Jessica Sibelman, second from right, at Masada with some of her new friends on her recent Birthright Israel trip.
Photo courtesy Livnot.com
September 4, 2008
Words cannot describe how amazing and life-changing my Birthright Israel trip last spring with Livnot was for me. It was so much more than just a “free ride to Israel”; it was about discovering new things and overcoming my fears and making new friends. Most important, it was a spiritual journey to discover my Jewish roots.
My religious upbringing was typical: I attended a Conservative after-school program, attended Shabbat services, and had holiday parties with my family. But even with my background, Judaism was never something I particularly connected with or enjoyed; after my bat mitzva, I was granted my freedom and had no interest in continuing my Jewish education or involvement.
For almost eight years, I lived without being the least bit connected to my heritage and community. It wasn’t until I entered my senior year at Temple University and met Rabbi Shimon Kay and his wife, Shoshana, that I discovered how beautiful Judaism could be. Throughout the year I helped them found the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship, a new program on campus, and continued to study my heritage. As the end of the year approached, Rabbi Kay suggested I go to Israel to find what I was looking for.
Of the many Taglit-Birthright programs, I decided on Livnot U’Lehibanot. Little did I know that by clicking “submit” on Livnot’s application page, I would have my entire outlook changed.
As soon as I stepped off the plane in Israel, there was a strange feeling of being “home.” We were greeted by our madrihim (guides) and we all sat in a huge circle to introduce ourselves. There were nearly 50 of us, with different backgrounds and expectations of what we would get out of this adventure. We began to learn about each other and form friendships that very day.
The 10 days in Israel were amazing. We traveled throughout the Jewish nation and experienced so much. Livnot exposed me to two aspects of the country: the adventures of hiking throughout the land and the spirituality of Judaism — both extremely inspirational.
One fulfilling experience was the climb up Mount Yishai. We began our hike at 4:30 a.m.; it was still dark as we walked along the path that led up to the mountain. As we began to climb, we watched the sunrise and looked out to the Dead Sea. Although we all took pictures, nothing could completely capture the beauty of that moment. As we climbed higher, I held onto my madrihim and tried not to think about how high up we really were.
Reaching the top of Mount Yishai is something I will always remember — that I was able to overcome my fear and I had such good friends to help me along the way.
Another thrill came when we crawled through caves in northern Israel. Even though it was daylight, darkness cloaked itself around us as we entered the caves. The only way I knew which direction to go was by feeling for my friend’s feet as she crawled in front of me. This was such a bonding ritual for all of us; as we jumped out of the caves back into the sunlight, we hardly spoke but felt more connected to each other.
Along with our adventures of hiking, swimming, and climbing mountains, we saw the heart of Israel: its people. During each of our stops, we met the kindest and most fascinating people, each of whom taught us something different. From spending Shabbat lunch with families in Tzfat and Jerusalem; meeting soldiers who, although they were our age, have lived a completely different lifestyle; to getting to know artists and painters, I learned a great deal about the way of life of the Jews of Israel.
My favorite part of the trip was truly connecting with the spiritual side of Judaism. I will never forget the feeling I had walking down the gold-stone streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, especially when we went to the Kotel. It was there I remembered what my rabbi had told me, that in Israel I would find what I was looking for — and it was true.
My thoughts were flying. I realized how old Judaism is, how we have thousands of years of tradition and survival. I also thought of my own family. Who in my family stood here at the Wall before me? More important, who will come after me? I finally understood what I was longing for while I was studying — I felt a connection to Judaism and Israel that I had never felt before.
Although I had to return to the States, it is by no means the end of my journey. Livnot and Birthright Israel opened my eyes to so many new ideas and feelings, and my “hevrei” are some of the most amazing people I have ever met. The entire experience has been an inspirational journey, and I have a greater understanding of who I am and what it means to be Jewish.
Jessica Sibelman, a graduate of Temple University, lives in Old Bridge. For more information on Livnot’s Taglit-Birthright Israel trip option, visit www.livnot.com or call 732-572-9193.