People often ask me, after having guided Taglit-Birthright Israel groups for fourteen years, and having ascended Masada in excess of two hundred times, if I ever get bored of it. My answer is an unequivocal “no!” Every time I guide a new group I thank my lucky stars for the privilege of playing an active part in the greatest revolution in Jewish experiential education in recent memory.
Every trip is a radically different experience for me because the participants, both those from abroad and the IDF soldiers, are different. All bring with them their own set of skill sets and unique personalities. This is what makes it exciting, fresh and special every single time!
The group that I just finished guiding last week is a case to point. It was an “Extreme” trip for the “Amazing Israel” provider, a thoroughly professional organisation that manages to successfully find the “golden mean,” juxtaposing fun with meaningful education. This particular group had, among other participants, professional yoga instructors, a dance teacher and a jazz singer. These participants and staff made this trip unique. Here are a few examples of how we stretched and sang our way across Israel:
- We went spelunking (cave crawling) in Bar Kochba period caves. At the end of a very tight and narrow crawl we entered a large chamber which I illuminated with tea lights. Once everybody was settled I told them the story of the Bar Kochba Revolt and Rabbi Akiba’s life and heroic death. At the conclusion of the narrative I asked them to remember that around 1900 years ago their ancestors were sitting, maybe in this very same cave, studying and singing as a community, and that we will now connect with them in spirit by singing the old Hebrew school favourite, Hine Ma Tov (“How good and pleasant it is, a tribe of brothers and sisters united together”) song softly at first, and then building up with intensity with each repetition. We had a staff member with a fine soprano voice whose powerful and moving vocals drifted over the group. And thus we sat and sang together in a 1900-year-old subterranean Jewish fortress until the voices of our group bonded together in harmony.
- In the Judean desert we rose in the darkness and hiked to an elevation known as Maale Ben Yair to witness together the first light of dawn in the same peaceful setting that our ancestors viewed it. After we sat in awe and welcomed in the dawn of a new day one of our participants led us in an exquisite yoga session to relax our minds and allow us to bond with nature and our own bodies.
- We sang our way across Israel from the “Lecha Dodi” prayer which we chanted in Sfat, the place it was composed centuries ago, to the “Shema” prayer recited in an ancient synagogue on top of Masada, in the very spot the Jews sang praises to the God of life, despite being surrounded by their impending doom in the form of the Roman Tenth Legion. We sang “Yerushalayim shel Zahav” overlooking the very city it was composed for in those heady days of 1967. We chanted the “Shir Hamaalot” (A Song of Assents) Psalm on the very steps leading to the Temple that Jewish pilgrims heard those same words sung by the Levite choir millennia ago.
It was indeed a sensual experience. Our odyssey united our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell as we sang and stretched our way across our homeland following in our ancestor’s footsteps whilst creating new memories for ourselves. Whilst most of the participants will return to their countries of origin, they will forever have part of Israel in their hearts.
Many years from now they may hear the “Lecha Dodi” prayer in a synagogue service and be transported back to mystical city of Sfat where they first heard its lyrical message. They may hear “Hine Ma tov” and remember sitting in those caves. Maybe they will be reciting “Shir Hamaalot” or the “Shema” and they will recall where they first heard these songs and who they shared that experience with.
In forging the connection between these young Birthright Jews and our land and faith it is important for them to realise that Judaism is far more than death, suffering and food. The message that hopefully they will take with them is that, in addition to all of the trials and tribulations, Judaism is a faith of unity, of beauty and song. What has kept us Jewish, despite the odds, is our tremendous attachment to our traditions, our people and our special land. Indeed, my hope is that they realise that it is not a burden to be a Jew, but rather a privilege. As we shouted off the southern cliff of Masada, the Jewish people are still very much alive and well. “Am Yisrael Chai!”