Discovering My Home on Birthright
By Amber Ricks, Class of 2016
“What are you crazy?” “You shouldn’t go, it’s so dangerous.” “Aren’t you scared?” “Can’t you go another time?” These are just a small sampling of the statements and questions that I had to respond to when talking about my excitement for my upcoming Birthright trip. It did not matter if I was talking to a family member, friend, or co-worker; almost everyone that I talked to tried to dissuade me from going to Israel during its current conflict with Hamas. To help quell the concerns expressed by others, along with any personal reservations that I was subconsciously harboring, I attentively watched the news, read articles and blogs about the events occurring in Israel and Gaza, and monitored the updates put out by Taglit. Despite all of this, there was a single statement that made me completely certain that going to Israel was exactly what I needed to do. I had stumbled upon a link to an article listing ways in which people could show support for Israel during this challenging time, and the final point begged people not to cancel their trips to Israel. For whatever reason, that statement was what I needed to see my visit to Israel as something that I was doing not only for myself, but also a way to contribute my support and provide morale to the state of Israel at a time when they need it most.
Unfortunately, other people did not find something that propelled them to make the trip to Israel. When I arrived at the airport I was surprised to find that my group, which had originally been comprised of 40 participants aged 22-26 had dwindled down to the point where there were only 14 of us who were going to board the plane. Despite this, we all immediately began to bond, and by the time we landed in Israel, I already felt like I had formed a connection with the other 13 participants, and I was looking forward to spending the next 10 days with them. However, at Ben Gurion Airport, we received another shock. Because our group was so small, the decision had been made to combine us with another group comprised of 10 participants ranging in ages from 18-22. While we were pessimistic about how the two groups would be able to mesh, by our second and third day we all had molded into one larger group and our age differences were barely noticeable.
Our 10-day journey was a whirlwind. We spent our days touring various parts of Israel, hiking through the desert and streams, visiting beaches, going to historical sights, learning about Israel’s political situation and history, learning about Jewish traditions and customs, and meeting some of the most incredible and inspirational people. Shabbat was one of the only opportunities that we had to slow down and absorb Israel at a slower pace. We arrived in Jerusalem on Friday afternoon and had some time to shower and prepare to go to the Kotel for Kabbalat Shabbat. Once we got to the Kotel, we had time to go to the wall for meditation or private prayer. Seeing Jews of all levels of observance and from all around the world gather at this holy site was an absolutely unforgettable experience and something that I’m sure no one from our group will ever forget. After some time, we came together as a group and sang and danced as we welcomed Shabbat. Afterwards we walked back to our hotel, where we enjoyed a beautiful Shabbat meal. The next day we joined Israeli families for Shabbat lunch, returned to the hotel for a group activity, and then performed a short havdalah service to mark the end of Shabbat. Next we hopped on the bus and spent some time on Ben Yehuda Street – shopping, eating and relaxing. That Sunday, we resumed our typical routine, rising early, walking a lot, and learning all about the history of the OldCity. That afternoon was particularly memorable as seven participants on our trip who had never had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony all celebrated with the other members of our group. I was one of those seven. It seems fitting that we marked such a special moment in our lives with this group of people, as we experienced this life-changing trip together.
After Jerusalem, we continued to head south and explore more of Israel. Regardless of where we went, people, seeing that we were a part of Birthright, would stop us and thank us profusely for coming to Israel. They expressed how happy they were to see us in Israel during a time when numbers for visitors were at their lowest. Similarly, countless people went out of their way to welcome us home. Nearly everywhere we went, at least one person explained that Israel was the home of the Jewish people, and that meant that it is home for each and every person on our trip. As someone who converted to Judaism, I hadn’t been sure how I would connect to Israel. I have no relatives there and no one in my family has ever traveled to Israel. Also, as the only black participant on the trip, I wondered how my race would affect my experience in Israel. However, these doubts quickly dissipated as not only was I greeted wholeheartedly with the rest of my group, but when people found out that I had converted, I felt like I was even more embraced and welcomed. Being a convert even helped me to knock about 60 shekels off a set of Shabbat candlesticks in Tzfat. When I returned to America, as I exited customs, I was told, “Welcome home” and I truly was tempted to reply, “Home is Israel.”
Now that I’m back, people ask me if I felt scared in Israel, and I am completely honest in saying that Birthright took every precaution to ensure our safety, and Israel has taken every measure to provide security for its people. As a result, had I not known that we were in the midst of a war, I never would have recognized that there was anything to worry about. While we did not hear a single siren, I feel that going during a time when Israel was facing attacks from Hamas added a much deeper layer to our trip. It made us appreciate the IDF soldiers who not only defend Israel, but also protect the freedoms of Jews living in the diaspora. It allowed us the opportunity to see the resilience with which Israelis continue to go about their daily lives, despite the fact that for some of them, running to bomb shelters has become a routine occurrence. Finally, it showed us the grace and hospitality that characterizes the Jewish people. Where else would a citizen thank a foreigner for taking advantage of a trip, made free thanks in part to taxes that citizens pay? Where else would you be told time and time again that you are home, even though you’ve never visited before and you know no one in that country? Israel is truly remarkable. Everyone says Birthright is life-changing, and I wholeheartedly agree. This trip has not only shaped who I am, but it has also changed the person that I hope to become.
Through the Rutgers Hillel Center for Israel Engagement, students strengthen their connections to Israel and the Jewish people. After they return from a transformational Birthright experience, students continue to explore their love for Israel. The Rutgers Hillel Center for Israel Engagement exposes students to positive messages about Israel to help them develop stronger Jewish connections to our homeland.
Please support Rutgers Hillel as we create the next generation of Jewish leaders and change the conversation about Israel on campus.
Want to experience Israel for yourself? Registration for the next Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel – Rutgers University Trip (over winter break 2014-2015) opens on September 9, 2014 at 10 am ET. Previous applicants can begin registering on September 8, 2014 at 12 pm ET. To register, visit www.freeisraeltrip.org and list your school as “Rutgers” on the application.