlying purposes for the program are as follows (perhaps but not necessarily in order):

1) Create Jewish couples

2) Cultivate American support for the Israeli military (much more on this later)

3) Educate participants on the history of Israeli land, politics, and military conflict (the three are inextricably intertwined)

4) Engender a deliberate sense of Jewish community

Our trip consisted of 38 Americans aged 22-27 (almost all of whom are from the Washington DC area), seven current or recent Israeli soldiers, three trip leaders (two DC Jewish community leaders and one Israeli guide), and a medic/security guard/guitar savant with long flowing hair and a dry sense of humor. We toured around Israel in a charter bus for 11 days, seeing an unfathomable amount of terrain and historical monuments. We got very little sleep.

The group dynamic was astoundingly positive. I don’t really think I can adequately describe our chemistry without a) being personally invasive, and b) boring everybody that isn’t one of us, but I would compare the trip to being at sleepaway camp for two weeks with all your best friends. With drinking. There are countless inside jokes that will make us laugh for years during large reunions and smaller meet-ups.

Of course smaller cliques would form with that many people, but these were not factions–there weren’t any haters.

In a more universal sense, here’s what stood out to me the most–if I missed something particularly important, please write it up in the comments.

The Western Wall

Like much of what we saw in Israel, words and pictures cannot do Western Wall justice. But I’ll try.

I’m pretty emphatically unreligious. Going to temple is one of my least favorite things to do. I sit there and squirm, count the ceiling tiles (there are 216 wood panels in the sanctuary I grew up attending), and wish I were anywhere else. But when I approached the Western Wall, I felt this incredible surge of power — like G-d must feel, when He goes there to pray. When you stand at the wall and look up, there’s no top–it appears to go on for perpetuity, as if you could scale it all the way to heaven. It’s majestic.

In real life, the place that I feel most spiritual is Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers. Each time I make the pilgrimage and walk up through the gates and into the stadium, I feel a full-body rush when I look up and see the glowing field surrounded by a sea of green and gold in the stands. There is so much history. Vince Lombardi coached there. You’re aware. Commemorations of his NFL titles are conspicuous and many of his players adorn the ring of honor.

Lambeau Field is 55 years old. The Western Wall was built over 2,000 years ago.

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