Birthright with Rutgers Hillel: A Personal Journey
By Nehama Hanoch, Class of 2018
When I initially applied to go to Israel with Birthright, I was looking forward to a free trip to Israel – a chance to visit a place I had heard so much about but had never been to. In middle school, I attended an Orthodox yeshiva. All my friends and teachers would talk about their families in Israel, their vacations there, and their love of the land. I was so excited to finally visit this amazing, beautiful place with a group of fellow college students on an extensive tour – and for free!
My parents raised me and my three sisters in a strict, Orthodox household. I felt choked and restricted by Judaism, especially when I started attending a public high school and wanted to spend time with my non-Jewish friends. In my freshman year of high school, I stopped observing Jewish law, much to the dismay of my parents. Few people can pronounce my name, Nehama, which makes it even more difficult to appreciate my Judaism. Before Birthright, I felt ashamed of my Judaism. When people asked me if I was Jewish, I explained that my parents were, but I was not. I was annoyed that I even had to explain.
My parents were so delighted when I told them I was accepted onto the trip; they have deep appreciation for the opportunity Birthright provides so many young Jewish people. I think a part of them hoped that on the trip, I would reconnect with Judaism and feel less resentment towards its constraints. I had no expectations of this, but I was incredibly excited to experience Israeli culture and meet other people on the trip.
When the plane began the descent into Israel, the sun was rising over Tel Aviv, and it was the most incredible sunset I had ever seen. The clouds were smoky dark, unfurling spectacularly over the deep red skyline. As we descended further, the sky turned burnt orange, a rich combination of pink and purple, and then a bright sunny blue. I sat on the edge of my seat in anticipation, so thrilled to finally be in Israel.
The trip surpassed my already-high expectations. We saw the most breathtaking views of Israel on our hikes, and we shopped and ate our way through the markets. We stargazed and rode camels in the desert, and we floated in the Dead Sea. We learned stirring stories of some of our heroes in the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) at Mount Herzl and remembered those who suffered in the Holocaust at Yad Vashem. We became close friends with the Israelis who joined us and created some outstanding memories with them. Hanging out with them showed me a side of Israeli culture and life in the IDF that I did not know about, which I am so grateful for. I am still in touch with some of the soldiers, and I have plans to meet with them again in Israel and in America.
I cannot pick through each experience and explain how it contributes to my shifting views of Judaism, Israel, and myself; they all weave together into better appreciations of everything. I extended my trip several days and spent it partly in Tel Aviv with friends I had made on the trip. We spent most of the weekend on the beach and at nightclubs, where we fell in love with the culture and personality of Tel Aviv. Most of the people I met there were not deeply religious but still associated with Judaism and celebrated major holidays. They respected Judaism, but they just did not practice every custom. I met people who understood and knew the customs I had grown up with, who could pronounce my name perfectly, but who also did not strictly abide by every rule or expect me to do so. This was instrumental in changing my views of Judaism. I am no longer ashamed to call myself Jewish because I now feel that there is a kind of Judaism that I do belong to, a feeling I had not felt before. This may not seem like a major change, and it is not major in the sense that I did not return to America interested in becoming more religious. But it is major in the sense that I appreciate my heritage instead of being embarrassed by it.
My sense of self changed as well on Birthright as I went out of my comfort zone. First of all, I lost my iPhone 6 early on the trip – something that probably should have devastated me. I knew I would be upset by what this would cost me when I returned home, but I was actually relieved that on the trip I would not be tied down to it. It is so easy to be distracted by our phones; texting people, scrolling through social media, playing games. When you no longer have the opportunity to do this, you can truly experience the wonder of the trip. I have always been a bit scared of heights, and before I left for Israel, I worried that I might be scared on the hikes. But I did not have to fight an ounce of fear; I felt only excitement and appreciation for how beautiful the views were. I was also worried about falling off the camel, but I still rode on one, and had such a great time doing it. When I extended my trip, I also traveled to Jerusalem to see my sister, so I was alone on a bus, without a cell phone, unsure of how I would find my sister when I got there. I told myself on the ride that it was an adventure and if something went wrong, I would have an interesting story to tell when I got home. This was a carefree, optimistic attitude I picked up on Birthright and took back with me to America.
If I could give advice to future Birthrighters, I would tell them to take in each fear, each moment that may have gone wrong, and to appreciate it as part of the adventure. I would also caution them to use their phones just for taking pictures and getting in touch with their parents, so that they may enjoy the trip fully. And lastly, I would advise them to savor the Israeli hummus while they can because it is absolutely impossible to find such deliciousness in a Sabra container.
Registration for the Summer 2016 Rutgers Birthright trip with Rutgers Hillel (May 19-30, 2016) is NOW OPEN! Visit www.rutgershillel.org/birthright and click the link.
Through the Rutgers Hillel Center for Israel Engagement, students strengthen their connections to Israel and the Jewish people. After they return from a transformational Birthright experience, students continue to explore their love for Israel. The Rutgers Hillel Center for Israel Engagement exposes students to positive messages about Israel to help them develop stronger Jewish connections to our homeland.
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