As I look back at my recent sojourn in Israel, one day stands out. As an experienced traveler to Israel and a madricha (group leader) on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, I hoped for a new perspective, and that’s exactly what I go that day as it perfectly summed up the past, present and future of Israel and clarified my personal connection to the Jewish State.
The day began somberly, with a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum. Built into a mountain, the museum represents the passage from Jewish life before the war to the depths of despair and cruelty faced by Jews in the Shoah to the new life that has blossomed in the Jerusalem hills with the founding of the State of Israel. After viewing pre-war video of singing children, men and women at work or wading through snow, we slowly walked through the museum, which winds through the story of forced migration, annihilation and atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators. Although it was not my first visit to the museum, the story gripped me as if I had never heard it before.
As we walked out, a magnificent look out onto Jerusalem appeared before our eyes. The narrow passageway of the museum suddenly widened, the concrete walls wrapping themselves away from the visitors and reaching out into the eternal city. The sun peeked from the clouds, its rays caressing and warming us. That powerful passage from darkness into the light—so sudden, so welcome—gave seed to the idea of life, home and belonging.
We could have gone on to Tel Aviv or the Old City of Jerusalem or a million other places and simply forgotten about the powerful experience of Yad Vashem. But our itinerary directed us to the only logical place: a children’s community center in Kiryat Gat, Chicago’s Partnership 2000 sister-city. The center is an after-school activity hub for the neighborhood kids. Many of them are children of Ethiopian immigrants, though Kiryat Gat is a diverse city that has absorbed a portion of each immigration wave since the city was founded in 1955.
We jumped rope, sang and danced, played video games and basketball. It was a light-hearted reminder of the resilience of the Jewish nation and of new life and new strength. Despite a lack of a common language, Taglit participants found a way to communicate with the kids, who grabbed hands and led us directly into their games.
And yet, the day was far from over. In fact, one of the highlights of that day wasn’t even on the itinerary but speaks to the spark of ingenuity and warmth that’s so characteristic of Israeli culture. The morning of our visit to Yad Vashem and to Kiryat Gat, one of the seven Israeli participants—whose family lives in Kiryat Gat—had called his mother with the announcement that he’d be bringing 50 of his friends to her house the same day. Evyatar’s mother did not balk. Instead, the school teacher took the afternoon off and cooked up a feast: falafel, pita, shakshouka, four kinds of salad, fruit, and nuts graced the laden table when we piled into the family home. Mrs. Ben-Haim’s students even wrote us letters to welcome us to Kiryat Gat! More than the food, the warmth of the family drew us all closer.
The experiences of that Sunday are but a couple of snapshots of a very intense experience. Like any Birthright trip, ours was an attempt to show Israel first-timers the beauty, vibrancy and challenges of the country. We took in the symbiosis of natural beauty and mine fields in the Galilee and the Golan Heights; the spirit of Jerusalem and Tzfat; and the pulsing streets of Tel Aviv. It’s impossible to really get to the heart of Israel in 10 days, but we made a valiant attempt.
It could have been an ordinary Sunday—the first day of the work week in Israel. But the combined experiences of the day will stay with me as a marker of what makes Israel tick: a sense of honor for those who have been lost, but also a deep appreciation for life and all it has to offer.