In 1998, I visited Israel for the first time in my life. From all the stories I had heard from others who had been, I was expecting to fall in love with the country. It never happened. I returned angry and disenchanted with the country and with Judaism. I wrote and published an article entitled “Facing God Alone” about that journey.
In January 2001, I returned, with much apprehension to Israel. This time I was on a group tour, the Birthright Israel trip. Wealthy Jewish philanthropists, lead by Charles and Andrea Bronfman and Michael and Judy Steinhardt, in conjunction with the government of Israel, donated funds which have enabled, and continue to enable young Jewish adults from all over the world to experience a very spiritual, enlightening, cultural and educational tour of the country.
I was shocked to find a whole other aspect of Israel that failed to reveal itself to me the first time around.
I remember very clearly when my Birthright experience began. It wasn’t as I descended from the plane and my madrich (trip leader) greeted me with the phrase “welcome home.” Home for me was, and continues to be, Montreal. Dare I admit it four months after the fact, but I balked at him for saying that.
It wasn’t when I was taken into the Negev desert shortly after arriving in Tel Aviv and told to find a place far from the next participant over and ponder what Israel and Judaism meant to me.
To me, Israel was a country I had visited two years earlier on a solo backpacking trek looking for beauty and truth, but finding only ogles, gropes and catcalls from all men there, religious or otherwise, Israeli, Arab or otherwise. I remember thinking to myself as I left that country several weeks short of my intended stay, “In the land of G-d, in the land of my people, I am alone.” I remember thinking, upon my return to Montreal, “Yes, now I am truly home.”
Birthright began, for me, on the third day of our trip. It was late Friday afternoon and 300 Canadian participants had gathered on the steps of the southern wall of the temple in the Old City of Jerusalem to usher in Shabbat in unison.
We were introduced to, and then thanked profusely with thunderous applause, our benefactors, Charles and Andrea Bronfman, and Michael and Judy Steinhardt, and other key figures within the infrastructure that had made our gathering possible.
The Israeli immigration minister welcomed us to her country, as well. She made some people cry when she suggested that to get a true Israeli experience, it would do us all good to witness some of the violence occurring across the country.
As the anointed time, the start of Shabbat, fell upon us, the group of 300 splintered off into our smaller bus units. “Montreal Bus 3” was whisked off to a small nook of the southern wall by our tour guide, Tzvi.
We had only known Tzvi for two and half days, but already his quiet zeal for his country, evident through graceful and impassioned storytelling, was enough to capture the attention of even the most boisterous on the bus.
With the advent of the Sabbath, his voice grew softer and more melodic and somehow his words surreptitiously seeped their way under my skin. In my mind, Tzvi was magical, spiritual, human and earthly all at once.
He had set out small candles for each one of us to light and, in addition, had two tall Shabbat candles. He asked our bus mate, Sheri-Ann, to light and bless them.
Sheri-Ann grew up in a Roman Catholic household. Her husband, Daniel, who was on our bus as well, grew up in a secular Jewish home. In the year or two leading up to their marriage, both felt a void in their lives. They began to question their beliefs and embarked on a search for higher enlightenment. Independent of each other, they each came to the conclusion that a conversion to Orthodox Judaism was the answer to their prayers.
For the newlyweds, the prospect of a free trip to Israel was especially sweet. It would be their honeymoon, and probably a more meaningful journey for them than for all others on the bus combined. If stepping off the plane or crossing the desert didn’t thrill me, seeing Sheri-Ann and Daniel so thoroughly enjoying themselves certainly did.
Sheri-Ann approached the Shabbat candles, her eyes glowing brighter than the burning flames. Slowly, she encircled the candles thrice with her arms and then, as is tradition, she covered her face with both hands.
Everyone knew what this instant in time meant to Sheri-Ann. Her feelings at that moment were palpable. We waited for her to begin the prayer. I, who could never understand the power of prayer and who was skeptical of people (“the sheep,” I called them) who got caught up in the romance of Israel, waited desperately to hear her recitation.
But the words never came. Not from Sheri, at least. As her palms cupped her face, she sobbed for what seemed like an eternity. The longer she cried, the longer I had to keep my own emotions bottled within me. My face twitched and contorted as I refused to let my guards down. Reason forbade me from crying. “These things don’t get to me,” I thought with gritted teeth.
But, suddenly I was feeling something I couldn’t understand. I was feeling things I promised myself this trip would never make me feel. I felt pain and I felt exaltation. I felt the weight of 5000 years of history, which for so long I had ignored, upon me.
Someone else finished the prayer over the candles and Tzvi lead the now very moved and subdued group in the singing of a niggun (melodies with no words, only evocative tunes). As we sang, the men grouped with the men and the women with the women and, in our groups, we danced a frenzied hora. I have never felt so lost, and yet I also felt like I was right where I was supposed to be. I felt at one with everyone and everything around me.
The sun began to set and the small candles we had previously lit illuminated our ancient stage with a surreal glow. Around and around we went, caught in the same momentum that envelops Jerusalem every Shabbat. Our voices – my voice – rose with the power and conviction of this ineffable force that had been ignited by the lighting of the Sabbath candles.
By the end of my Birthright trip, I had experienced that flood of mixed emotions on a few more precious occasions. Each time, my heart struggled with my brain. It didn’t make sense to be feeling such things, but my mind was never strong enough to stop the tears from flowing.
At the airport on the night of our departure, I wept a thousand more tears. Why had I been given this wonderful gift? Surely, there were so many others who were more deserving than me. And why couldn’t I just say “thanks” and “good bye, Israel.” Why had I fled Israel once before and now I was searching for excuses to stay?
I suppose the answer is that I, too, got caught up in my own romance story with Israel. But now I’m not so quick to dismiss “the sheep”. I don’t understand it, and I don’t know that I ever will. And perhaps that’s the whole point. I don’t know why Shabbat in Jerusalem made me cry, or why I thought I’d never be able to stand straight again after the crush of Yad Vashem (Holocaust memorial). But do I really need to know those answers?
Maybe the lasting, lingering, nagging gift of Birthright Israel is this lifelong quest to answer the unanswerable, and relish all those emotions that have no name.