Adventures in Israel

    With
    only eight free hours every day (and most of it used to sleep), the one word
    that Thurgood Marshall College junior John Perry uses to describe his
    Birthright experience is “intense.” Between going to historical Jewish landmarks such as Tel Aviv Beach, the Western
    Wall and Mount Masada, and socializing with his peers on camelback, the 10-day
    all-expenses paid trip to Israel is an adventure unlike any other.

    A view of the sunrise from the top of a cliff in Masada, an ancient site located in the South District of Israel.

    “Anyone who can do it should do it,” said
    Perry. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience.”

    The Birthright program
    is made available by Hillel at UCSD, a campus organization that encourages
    Jewish students to practice their traditional culture. Hillel offers the
    Birthright trip every winter, encouraging Jewish students ages 18 to 26 to
    travel to Israel in hopes that they will choose to continue their education
    there, become Israeli residents, or simply to get in touch with their roots.
    Along with the historical aspect of the trip, observation of the daily life and
    cultural practices in Israel allows Jewish students to experience the country
    firsthand.

    “Students judge Israel for themselves, not
    through television,” said Hillel Israel Program Coordinator Diana Shafar.

    While many students
    enjoy the historically rich aspect of Birthright, some tend to undergo a bit of
    a culture shock.

    “Carrying a gun is totally normal,” said John
    Muir College sophomore Naomi Shiffman. “You see soldiers carrying guns in the
    cafes.”

    Although students are
    sometimes startled by Israel’s differences in military presence, experiencing
    this aspect is an important step for students to understand the country’s
    national identity.

    “Safety is [Israel’s]
    number one priority,” said Muir College junior Yoel Saidian.

    Signs warning of land mines on the border between Israel and Jordan are a reminder of constant international conflict surrounding the region. (All Photos Courtesy Of Nitzan Koppel)

    In addition to
    illuminating the military’s role in Israel, the Birthright program immerses its
    participants in a daily culture that employs Judiaism as more than a religion,
    but as a way of life. According to Sixth College freshman Joey Axelrod,
    Israelis don’t seem to associate religion with Jewish holidays as much as their
    American counterparts, in part because of their experiences with Judaism
    outside of religious events and services. Judaic holidays are observed
    nationally in Israel, which allows Israelis to partake in Jewish festivities
    without having to attend temple.

    “In Israel, everything
    is shut down on Yom Kippur,” said Shafar. “You feel [the Jewish culture] even
    if you don’t want to.”

    During the trip,
    students also receive an opportunity to experience the country’s nightlife and
    meet local residents, further expanding their understanding of Israeli culture.

    “The people are cool,” said Perry. “They
    party, they drink … they’re way more laid back.”

    After returning from
    the trip, many students said they felt they learned more about themselves and
    their link to their Jewish ancestry.

    “It gave me a better
    sense of identity seeing how other people saw Israel,” said Shiffman.

    In most cases, the trip
    can even be life changing for its attendees.

    “The trip helped me
    realize who I want to be, what I want to do and who I want to be around,” said
    Saidian.

    Students also maintain
    relationships with both the UCSD students and Israeli friends they met during
    their travels.

    “I still keep in touch with two of the
    soldiers I met on the trip,” said Axelrod. “We made them Facebook [accounts].”

    Whether students are deeply in touch with their
    Jewish roots or oblivious to the traditions of their ancestry, Birthright
    offers an opportunity to take advantage of the rich culture of their family
    heritage and form long-lasting friendships with their local and international
    peers.

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