|Participants in the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s first Birthright trip for 22- to 26-year-olds.|
Amanda Perlmutter is a student at William Paterson University in Wayne, majoring in biology and public health and studying to take the MCATs – the test for medical school admission – in the fall.
She lives and grew up in Sparta, 30 miles to the west in Sussex County – a place where the sparse Jewish population meant she had few Jewish friends.
Now, she has Jewish friends, and she is looking into attending medical school in Israel.
That’s part of the impact of a Birthright Israel trip she took last month, sponsored and organized by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
This year, the federation was able to sponsor two Birthright trips; an earlier one in May was for 18- 22-year-olds. This second trip was for people between 22 and 26.
Kim Schwartzman, who is the federation’s young leadership coordinator, led the trip. She said the impact on participants was profound.
“All of them said, ‘This is the most incredible experience of my life,'” Schwartzman said
Perlmutter came to the trip through her involvement in Hillel. The fact that it was a trip sponsored by the local federation appealed to her.
“Not only would I experience Israel, but I could also come back and have friendships in my community,” she said.
Her plan worked: “I’ve been hanging out with a bunch of the girls I’ve met through the group.”
It was hard for Perlmutter to single out the best part of the trip. “I was honestly amazed by everything,” she said. But if she had to choose, it would be interacting with Israelis in Nahariya, the federation’s sister city.
“We were on the beach and sitting and talking with a bunch of Israelis who were my age,” she said. “We were just hanging out on the beach and seeing what daily life in Israel is like. It wasn’t awkward at all. They were very open and welcoming to us. It was great to just socialize with them.
“We all keep in touch with each other, even the Israelis. We have a group on Facebook and we all post in it all the time.”
The trip opened her up to new ways of experiencing Judaism.
“I saw how other people practice and I realized that I can make Judaism what it needs to be for me,” she said. “It opened up a lot of doors for me.
“When we were in Jerusalem on Friday night, at nighttime it all stopped and everybody realized it’s Shabbat and it’s time to rest. To see the emptiness of the city – it was shocking. The business center is closed down, there’s barely any cars, you got to rest.
“When I came home, I started practicing Friday night. I either alternate not using my cell phone or not driving or going to shul,” she said. “I don’t have to go out and be Orthodox. I can figure out what I want to be and make Judaism what I feel will make me connected.”
Perlmutter isn’t the only trip participant who now is thinking about going back to Israel for a longer stay, Schwartzman said.
“The last day of the trip, we went to the Israel Experience headquarters in Tel Aviv and discussed the ways to go back. There are different kinds of internship programs: You can basically do anything you want for a year and they hook you up with housing and mentors,” she said.
This was the first time the federation was able to run a trip only for 22- 26- year-olds, instead of mixing them in with younger people, Schwartzman said. And the experience “was a lot more mature. This group went to each site, each activity, wholeheartedly.
“They got so much out of it,” she said.