An inaugural trip to Israel on Birthright
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An inaugural trip to Israel on Birthright

Sydney Albert, left, and Tara Maier holding up the iconic Duke Blue Devils gesture in front of the Western Wall.
Sydney Albert, left, and Tara Maier holding up the iconic Duke Blue Devils gesture in front of the Western Wall.

I couldn’t see anyone around for miles. Towering dunes of sand replaced skyscrapers. The air was cooler than I’d expected, the ground rockier. A shallow ravine of precious water snaked through the Negev Desert, a muted reflection of the stars glimmering across the water’s surface.

I was hunched over on a rock trying to actively reflect. I knew my friends were around here somewhere, doing the same. We had traveled to Israel to reconnect with our Jewish heritage and learn more about Jewish history and traditions. Coming to the desert was a part of that reconnection process. In many ways, the raw landscape of the desert felt like a rebirth.

My mind was racing; I’m not used to having ostensibly nothing to do. I had recently graduated college: I was elated with congratulations, and terrified of change, and grateful of the friends I had made, and anxious about losing them. I had flown to Israel the day after graduation, any discomfort I might’ve weathered packed neatly away with the rest of my clothing. Now, in the desert, I had to unpack.

From left: Rina Sclove, Delaney Buskard, Sydney Albert, and Tara Maier after a Shehechyanu, or celebration prayer in Jerusalem.

Instead of enjoying the solitude, I fretted over what my identity would become, now that I was no longer a student. In the uneasy quiet, having derived no satisfactory conclusion, I decided to head back to where the group had dispersed. I marched a while through the desert, the last one to join the
huddle.

My friends, both new and old, shared the many revelations they had unwrapped in the desert. I discovered I had not been the only one that night who unearthed panic instead of peace. Many other recent graduates were thinking about their futures, a few of them wondering how and if they would find a Jewish community in their new homes. As we picked through the ways in which our birthright trip had answered some questions and asked others, I felt less alone, even if we were in the middle of nowhere.

Our night in the desert was no exception: our trip to Israel provided ample opportunity for many somber moments of reflection, something I found especially useful as I grappled with my complicated feelings after graduation. As we rode camels, floated in the Dead Sea, hiked Masada, toured the souks and visited the Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, our expert tour guide continuously prompted us to reflect. We discussed our experiences as young Jewish people, both at home and in Israel, at length.

Tara Maier, left, and Maya Choudhury in the Negev Desert.

Some of the most impactful moments, and those that required the most reflection, were, I hesitate to say, political. The top of an old military outpost in the Golan Heights provided an excellent view of Syria, a nation that has been embroiled in a bitter civil war for over a decade. In Be’er Sheva, we munched on falafel across from a playground equipped with two bomb shelters. I even purchased a necklace refashioned from an exploded bomb, another moment of rebirth on the trip. The trip chaperones encouraged us to explore and think deeply about Israel’s political relationships with other powers within and beyond the region. Though at times uncomfortable, I believe honest discussions and investigations into Israel’s political circumstances were instrumental in negotiating my own connection to the land, and how Israel may fit into my identity as a Jewish person. I found it genuinely hard to embrace Jewish roots in Israel without acknowledging and contemplating the justified claims other groups also have to the land.

Our final Shabbat ceremony was bittersweet. Huddled in Tel Aviv, a bustling city that felt worlds away from the Negev Desert, we traded funny stories and favorite experiences on the trip. Every single member of my tour group mentioned that they had made friends they would treasure forever. For one of the first times in my life, I felt a strong cohesion to other Jewish people, and reflected on how Jewish values, like charity, curiosity, scholarship, community, and positivity were integral parts of my character and identity, even if I was no longer a student. As we presented paper plate awards (I received the “Most Likely to be a Lucky Charms Cover Girl” award, as a nod to my dual Irish citizenship), I closed my eyes to sweeten and capture the memory. My birthright trip to Israel provided me with more than a tangible connection to the land, but a better sense of myself and a kinship with my local Jewish community.

Tara Maier of Old Tappan graduated magna cum laude from Duke University and plans on continuting her education in medical school.

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