Pleasure and Pain is going on vacation
If you follow me on Twitter, you probably already know that I leave tonight for Birthright, a free 10-day trip to Israel for Jews between the ages of 18 and 26. I will be traveling with 40 or so other people through URJ KESHER, one of Taglit-Birthright‘s 30 tour operators.
While I am not particularly religious or observant beyond the major family traditions, I do consider myself a spiritual person and felt that this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I am thrilled that my close friend and college roommate Sharin will be traveling with me. I know that whatever lies ahead will deeply enrich both of our lives and make our bond even stronger.
To be quite honest, I never thought I’d go to Israel — despite the fact that I have family living there and many of my relatives who’ve visited have said that it’s a life-changing experience. I guess I’ve always just thought it was too dangerous, too far away, too religious for me. But when my last year of eligibility crept up on me (I recently turned 26), I suddenly felt like this was something I had to do. I chose to participate with KESHER because they are an organization for Reform Jews.
For those of you who may not know much about Jewish denominations, the Reform movement is a progressive form of Judaism based primarily in the United States and parts of the U.K. Started in the 1970s, Reform Judaism is a liberal adherence to Jewish law “designed to remain relevant and meaningful to contemporary life.” In just 35 years, it has become the largest Jewish denomination in the U.S. with more than 1.5 million members. (Incidentally, the synagogue I belong to, Temple Emanu-el in Manhattan, is the largest Jewish house of worship in the world. The main sanctuary where I became Bat Mitzvah seats 2,500 people.)
When I initially heard about Birthright my senior year of high school (2000, the year it began), I immediately disregarded it because I thought it would be like a missionary trip where they’d try to “convert” me into a more religious Jew. In recent years I’ve realized that that isn’t its purpose at all, and the variety of tour operators means that every participant can find the experience that feels best. One size does not fit all. I was impressed with the thoughtfulness that went into tailoring each experience based on the participants’ affiliation and self-identification.
KESHER’s description of their tour starts:
From touring spiritual Jerusalem and visiting modern Tel Aviv, to climbing Masada and swimming in the Dead Sea, the URJ KESHER Trip offers an amazing opportunity to travel and experience Israel within a progressive perspective. Participants will explore ancient and modern Jerusalem, trek across the beautiful desert, ride camels, ascend to the top of Masada at sunrise, visit mystical Tzfat and experience the Northern part of Israel in the Golan and Galilee. Our experts in Israel fill each day with opportunities for exploration and growth, learning and fun. The mifgash (interaction) with visiting Israeli soldiers, who join our groups for a portion of the program, is a highlight which allows our program participants to develop strong personal connections with their peers in Israel. Interactions with Israelis, egalitarian prayer and song sessions, and social, community-building evening programs will provide opportunities for each person to wrestle with contemporary questions about Israel, Jewish identity, religious pluralism and tradition.
It really wasn’t difficult to get excited about that.
So here I am, mere hours away from going to JFK to travel to Israel for the first time. The flight is 10-1/2 hours, the longest trip I’ve ever taken, and Israel is 7 hours ahead of New York. I’m anxious to meet the 40 strangers I’ll be traveling with; I have no doubt that in 10 days that many of them will have become close friends. We’ve already begun to get to know each other a bit, through bios sent around via e-mail and a Facebook group I set up. While there’s certainly a big age disparity between me and the youngest participants (class of 2012!), I’m sure that our shared experience will forge an everlasting bond.
After all, we’re going home.