How a holiday in Israel changed my life

Just two weeks ago I was still exploring Israel with my adoptive mishpacha: 35 Brits, eight Israelis, two UJIA group leaders, our loveable kibbutznik guide with a limitless supply of Israel-related factoids, our security/medic who would look as though butter wouldn’t melt — if not for the gun on her person — and our bus driver with seemingly ambivalent views about keeping eyes on the road.

We crossed deserts together, shared our personal views about Jewish identity, the history of Israel and Middle Eastern current affairs, met some extraordinary people, consumed our collective weight in hummus, and learnt how to survive on little sleep and in 40-degree heat.

Now I’m in my kitchen, sipping lukewarm tea, with the only noise coming from my flatmate’s Coronation Street-fest in the adjoining room. The contrast is stark.

Honestly, prior to my trip the staunch cynic in me wanted to avoid Birthright having too great an impact. My studying of the Arab-Israeli conflict as part of my politics degree gave me a somewhat — although by no means entirely – unfavourable view of the “homeland”. As a secular, atheistic Jew, I didn’t really want to be fed religion. I’m not typically one for beaches. And I was terrified of falling off a camel.

I applied for Birthright out of curiosity. I was hungry to learn more about the politics of the region, including how the various Israelis I’d be meeting would portray events, and what they’d have to say about the Palestinians. I love to travel anyway. I was perhaps a little interested in learning more on the subject of “what it means to be Jewish”, but this wasn’t a big deal to me.

So how did the experience match up to expectations? We talked politics from the vantage point of the Golan Heights as bombs could be heard going off in Damascus, and by the security fence next to the West Bank just as the Palestinian villages not far away rang with the Muslim call to prayer.

I didn’t feel that there was any Orwellian indoctrination when it came to discussing the conflict – we were encouraged to ask questions and be aware that there were many sides to every issue (although disappointingly we didn’t hear much on the Palestinian point of view).

We saw sunrise at Masada. It was really nice to learn about the traditions of Shabbat, even though we all lasted about 20 minutes after sundown on Friday before tinkering with our phones (WiFi was, after all, a precious commodity on Birthright). In spite of myself, I actually enjoyed beach time. And I managed to hold steady on the camel.

But beyond this, Birthright has had a more profound effect on me. It’s left me feeling a bit – dare I say it – more “Jewish”. Having actively avoided “Jew Crew” at school, I’ve now made some great Jewish friends. It’s hard not to get intimately acquainted with people when you’re in each other’s company for ten days straight. It sounds clichéd, but it’s true – we laughed together (on the bus, rafting in the Jordan River, playing games), and we cried together (mostly while watching a Holocaust survivor’s video testimonial at Yad Vashem).

And I did feel an affinity with the other people in my group, who were predominantly, like me, “cultural” rather than “religious” Jews, their Jewish identity defined more by a shared history and family values than religious observance. I’d say it’s almost impossible in a Birthright environment not to feel more linked as Jews; even those with zero knowledge had a story about how a relative had survived the Holocaust, or about antisemitic bullying endured at school.

For a few participants especially, I felt the trip was about exploring the idea of belonging to the wider Jewish community, whether this meant visiting Israeli relatives for the first time, or simply being around others who implicitly accept you because you share something – even if it’s hard to pin down what exactly. I guess this intangible, somewhat mystical sense of one big Jewish mishpacha is what Zionism is about, and getting Jews in the diaspora on board with this is the Birthright agenda.

Birthright achieves what it sets out to do pretty effectively. Not only does it bring together a diverse bunch of Jews and give them a hell of an experience; it also exposes them to natural salespeople of Israel along the way, people whose fervent pride in their country is infectious.

It is one thing reading about Zionism from an academic standpoint, and another sitting in the Hall of Independence, listening to a young Israeli talk passionately about how in 1947 Holocaust survivors fresh from the camps fought for somewhere to call home.

We were told that Birthright is not a holiday, but rather a gift. That sounded a bit hokey to me at the time, but now I get it. It’s a gift for which I am hugely thankful: but I won’t be making aliyah anytime soon!

Annalise Toberman is a research executive

Last updated: 11:34am, August 23 2013