Rebecca Pollard–Staff Writer
Since 1999, thousands of young adults have traveled to Israel though the Taglit Birthright Israel trip. Taglit, meaning “discovery” in Hebrew, is the perfect word to describe this trip. Unfortunately, I cannot speak from experience. However I was fortunate enough to meet up with Oneonta’s Rabbi Meir this week along with Melissa Kapnick and Hayley Rosenfeld, both students at Oneonta who have been on the trip.
Mayanot Israel is the trip organizer that Rabbi Meir and 26 Oneonta students used to help plan their trip to Israel this past summer. The Rabbi believes that the creators of Birthright planned the trips perfectly by creating “…a curriculum instead of an itinerary.” This gives the travelers the freedom to decide what they want to do on their time abroad. For example, one group’s trip may be centered around diversity while another’s may focus more on being outdoors. The group of Oneonta students who went in summer 2014 had their trip centered on education, taking multiple tours and learning about the culture and heritage that was surrounding them.
The trip lasted for 10 days, which according to Rosenfeld, felt more like 30 due to their jam-packed schedule of activities every day. The group slept in various locations throughout the trip, averaging about 2.5 nights spent at each location. Some of their nights were spent in hotels, while others were spent in Bedouin tents which represent a sort of subculture of nomads. The people who reside permanently in these tents live by a certain set of rules—not laws necessarily, but traditional customs. For example, if someone comes to a Bedouin tent and asks to stay, the owner of the tent is obligated to allow the guest to stay for three nights. Because the tents were in the desert, the group of students also rode camels during their time at the tent location.
Students traveled from activity to activity on a bus, and the bus driver was one of the six staff members that was always with them. The staff included four Israelis and two Americans. Some positions included: the tour guide, the bus driver and the medical aid that also served as a bodyguard. One of the things Kapnick pointed out that is important to remember, is that having a bodyguard with groups is completely normal in Israel. A bodyguard accompanies even school field trips; it is just a different type of safety precaution. Although the American students were not necessarily used to seeing people walking around with guns, Kapnick and Rosenfeld claimed that they felt safer in Israel than they do at home. The Rabbi described it like this, “You have faith and trust in the people around you. It’s just a part of life.”
Rosenfeld can definitely attest to having faith and trust in the people around her on the trip. She and Kapnick both said that the sense of community is significantly stronger in Israel than in America. Israeli citizens that Rosenfeld and Kapnick encountered greeted both students with “welcome home!” The Rabbi described it as a higher level of comfort among the people, an indescribable type of hominess. Rosenfeld especially noticed an example of their higher level of community during her experience at the parade for Jerusalem Day. The day is celebrated each year in order to remember Israel’s regaining of access to the Western Wall in 1967. The Western Wall is one of the most sacred sites for those who practice Judaism, and is one of the many sites the students got to see on their trip this past summer. Immediately after attending the parade this summer, the Rabbi took a video in which he asked students to describe their experience at the parade in one word. Some of the answers included hectic, awesome, energetic, fun, amazing, pride, powerful, unbelievable, phenomenal and insane. Fun Fact: Justin Timberlake was at the Western Wall the same day as the 26 students of Oneonta were!
One of the most memorable experiences for the students on the trip was the fact that eight Israeli soldiers stayed with them for five days during their trip. Four male soldiers and four female soldiers are chosen to travel with the Birthright groups, all the while they are considered to be on active duty. An important part of this to know is that if you are an Israeli citizen, military service is mandatory for a specific amount of time. The soldiers that accompanied the students were in the same age group, all young adults. They change out of their uniforms and into everyday clothes after meeting the group they are accompanying, and really become part of the group.
Rosenfeld said that they “tied in a new perspective.” She says that the soldiers were interesting to be around because if she were an Israeli citizen, she would be doing the same thing. Rosenfeld described the soldiers as close friends, people she was really able to connect to and learn from on the trip. Many of the students who went on the trip still keep in contact with the soldiers today, and Rosenfeld says that they are always wondering when they will be coming back to Israel, and offer their homes to the students to stay when they do come back. The Rabbi believes that the soldiers are a very important part of the trip because they show the students that the soldiers are just like them, that they are just regular people.
Overall, the trip sounded too amazing to even be able to sum up appropriately in this article. If you are interested in going on a Birthright Israel trip this winter, you should contact Melissa Kapnick at Melissa.kapnick@gmail com. You must be between the ages of 18 and 26, identify as Jewish, be recognized as such and have at least one Jewish birth parent to go on this trip. Birthright Israel is an amazing opportunity and going with fellow Oneonta students is a trip-enhancer. It brings students closer together, and allows them to share that experience together as well as reminisce about it together.