In three weeks I will be celebrating my Bar-Mitzvah of guiding Birthright groups. I am proud to have been guiding for Birthright since its inception back in 1999. I am currently writing a doctoral thesis on the effect of the Birthright experience. People often ask me if I ever get tired of going to some of the same spots in Israel countless times. (I have ascended Masada over one hundred times!) My answer is an effusive “no.” Whenever I go to a site in Israel it is with participants who, for them, it is their first time. To see the wonder and connection in their faces is what makes the experience so special.
In my opening speech to my Birthright participants, I always mention the quote of Rabbi Nachman from Bretslav: “Everybody has his/her own special place (Daled Amot) in the Land of Israel.”
I teach that we are on an odyssey following our ancestors footsteps through the length and breadth of our homeland in order to fulfil the first commandment the first Jew received; Lech L’cha, ”you go” and explore the land. We must seek and search for what will help us to forge a meaningful connection to our heritage, people and land. For some the epiphany happens at the Kotel (Western Wall), for others in the serenity of the desert, and still for others at a Kosher McDonalds. Yet I have never before, until one of my most recent groups, heard of the “moment” happening in a cave.
I was guiding a group of mainly young professionals on a Routes Travel “Amazing Israel” Birthright trip and we were 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 participant 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.
That evening one of the participants told me that, despite the fact that she had little formal Jewish education, and had not really connected to any of the prayers until then, that the group singing of the melody had awakened some deep and dormant part of her Jewish soul and that she had indeed found her special place. It was her “Birthright Moment.”