Lindsey Chiles
Jen Weber

“Birthright will be an amazing trip…”

“...It’s free, why wouldn’t you go explore a new country?...”

“...Israel is such a unique and beautiful place, just wait till you see...”

These are all comments we’ve heard our Jewish American friends tell us for years about the Birthright Israel experience that drew us to apply for the trip in the first place. But what they didn’t say, and what may be the most memorable parts of the trip, were the things we just had to experience for ourselves. With little expectations, we boarded a plane with complete strangers fully prepared to explore everything Israel had to offer, and immerse ourselves in the trip. It is also worth noting the two of us did not even know at all each other before Birthright Israel, because what became of it all was more meaningful and life changing than we ever imagined.

The Israeli culture is something that cannot be truly explained without experiencing it for yourself. As Americans walking through the streets of a foreign country, it was astounding how nice and welcoming everyone was of “Taglit" (Birthright Israel). Accommodating locals were excited to teach us about their culture. Each one we encountered pushed us outside our comfort zones to try new foods, visit new places and explore new thought processes. Not only did they take the time to share their culture with us, but they also made the effort to learn about ours. They were interested to know where we were from and the impact this experience had on us so far. Several times Tel Aviv locals would stop us in the shuk to ask exactly where we are from in the U.S., how long we had been in Israel and where we had visited so far. During these conversations we could sense the pride they feel for their country and how precious it is for them to share it with us.

While this sentiment certainly extends to the locals, the biggest lessons from the trip came from the Israelis themselves who joined our group a few days in. From the time they joined us, everything changed - including the way we Americans interacted with each other, our group’s camaraderie and our perspectives on the country. These Israeli men and women, who grew up nearly 6,000 miles away from America, taught us invaluable lessons about perception of different cultures and challenged us to change our mindsets. Their kindness and patience was one thing, but they also pushed us to have deeper discussions about things going on in our own country and personal lives, to draw parallels and strengthen connections between us all. Long bus rides quickly became filled with deep conversation exploring topics like tradition, family, and relationships. In between, we managed to incorporate a few, if not many, mid-day dance parties with the Israelis introducing us to their music and vice-versa. The culmination of these events created instant friendships and tight knit bonds. This made us realize that we, as young Jewish adults, all have a lot more in common than we ever expected, and our religion is that of a sacred bond.

Especially living in America, where there is so much divisiveness, Birthright Israel showed us that magic can transpire when you really take the time to learn others’ stories who may be different than you in some ways. As Americans, our group literally came from all corners of the country. We each had different stories and experiences about what it meant to be Jewish and what being Jewish was like for us growing up that we got the opportunity to share. After just a few days of knowing each other, we were vulnerable and real with one another in unimaginable ways. These deep discussions bonded us together, because although we did not previously know each other and we may live in different parts of the country, we realized how many of us had similar life experiences that connect us on a deeper level.

This feeling was replicated in our relationships with the Israelis in our group. Despite growing up thousands of miles away, we learned that our cultures are not so different after all. No matter where we come from, we can all learn a thing or two about acceptance, culture and patriotism. Being able to generate meaningful discussion between the Israelis and Americans on our trip about hard hitting topics - such as anti-semitism, politics and religion - but also softer topics like our own personal lives and what our daily lives are like, was something that transcends boundaries unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. At the end of the day, we realized that we are all a group of 20-something’s that are navigating our way through young adulthood trying to figure out our next moves.

We each entered this trip hoping to leave this “amazing,” “unique,” and “beautiful,” place that we apparently needed to see for ourselves with something that would prove that everyone who gave us that advice was right. Truth be told, they were incredibly right. Israel is a place whose beauty cannot be put into words. But while we came home with pictures and souvenirs that would show our loved ones just how true those statements are, the most important things we left with can’t be seen or held. This includes a newfound understanding of what it means to be a Jewish young adult. It also means knowing that only 49 out of seven billion people in the world knows just how remarkable this experience was for each of us and be able to know how it felt. Perhaps the most meaningful is coming home with lifelong friendships.

Almost one year later, the two of us are living proof that after just spending 10 special days with someone, you can wonder how you didn’t know each other your whole lives.