Thinking about choosing the Shorashim (Israel With Israelis) Birthright trip organizer, but want to know what it’s really like? Below is an extraordinarily insightful review by one alumnus of the program, Tyler.
Tyler’s Review of Birthright With Shorashim (Israel With Israelis)
Foreword: What Kind of Jew Am I?
What kind of Jew am I? This is an important part of your decision for a Birthright trip organizer. I grew up to two Jewish parents and a completely Jewish immediate and extended family. My mother’s parents grew up in the United States while my father’s escaped from Germany and Austria in their teens to meet up in the suburbs of Chicago. My parents grew up in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods in the North suburbs of Chicago which made it easy to be Jewish. They didn’t have to think much about the holidays or Shabbat because they were surrounded by it. But a fact that I would want to share about my mother is that she really likes jewelry and she loves to shop at adinasjewels.com
I grew up in the West suburbs of Chicago in a town where one to two and a half Jews were ever in my grade at any given time. We were a serious minority. It was cool at times to get up in front of my class and explain the holidays, read Hebrew, and answer their questions. At other times, it wasn’t so cool. I often felt isolated from my friends and schoolmates.
I went to two different synagogues near where I grew up from the ages of 3 to 14. Like many other kids, I stopped going pretty soon after my Bar Mitzvah and didn’t interact much with my Jewish identity for the rest of high school outside of holidays.
My Experience On The Birthright Free Trip to Israel
When I started thinking about going to Israel, I knew that I wanted to immerse in the local culture, religion, and beautiful but messy history. What I wanted more than anything was a close connection to my homeland. I asked around to hear what others had experienced and I did my best to get honest opinions from my Rabbi. In order to get the deepest connection to Israel and the religion of Judaism, I decided to go with Shorashim. It definitely helped that my Rabbi was able to guarantee me a spot in the time slot I wanted but this did not fully influence my decision.
My “College Ultimate Experience” trip started in New Jersey where we met our fellow travelers and two of our four trip leads. I coordinated to go with two other friends from my fraternity but knew no one else of the about 15 people. We did some short introductions at the airport and vibed really well with our trip leader and the few people we met. When we landed in Israel, we all grabbed our bags in baggage claim and walked outside to where our buses were. I already felt different. I felt home.
Our New Israeli Friends
Israelis, or our spiritual guides, joined us on our first day and stayed with us through the last. Israeli soldiers also joined for our trip but were there for about 4 days. Throughout the trip, we hit all the essential parts of Israel. Those include Majrase, a Kibbutz, hiking in Golan Heights, the city of Tzfat, a mikvah, Tel Aviv (and a little bit of clubbing), Jerusalem and the Western Wall, Shabbat in Jerusalem, Ben Yehuda street, the Jerusalem open-air market, Yad Vashem, Bedouin tents and camel rides, the Dead Sea, hiking in the Negev desert, and hiking up Masada.
At the beginning, I was certainly nervous to be around Israelis but by the second or third day everyone felt welcome and free to share their experiences with Judaism to the group and our leaders. Our leaders are what made the experience special. Our spiritual guides included an Israeli spiritual guide and another Israeli to simply tag along and answer questions. These people turned the trip from a normal visit to Israel to an exceptional and spiritual journey. They knew the history of every location, they were able to answer every single question, they knew where we should and shouldn’t go during our free time, they didn’t have any strict rules, and they were extremely caring and understanding. The trip was profoundly organized but our guides allowed us free time whenever possible to buy gifts and eat the food.
The soldiers that joined us on our trip were so cool. The four days they were with us were absolutely the best. From the time they joined us, we were with them 100% of the time. They were on the bus with us, they slept in our rooms, they ate with us, and the travelled with us all day. We got to learn about their roles in the army and hear their experiences of growing up in such a controversial land as Israel. More importantly, they were around the same age as us so they were excited about our night clubbing in Tel Aviv and we easily goofed around and got to know them on our long bus rides. Before they left us, we did a little ceremony where they got to say something about the group and some individuals. One of the soldiers decided to give me a pin from his army vest. It was a moment I will carry forever.
Trip Organizer Culture: The Crowd, Hooking Up, & “Religiousness” of the Trip
The rest of the people on the trip were not only fun but were able to take our serious discussions to the next level with insightful conversations about our own Judaism and thoughts about being in Israel. Some of the group had been conservative Jews their whole lives and being Jewish came easy to them. Others were raised with only one Jewish parent or had their Jewish parents get a divorce. For people that seemed so similar at the beginning of the trip, we got to understand how unique each one of our Jewish identities really was.
The trip leaned more towards the liberal side but I also would not say there were any notable differences or conflicts due to our political leanings. I think you could get along with the people on your trip anywhere within the political spectrum as long as they are kind. Of course, every trip will be completely different. Since our trip, I have seen people post about their support for all kinds of politics on social media without it affecting our relationship after our journey.
As you might expect, many of the people on the trip already had significant others so it wasn’t a trip all about hooking up. I think this definitely depends on the people you get paired with. Some of the college students made it clear they were looking for significant others on the trip, and found each other, some couples travelled together, and many people had significant others back home. The trip was magical for people in all of those situations and led to in-depth discussions about marrying outside of the Jewish faith and what that means for the Jewish people.
Our trip was quite religious to most modern Jewish standards. However, it was the kind of religious that I think every Jew should experience. As a fairly reform Jew, it was amazing to have the option to ask questions, see a conservative temple in Jerusalem, frantically celebrate at the Western Wall, live through the greatest mikvah experience that (I think) exists, and celebrate Shabbat the real way. The rabbi on our trip was orthodox but he made orthodoxy feel inviting and (slightly) open to interpretation. Many reform Jews can find parts of orthodoxy daunting but it came easy even for a Jew like me that had never heard of a mikvah before. While I had other friends tell me their experiences weren’t very religious at all, I would not have had it any other way.
Where We Went
The actual places we went to on the trip flowed from beginning to end very well. No two days were too religious, had too much physical activity, or had too much driving. Our time at the Kibbutz was one for the books. An aggressively pro-Israel man spoke to us about his time living on and defending the borders to Syria and Lebanon. It was shocking to hear someone be so proud to live in a place that was so controversial and dangerous. He started off the trip strong and left us wanting to learn as much as possible about Israel and its people.
The mystical city of Tzfat was just that. This was the first place where the men and women split up for any activities. We split up in Tzfat just before going to a mikvah. For anyone that is not aware, a mikvah is a bath used for religious purity. Many people use them on a regular basis in orthodox communities. This mikvah is one of the most unique in the world as it is a natural spring in the side of a mountain. It was a very uplifting experience. As the “art capital” we also learned about the city’s history and how it became such a prominent spot for creative Israelis.
Tel Aviv was a little bit of a break from the heavier religious material. In that city, we got to spend some time on the beach, go out to the clubs at night, and scavenge around the city for historic buildings and food highlights. It certainly was not without some spiritual moments though as we came together to discuss what our time in Jerusalem would be like and what it meant for us to go there.
The Western Wall was another place that felt different and was even better because of our guides. When we got to the entrance of the Wall, we were greeted by cheery Hasidic Jews. Of course, they knew the leaders on our trips and the rabbis at most of the synagogues we had ever been to. It seemed like they had met all the visitors the Wall has ever seen. They helped us wrap tefillin and say some prayers before entering. My time alone at the Wall was important but it was the dancing and celebrating with random Jews from around the world that made it truly one of a kind. Once some people started dancing, hundreds of others gathered to make a circle where fathers put sons on their shoulders and sung like it was their last day on Earth. I have never celebrated so rampantly with people that I did not know over nothing than I did that day.
The rest of Jerusalem was a fascinating time. On Ben Yehuda street, we saw fancy shops and gimmicky toys for tourists. It was here that I bought a mezuzah for my future home and a gold necklace for my brother. It meant a lot to me that those two things came from the holiest city in the world. The open-air market was another cool place for us to buy gifts and experience Jewish life in a large city. We walked through the packed streets like we owned the place since we had already been there for four whole days. Before leaving, we spent several hours at Yad Vashem where powerful art and speeches from several Holocaust survivors brought us back into our stark reality that Jews did not always have a place to call home. It was moving in such a different way than any of my other Holocaust experiences because the people speaking survived the most horrific atrocity to ever occur for the Jewish people only later move to the only place all Jewish people would ever be able to call home.
Our time at the Bedouin tents, the Dead Sea, and hiking in the Negev desert and up Masada showed us that a permanent life in Israel can be very exciting. People living in Israel made these trips on a weekend or for school field trips. We got a taste for outdoor living and an active lifestyle in the heart of the Middle East. As much as I wish I could explain how it feels to float in the Dead Sea, it is something you need to fly halfway around the world to do yourself.
The trip overall was unbelievable but there were a few experiences that were not my favorite. None of these poor experiences however were because of the guides or the Shorashim trip itinerary. I personally really did not enjoy the camel rides. I thought they were very uncomfortable. However, you basically do this with any Birthright organizer so there is no getting out of that. Some nights were spent in sub-par hotels and other nights the meal was hard to get through but these experiences were so overshadowed by the good experiences that I cannot remember where or when on the trip they occurred. Thinking through a list of bad experiences is hard enough that I can say there is no part of the trip I did not completely enjoy.
I still lightly keep in touch with my fellow travellers through Snapchat and Facebook and it is nice to see some old pictures show up every once in awhile. I would encourage people looking for more Jewish friends and experiences in their adult life to keep in contact with their group members. I shared some of the most important moments of my life with these people and I sometimes think about how sad it is that I have not seen them since. In that vein, I would encourage everyone to travel with people from their city or school. Be careful with a college trip though as travelling with too many people from your school could force you to form cliques or meet a smaller group of people. You should always branch out and get to know everyone.
For anyone considering Birthright, do not hesitate to go on this trip. It will absolutely be one of the best decisions you will ever make. I would highly recommend Shorashim to anyone that chooses to go on a Birthright trip. In fact, I would push for them to use Shorashim. The trip has some of the fondest memories I have ever created while travelling. The trip was so well organized that our bus rides seemed short and nearly every minute was filled with something fun to do or something new to learn. The atmosphere, people, organization, and spiritual elements were just so perfect that it simply cannot be described. It has to be experienced.