Imagine this scene: a warm summer evening at the Kotel, the sun has just set, and all is lit up with the beautiful Jerusalem glow, seven bar and bat mitzvah boys and girls are surrounded by their peers, excited and emotional. This amazing experience took place a couple of weeks ago, and the seven bar and bat mitzvah boys and girls were all college-age participants of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s first Birthright trip to Israel.
Many articles and words have already been written about Birthright and its effect on the lives of young adults from every Jewish community in the world. Therefore, I would like to focus on our own intimate experience that lasted 10 amazing days during late June.
Three UJA-NNJ professionals planned and staffed our federation’s first Birthright bus, and our goal was to connect with Israel through experience and interaction.
Birthright participants embrace after their colleagues, at right, celebrate their bar/bat mitzvahs at the Kotel.
Gil Korbin, the assistant director of Hillel of Northern New Jersey, Liron Yaull, UJA-NNJ’s volunteer youth shlicha, and I were partnered with one of Birthright’s licensed organizers known as the Israel Experts Group, and together we built an itinerary to reflect our goals.
Here is a short list of a few of these moments:
Our first visit to the Kotel was done as a community. Those who had already been there led their first-time peers blindfolded through the alleys of the Jewish quarter toward the lookout point. Once we all arrived at the lookout point, those who were blindfolded were told to open their eyes, and the group’s first view of the Kotel was shared as one.
photos by david hyman
At the Mount Herzl Cemetery, we visited the 198′ plot, where I could share personal stories next to the graves of my two classmates who were killed in Lebanon.
After the visit to Yad Vashem, we spent time reflecting and conversing about anti-Semitism and its effect on our lives today.
In Nahariya, we met with Miki Goldwasser, mother of Udi Goldwasser, one of the abducted soldiers. She shared her story with a mixed group of Israelis and Americans, who then shared a wonderful home hospitality dinner together.
In Safed, Gil Korbin demonstrated laying tefillin, while young Israeli children chanted Shabbat songs from a nearby cheder.
We spent Shabbat by the Kinneret and discussed the meaning of tefillah, prayer. We also read Israeli poems and discussed how we relate to Israel and how Israel relates to us.
In Tel Aviv, we visited Rabin Square and heard an account from an eyewitness, Liron Yaull, who, then a teenager, was at the square the night Rabin was assassinated.
The evening before the Masada hike we took the group on a night hike and under the stars and the dark skies we discussed the meaning of being a nation born in a desert.
On Masada we yelled "Am Yisrael Chai," the people of Israel live, from the south tip, and heard the echo Chai Chai Chai bounce back from the canyon walls.
The eight Israeli soldiers who were with us for five days and nights joined our discussion about the meaning of being an Israeli and serving the country for three years.
But the final and most powerful moment was, no doubt, our community bar and bat mitzvah celebration. During the week we learned that many of the participants never had had a bar or bat mitzvah and would very much like to do so now. So we planned a second visit to the Kotel on the final evening of our trip and created this special event: Each bar and bat mitzvah was called by his or her Hebrew name to stand up in front of the group and together they all read the blessing before the reading of the Torah, Gil Korbin read the Torah portion on their behalf, and the participants recited the closing bracha. Each presented a short speech about his or her feelings on this special occasion.
And when it was over, Israeli candy was thrown at them in the traditional manner, and we all sang siman tov, good luck, and everyone hugged and kissed the b’nai mitzvah like there was no tomorrow. The tears mixed with the smiles, and the group surrounded them with love and affection.
A final treat was sent by the heavens in a form of a young boy’s choir who were having a rehearsal of songs and tefillot a few feet away from us; it was as though we had hired a band to entertain our guests. What a perfect conclusion to our ceremony.
We stayed at the Kotel for a long while, sitting together on the warm Jerusalem pavestones, singing Israeli songs and enjoying the magical atmosphere.
I can only guess what this experience meant for the participants, the staff, the bar and bat mitzvah boys and girls, their families, and the community,
But I can tell you that I stood there for a long while, feeling grateful.
I felt grateful that I was given the opportunity and the privilege through these two major Jewish philanthropic organizations, UJA-NNJ and Birthright Israel, to help create an environment that enabled young Jewish adults to explore their Jewishness in a significant and meaningful way by celebrating a bar/bat mitzvah in Jerusalem at the Kotel.
Let’s remember: It’s never too late to connect.