By Stephanie Wener
Former staff associate in the department of professional development services at JCC Association
Originally featured in the spring 2003 issue of JCC Circle.
Then, when I was 20, I had the opportunity to participate in a three-week leadership training seminar in Israel for camp supervisors. Feeling as though I was the only Jewish 20 year old who had never been to Israel, I jumped at the chance.
Years later when the birthright israel programs were created as free ten-day trips for Jewish North American young adults (ages 18 to 26) who had never been to Israel with peer groups, I remember feeling deeply proud to be part of a people so committed to its youth. To give others the opportunity that I didn’t have, I wanted to support this effort in any way I could. This personal ‘mission’ was fulfilled in January when I was selected as the madricha, or counselor, to lead the JMaX (JCC Maccabi Xperience) birthright israel trip.
On January 6, 2003, just two days after a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, 19 people, all with some connection to the JCC Movement (current professionals, JCC Maccabi Games or camp alumni, etc.) arrived at JFK airport in New York ready to board an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. So soon after a reminder of the violence of the intifada, I was ready to bet that some would cancel at the last minute. I would have lost that bet.
By the time our plane landed, these amazing men and women from different cities and backgrounds had transformed themselves into one cohesive group. Fighting off jet lag, they were eager to experience all that the Jewish state had to offer. Following an itinerary prepared by JCC Association’s Israel Office, we zoomed from the Hall of Independence in Tel Aviv, through the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem, to a climb up to Masada. Hiking in the Golan Heights, experiencing life on a kibbutz, and swimming in the Dead Sea, it felt as though our bodies didn’t stop moving for ten days! The Israel Office had everything planned down to the last detail.
As exciting and moving as all of these experiences were, the most meaningful part of the trip for our group was the encounter with eight of our Israeli peers. For five days, the Israelis toured with us, slept at the same hotels, ate where we did, and visited their homeland alongside us. As the madricha, I watched in awe our transformation into one seamless group; an outsider would not have been able to determine which participants were Israeli and which were American.
The Americans learned first hand what it’s like to be a young adult living in Israel, how the Israelis feel about joining the army, and where their tough Israeli persona comes from. The Israelis learned that American Jews are deeply committed to supporting Israel, that they strive to understand the matsav, the current situation, and that Judaism exists in many different forms in North America.
After attending a Kabbalat Shabbat service at a synagogue in Jerusalem on Friday night, the group engaged in a discussion about how Judaism is practiced in Israel in comparison to North America. The Israelis talked about how the Orthodox set the religious tone in their country, and explained that if you are not Orthodox in practice you are often disregarded as a Jew. Many of them had never experienced Shabbat in a synagogue before! One man from Tel Aviv told how this uniform definition of Judaism was a deterrent for his own religious practice. When the Israelis heard the North Americans talk about the different streams of Judaism that exist back home, and learned that people observe in so many different ways, they were almost moved to tears.
On the last night that the Israelis were with us, we wanted to send them off in style as thanks for being such an important part of our trip. After an exhausting day of hiking in the north and a lecture about the battles of the Yom Kippur War in the Bach’a Valley, we returned to Kibbutz Dganya. One of the Israelis traveling with us had been born on this particular kibbutz, and he arranged for the bar to be opened just for our group. After dinner we threw a party that no one will soon forget! All of us drank and danced the entire evening. It was a spectacular night!
During the trip, the group struggled with the realities of the many facets of contemporary life in Israel. And a ten-day tour can provide only limited insight into 5,000 years of history. But each person felt empowered to have come, and seemed desperate to return. That they came to Israel as strangers, and became this group that could share, explore, discuss, challenge, and motivate each other, made traveling to Israel with them an exceptional experience. Their collective memories will strengthen them for many years to come. It touches me deeply that I had the privilege of leading this special group of people to experience Israel for the first time.