It’s been six years since I went on Birthright. On that trip, along with 59 other Penn State students, I experienced Israel for the first time. When I got home, I actually found myself watching the Christian channel for those infomercials about bringing Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel. Hey, it was the only thing on TV showing positive images of Israel, and I got nostalgic.
It wasn’t quite the same on my recent trip.
This was a United Jewish Communities mission through the Pennsylvania State Network, the state’s smaller Jewish communities like State College, Altoona, and York, which don’t fall under the auspices of the larger federations in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. The hook? The honorary chair was Graham Spanier, the first African American (South African, but it still counts) Jewish president of Penn State. In my previous life, I worked for a feature magazine in State College, so I signed up, not really knowing what to expect.
Almost as soon as we got off the plane, we got a firsthand look at the security fence, which, to the surprise of many on the bus, is just a fence. Only 4 percent of it is actually a wall, and the rest of it really is just a long fence with sensors. But it is that 4 percent that almost always ends up on television. Good fences may or may not make good neighbors, but concrete walls make good television.
We also attended the Birthright Mega Event essentially a huge party where all the people on Birthright trips come together. Shimon Peres addressed the cheering crowd and I could feel the excitement of each participant standing and chanting "Is-ra-el!" as fireworks lit up the sky above. This was much bigger than the Mega Event on my Birthright trip, but it still made me nostalgic for that group. Especially now, surrounded by thousands of enthusiastic screaming college students but sandwiched between 50 older people covering their ears and telling the people in front of them to sit down.
The itinerary seemed pretty similar to Birthright we toured the Old City, had the option of climbing Masada, visited an Air Force Museum (and got to climb in some grounded aircraft, now that was fun), and ate more falafel and shwarma than probably necessary but organizers made no secret that the point of this mission was to "see where your money goes." Or, as I call it: "Tugging at the heartstrings to loosen the pursestrings."
On Wednesday we visited an immigrant absorption center near Jerusalem. This one focused specifically on Ethiopians, who not only need help adapting to the Israeli way of life learning Hebrew, the ins and outs of Israeli government, and how to be more assertive in the very assertive Israeli society but also need help going from the Third-World conditions of Ethiopia to the ‘1st-century conditions of Israel. Driving, electricity, sending kids to school, even just going grocery shopping are all skills the center teaches the new immigrants. Everybody seemed happy to see us, especially the kinderlach. Apparently, when you’re 6 feet 4 inches like me, a 3-foot-tall kid thinks you’re something to climb on. Now how could you not make a large donation after that?
On Thursday we visited Dimona, famous for being the site of Israel’s nuclear reactor, but that wasn’t the point of our visit (which would have been really cool). We went to a school for underprivileged children, funded partly by UJC.
Anybody who has ever been to Jerusalem is familiar with panhandlers, who according to our guide make a better living than I do. So our views of Israel’s poor are a little skewed because of this. But visiting schools gave everybody on the trip a better understanding of the poverty problems within Israel and what people are doing to address them. At a lunch-and-learn program at the Dimona school, we feasted on what was essentially a microwave dinner which, according to school officials, was the only meal some of the students received during the day.
How could we not donate after that?
In the end, this was a very different experience from Birthright, where everyone is a first-timer, just about the same age and stage in life. Many of the people on the UJC mission were middle-aged or older; many had been to Israel dozens of times, while others were there for their first time. Still, everyone, even the people who had been there ‘0 times before, like one of the organizers who had biked across Israel just three weeks before the mission, experienced a fresh look at the country. Just as with the political aspect, there are different ways to view everything in Israel, and no two trips are ever the same.