An Unconventional Birthright: One Cynic’s Journey Through Israel

Monday, August 16, 2010

An Unconventional Birthright: One Cynic’s Journey Through Israel

By Alexandra Bregman

It is fitting that I would struggle to write an article about Israel. Like this article, Israeli convictions (and territories) often waver on shaky, polarized ground when it comes to the spiritual and the political. I recently returned from my Birthright trip to Israel, and after many questions from friends and family (the most common being: “Did you love it?”), I hope I have finally summed up my personal account. And it is just that, my own personal account, my own perspective, one that is likely not shared by many others. If nothing else, my trip to Israel revealed the value of a cultivated and unique identity.

If you know any young, American Jews, you’ve probably heard of Birthright (or Taglit in Hebrew). Birthright is an organization that funds ten-day tours through Israel for predominately North American 18- to 26-year-olds. (However, my travel mates and I did meet our fair share of Australian, French, and Russian Jews as well). Thousands make the pilgrimage during the summer and winter seasons, and it is completely free of charge, save a $250 deposit that is eventually returned. I still hardly believe such a travel gift exists. Where else can you travel for zero dollars?

Financing for the umbrella organization of Birthright stems mostly from donations and government funding, thus fueling a myriad of specialized trips for Jews, including those with special needs, gays and lesbians, adults, and those looking for region-centric trips. Theses different groups each have specialized names, like Mayanot, which means “springs” in Hebrew. All in all, our group was made up of around 40 staffers and participants, which was just enough to fill our tour bus as we went from one end of Israel to the other.

For a country smaller than New Jersey (that was the zinger we heard over and over), Israel and the Birthright experience are equally packed with cliches. You can bet that any group of pictures from a Birthright returnee will inevitably include shots of that person posing in front of a camel, caked with mud at the Dead Sea, or posing with his or her favorite solider. The intent, of course, is that somewhere between sleeping on a mat in a Bedouin tent and Jeeping past the minefields of a former war zone, one realizes his or her empowering Jewish identity, and the necessity of imparting the majesty of the religion to fellow Jews and humanity the world over. Ideally, Israel and Jewish identity become synonymous in a beautifully undisputed fusion of parties, prayer and Middle Eastern paradise.

This failed on me.

My failure was probably a rarity. I watched with bemused skepticism as almost all of my fellow tour members gained that magic spark, had affairs with soldiers, and grew more confident each and every day. As a 21-year-old, recent grad from a women’s college, I felt so much older than the college freshmen on my trip (blame it on my quarter-life crisis). I had already traveled so much, fermenting my Jewish and secular identities in plenty of partying and sightseeing experiences elsewhere. Plus, the rebel in me was always asking: Why did I have to love Israel so unconditionally? As you can tell, I don’t believe in the easy answer.

Apart from my self-proclaimed maturity, another major factor in my perpetual disillusionment was the religious disparity between my tour’s views and my own. When I signed up for Birthright, I struggled to find any group at all that had room for me. The first one I tried to sign up with was Oranim, but Oranim stopped doing Birthright tours. When I discovered the Mayanot group I was so excited that I didn’t realize it was affiliated with Chabad (a Hasidic movement in Orthodox Judaism) until midway through the trip when my rabbi tour guide changed out of his everyday garb and broke out his traditional black suit and fedora.

Chabad, as a sect of Hasidism, involves a more intensive interpretation of the Torah than my more secular Reform sensibilities. Along with the culinary laws of kashruit (keeping kosher), men do not touch women, both genders dress modestly, and prayer is an intrinsic part of morning, noon and night. From Friday to Saturday’s sundown, one traditionally avoids activity or using electricity at all (at one of the nicer hotels we stayed in, all of the rooms had an optional “Shabbat setting”on the appliances that conveniently shut everything down for 24 hours).

My tour group leaders were Hasidic, and they encouraged open discussion and reflection among us visitors. However, I struggled to identify with religious views so different from my own, and I hesitated to speak openly with such different opinions on family, prayer, and God. The leaders told us over and over that Israel was our Jewish homeland, but how could it be a welcoming land for such polarized religious ideology?

The best example of my discontent was revealed at the Western Wall, which given its religious importance, was an ironic setting for my unconventional spiritual awakening. One night during a golden dusk, my group took our first trip to the Western Wall to pray as Shabbat began. Like the trip overall, the evening was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I will never forget the gold-speckled views over Jerusalem before we entered and sat together as a group.

Then, a short while later, the men and women met at the wall, separated by a divider, and an Orthodox rabbi commenced an evening, or Havdalah, service. The women’s side was maybe a quarter the size of the men’s, and we could see fancy furniture, along with our handsome Australian male rabbi, through a crisscrossed divider. Our side, on the other hand, had a few shabby plastic chairs and a dress code. Women visitors who dress provocatively (i.e., showing arms or legs) are given felt wraps by security women at the edge; the men have no such equivalent.

The rabbi tried to engage men and women alike, with his Australian accent booming from the men’s side. At one point he said, “Girls I can’t hear you!” My first thought was the increasingly embittered “Why do you think?” But of course speaking up would not have been appropriate. Later that night, some girls on my trip joked how cute the rabbi was. “I’d have lots of Hasidic babies for him!” one laughed. Cultural mission accomplished.

The next day, before we returned to the wall for another quiet, reflective moment, a friend and I inadvertently became separated from the group. No one noticed until my friend and I eventually called the assistant leader on her cell phone. How appropriate, I thought, that I would find myself lost when faced with the physical manifestation of ancient Jewish tradition.

That Friday marked the beginning of my series of freak accidents and injuries: I was hit in the eye with a champagne cork in Tel Aviv, and then at the Dead Sea I came down with a case of laryngitis so bad I couldn’t speak for three days. I thought to myself at the time, maybe karma is against me? Maybe my disillusionment is backfiring? I just couldn’t shake my negativity; you could see the trouble right on my face.

Although I struggled with the religious and cultural aspects of the trip, I did find some sights and sounds to be effortlessly beautiful. My group went on three different hikes: to the Golan Heights, the ancients palace site of Masada, and lastly to Ein Gedi, an oasis west of the Dead Sea that is made up of a breathtaking series of hills, springs, and waterfalls. Despite what I’d always considered to be my inherent athletic void, the scenery took my breath away sans asthma attack. To me, the cascading falls and fields of green were pockets of serenity in what felt like an endlessly maddening dry heat. As I sat, reflecting with the springs flowing around me, I seemed to hear in hushed tones: there is always a chance for peace.

When I returned home to the United States, mute with a swollen eye, a coworker passed me Peter Beinart’s latest essay for the New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” published the day I got off the plane. The article successfully addresses the dichotomy between young American liberal Zionism and the politicized radicalism of Israeli natives. I was struck by Beinart’s comment about Jews with Muslim friends, because I had often thought of both my own non-Jewish connections during my trip. Other representations of Muslim conflict in the media also rang in my head; the more conservative the Jewish education I received, the more I craved the other side. Beinart’s essay alluded to my own discontentment, in that my trip did not leave much room for the omniscient perspective I desperately sought.

As a result of my trip I’d learned a little about politics, quite a bit about religion, and a lot about myself. In the midst of inner and outer tumult, I reviewed my identity as a young American Jew for better or for worse. I ran into old family friends and girls from childhood sleepaway camp along the way, and I looked deeper into the mirror.

Perhaps the fact that my trip to Israel was not a breezy success made it more meaningful than if I’d had the time of my life. Along with a natural affinity for hiking (and how to avoid dangerous champagne bottles), I learned my own value system. I value open-mindedness and breaks from tradition; I want to see a world different from my own. I’m not sure I want to travel again to Israel, but I know there’s more there to discover. For a country smaller than New Jersey, Israel leaves a lot of room for questions.


  • bobby harris

    shalom. i am here to just say that i am sorry to see that so many have had a wonderful time in israel.unfortunately for those who are older adults like myself did not get to go to israel we can’t afford it and i was told by some organizations google free trips for older adults to my surprise i laughed at them and told them there is nothing NOTHING!!! there for older adults we are just plain reform jews we are not orthodox or hasidic,those programs are run them. and we are forced to pay money to go to israel i wish there was someone who could be nice enough to help me to go to israel so i can connect with israel and the jewish people there.but no one is open minded enough to do this so thats ok but very sad to see that. oh well

  • Karen

    I am a fellow Jew (and skeptic). I admit, I did go on Birthright this summer and actually had a similar view. It made me almost uncomfortable on the trip, the high degree of 'this is the most amazing trip of my life!!' and 'i love israel' among the majority of college freshman on the trip. Shortly before going on Birthright, I was in SE Asia and traveled a bit by myself/with friends, which made Birthright extremely frustrating on multiple levels. Interestingly enough, although my trip included the same general thing (although mine was non-denominational with many non-observant Jews), we ended up going through Palestinian territory, which definitely made an impact on me. I admit, I did like the guide on a personal level (an extremely funny Israeli) although I definitely took everything with a spoonful of skepticism. Yes, I did spend time thinking about my 'Jewish identity' since it's hard to when you're in a country espoused to be your homeland (and being mistaken for Israeli everywhere I went did not help this!). Although I did like the nature/natural sites, I think the intent of Birthright was lost on me too. You're not alone in this profound dislike of Birthright.

    I have a different view about going back to Israel though. Minus the heavy presence of Malaysia stamps, which the Israeli officials LOVED in my passport, resulting officials stamping my passport despite my concerns (directly over one of my Malaysia stamps on the first page!), I plan on going back on my own. (Since my passport has the 'black stamp of death' already, what's the harm?) I know how to travel and I think going back without Birthright would be so much more enjoyable. Although I realize that I got places in Birthright that might have been difficult to get to on my own (oasis in desert), I would have preferred the freedom to enjoy Tel Aviv and get a better feel of Israeli culture. One day, I will return and see it my way.

  • open mind

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I suppose I will never understand how an alternative opinion is automatically classified as an insult. Questioning is insulting?

    So because the state is fragile and new, criticism is not allowed. Politics and Religion are inextricably connected the way you describe it, so one must agree with all or be labeled as offending the entire people? To be critical of the actions of the State makes you a member of the 'other side', which is ?? The other side doesn't automatically mean the destruction of the Jews. That's an overemotional stance, isn't it? Where do you place Uri Avnery? How about Naomi Klein? How about Max Blumenthal? Are they insulting their own right to be Jewish when they speak out about political wrongdoings occurring in Israel?

    If Israel is always placed in this untouchable category, the divisions and walls will continue to multiply. In reality, by keeping criticism at bay, you are assuming any and all criticism only wants to destroy. Criticism is necessary for growth, development and accountability which would achieve a recognition that is built on justice and fairness, instead of fear, destruction and military might.

    I am beginning to believe that until people in America can freely voice their opinions on the political decisions happening in Israel, peace will be a only a concept. In a true democracy, different viewpoints are encouraged. In our own US Congress, debate about Israel is forbidden. If our elected officials criticize the politics of Israel, their careers are over. Is that America? That doesn't feel right. George Washington in his farewell address warned of "passionate attachments". No, we debate everything in America, one issue should not be allowed to induce such silence….it's really not healthy.

  • open mind

    Thank you for your insights. It is particularly interesting to me because I recently had an unfortunate experience when voicing my opinion to one of my best friends when she was espousing the Birthright Program. After listening to her describe the program, the advantages and underscoring that it was totally free, I commented that sometimes "free is relative and that her son might want to pack some skepticism and extra critical review skills." I explained that I had read/heard that trips were a wonderful experience, but often had an agenda of a very nationalistic nature. She didn't take that comment very well. The exchange while short upset her greatly. She considered it an attack on her family, her religion, Israel etc…….called me Anti-Semitic and a host of other names and our 20 plus year friendship is over.

    Is it not accepted in some American Jewish circles to be critical of Birthright? Most free trips would have some kind of agenda, especially ones fully funded and in part by the government, how could it not? Isn't that why the alternative Birthright Unplugged was conceived? Do you believe Israel is Judaism? I do not. When the two are conjoined with no separation, it doesn't leave room for discussion much less, error and responsibility. I believe we must be able to speak/be critical about Israeli governmental policies and not be labeled anti.

    • Israel is not Judaism, but it is a Jewish state with a long political and spiritual history. Jewish prayers often laud Israel, and a conventional toast (which came about before the official existence of the Jewish state) proclaims, "Next year in Jerusalem." Today, Jews are proud of the realization of the Jewish state which has been a dream for so long, and are extremely protective and defensive. Because the nation is fragile and new, any criticism can be seen as unsupportive. Furthermore, war in the Middle East cuts deep divisions. To the modern Jew, offending Israel potentially offends traditional identity from the 'other' side of the conflict.

      To me, Birthright sort of felt like the Jewish version of the Wild West. We were presented with 'our land,' where we could feel both a sense of belonging and a sense of freedom to roam the burgeoning oases at liberty. To insult that could be read as insulting the right to be Jewish in a Jewish state, one that has been fought to be obtained for so long. Do you really not see why your friend would feel vulnerable and upset?

      As for Birthright Unplugged, I hadn't heard of it until after my disastrous Chabad experience. I'd love to hear from someone who took that trip!

  • phillipe

    Go back sans religious organization. Instead of being dragged around the country to significant Jewish sites, discover the country. Discover a nation of people not Jews. Yes, the citizens are Jewish but religion is a minor if existent part of their identity.

  • Part III

    My ultimate question reflected the necessity of a Jewish state's role in my own life, and how important being Jewish is to me altogether. Technically, it never really mattered to me day-to-day…but if I led the same live in World War II era Germany, being Jewish would have become my whole life. When I say that I looked deeper into the mirror, I mean I was looking into my cultural heritage and inner identity, even as it reflected on my face.

    Hopefully, this answers your question.

    • Thanks for your thorough answer!
      I asked because, although I know this a travel website and not a political mouthpiece, with Israel it's so difficult to seperate the two. So often the debate over Israel is reduced to sloganeering, and no matter what one sets out to say one finds oneself forced into either a "pro" or "anti" corner. That makes it particularly interesting to hear a perception of the country from an jewish American whose own feelings are ambivalent!

      I lived in Israel many years ago for a year or so, as a volunteer, so I feel a connection. Like a lot of people around the world I look for opportunities to express support for the people who live there without being ask to rubber-stamp the brutal repression of displaced people.

      A story like yours provides just such an opportunity. Thank you.

  • Part II

    As for my own personal realizations, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my Jewish identity. Before I left on the trip, I had an extremely meaningful conversation with a friend my age. A recent college graduate and a Jewish American who's had all the privileges of the free world, he is also both a scholar of apartheid and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. He drew parallels between the treatment of Palestinians and Black Africans during apartheid, citing a myriad of concerns regarding sociological upset and even Birthright itself. The fact is, Israelis have been attempting to repopulate an area that already had a community, for better or for worse–but why? The answer is a powerful one, one that always brings me deep into reflection: after centuries of anti-Semitism culminated in the mass extermination of the Holocaust, Jews simply had nowhere else to go. Western nations had quotas on survivors they were willing to admit into the country, and Jewish identity was undoubtedly a liability. A Jewish country seemed the best way to survive; conversely, the absence of a Jewish state seemed like the worst.

  • Part I

    Thank you!

    Well, I learned from both the tour and my own introspective journey. The tour was packed with information about the country's regional diversity (north and south have very different climates, even though they're a short bus trip away from one another), along with religion I learned through practice (as explained with the 'Shabbat setting' example).
    The trip also made a point to inform us on current events, but the understandable pride and defensiveness left me feeling like I received incomplete information. My group had a formerly British citizen and comedian explain to us that non-Israeli media was not detailing the 'truth.' I didn't necessarily agree with all he said, but I did recognize the significance of reading between the lines, in all pro and anti-Israeli journalism sources.

  • This is a fascinating and well written article, giving an insight into the personal journey of a young American. You say you learned something about politics and your identity, but you don't say what. Can you share that?

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