Building the Jewish connection
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Building the Jewish connection

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The Birthright group gathers on Mount Scopus, overlooking Jerusalem. Photo Shimine@017.net.il

As six Israeli soldiers and tour guide Doron Barshap welcomed 40 Birthright participants to Ben-Gurion Airport on May 20, the group was in high spirits, dancing in a circle and chanting such words as “achim” (brothers) and “simcha” after going through customs.

The Northern New Jersey Community Birthright trip, May 20 to 31, took young adults between the ages of 18 and 27 on a wide-ranging tour of Israel, from Haifa and Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Masada, and the Dead Sea.

For some, “connection” is the most important part of the Birthright experience.

“It’s having a connection to a big group of people,” said Zach Jay, a 19-year-old Paramus resident who attends the College of New Jersey. “I wanted to go on this trip to meet new people and have a good time.”

“You get to see so many things that happened there, it is so rich in history,” he said, noting that he was particularly moved by his trip to Jerusalem. The city, he said, “was ruled by so many different people throughout the years – it’s cool to see the Old City versus the new city.”

Michael Chananie, a 19-year-old student at Ramapo College, said he decided that this was a good time to experience Israel and get more involved in Judaism.

“After the trip I definitely gained more of an appreciation for the State of Israel, especially for the soldiers,” said the Paramus resident. “I have a better understanding of what their daily lives entail.”

Chananie said he had immense respect for Israeli soldiers, who join the army at age 18. He said he could not imagine being placed in a similar situation.

“The most moving part of the trip was being with the soldiers at Mount Herzl in the cemetery,” he said, adding that soldiers shared stories about some of the people buried there.

He was also impressed by the sight of thousands of people at the Western Wall. Since it was Shavuot, the group went to the Wall twice, a second time so they could take pictures and write notes to place there, he said.

Chananie said that the presence of bodyguards made it feel like a “real” situation, adding that it was “a culture shock” to realize some areas were not safe. For example, he said, shopping trips to Tel Aviv were delayed because of security warnings. Still, he said, “there was not one time I did not feel safe on the entire trip.”

Ellie Schneiderman, a 23-year-old graduate student who has been interning with the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, was a madricha, or leader, of the trip.

The group’s dynamics were “incredible,” said the Teaneck resident. “From a leadership perspective, it’s often challenging and I think there was a great amount of cooperation and participation, and there was a tremendous amount of respect for each individual.”

Schneiderman noted that when you sign up for Birthright through a community, you automatically have a sense of belonging and something in common with your peers.

Some components of this particular trip were unique, said Schneiderman. Not only did the six soldiers stay with the group the entire time, but participants also had an opportunity to visit Nahariya, located on the Mediterranean Sea, and join families there for dinner – an opportunity not offered on most trips.

“The first day we gave out a map, and on the last day we were circling the places they visited,” Schneiderman said. “They understood how small the county was, how much they accomplished, and how much they really saw.”

She noted that half of the group members decided to extend their time in Israel. Many stayed with the Israeli soldiers after forming connections and friendships, she said.

“I think there is something very special about getting to learn history, see history, touch history, and feel it with people your own age,” Schneiderman said.

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