A matter of life and death

We live in a paradoxical world. For reality to be better, man needs fantasy. However fantasy can also ruin man’s reality.

Do you ever wonder what will be remembered of our existence in 2,000 years? I don’t know, but if history teaches us one thing, it’s that the more time goes by the more fantasy and reality become one; that’s history.

I want to tell you something fantastic about reality.

If you are Jewish, I am pretty sure you have heard of Birthright. But I want to share a story about a special group of Birthright participants that you’ve probably never heard of. A group of participants that all have one thing in common: they are all in a rehabilitation program, recovering from an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

In the past couple of years I have learnt that Birthright is a life changing trip but the other night I heard words that taught me something new. Birthright is also a lifesaving trip. Let me explain.

Disclaimer: the following story happened only a few days ago – too early to become history yet early enough to be remembered for something it really was.

The other night I went to hear the sum up session of a Birthright group, its participants, all in rehabilitation programs back in the US. The words I heard were more powerful than any I had ever heard at sum up sessions.

“…I am going to tell you something I have never shared with anyone. Ten years ago I lost a baby to alcohol. I never had the chance to have a proper funeral for the baby but the other day, when we were at the Kotel, I felt I had a spiritual funeral for my baby. Her name was…and she gave me the gift of sobriety…”

You can’t hear such a sentence without a tear coming to your eye. You can’t hear those words without feeling the blood in your body become hotter and pump quicker.

I am going too fast. Let’s start from the beginning.

Accompanied by two others from our office, we escaped the cold Jerusalem night and walked into a warm room where the sum up session was to be held. We meet one of the group’s staff. He explains to us that the group is specifically for people who have an addiction problem and are in recovery. He shares with us that he too was a participant on such a trip three years ago and today, he says with a proud smile that warms the heart, he staffs this trip.

Before the group arrives in the room, he shares with us another story. A participant’s brother died of an overdose a couple of years ago. When the group arrived at the Kotel, it was the participant’s first time at the wall. Accompanied by one of the Israeli soldiers, he approached the wall and spoke his heart. At that moment, while standing at the Kotel, he felt his brother for the first time since he passed away. Overwhelmed by the feeling, with tears in his eyes, he shared the moment with the soldier. The soldier, an atheist, said later that that was the first moment he ever felt close to something one might call G-d.

What does one call such a moment? Serendipity? Divine Providence?No. I’d keep it simple and call it an unforgettable moment.

Back to the sum up session.

We sit down and the participants start filling up the room. Their group shirt says on the back “He who saves one life saves the world entire”.  I notice a tattoo along the arm of a girl sitting next to me. The tattoo depicts a road that disappears in the horizon where there is a sun wearing sunglasses. On the side of the road there is a large billboard held up by two fingers. It says “Disappear here”.

The group’s guide starts off the session. He starts off by saying that though his name means happiness in Hebrew, he caused his parents a quite a bit of sadness growing up. Everyone in the room gives a nod with an understanding smile.

And then, one by one each participant stated their name, acknowledged the fact that they were an alcoholic or drug addict, and proceeded to share with the group their concluding thoughts and feelings after 10 days in Israel.

In one of his books, I can’t remember which, Shay Agnon says we learn from Goethe that you don’t need to make stories up. Just describe life. I can’t argue with a master like Agnon. Here are the words my heart let my mind remember:

…”This trip saved my life. It was something I wanted to do before I died. I needed this trip because I needed a spiritual experience that I couldn’t get back at home.”

“…I have shared with you things I haven’t shared with my support group at home. I stayed sober for 90 days just cause I knew that was the condition to come on this trip…this trip didn’t change my life, it saved my life.”

“…I had a plan to kill myself but I waited when I heard about this trip. I like to travel, it makes me happy so why not right? On the trip, in Jerusalem, there was a moment I felt I want to love, I received a the wonderful gift of gratitude…I am scared to go back home because it feels to good here…regardless of whether I manage to hold on or not in the future, I am thankful that I got to experience this feeling for the first time in my life.”

“…Back at home, we learn to get high on rehab sessions. I am sure you all know the feeling (all nod) and I am very close to my rehab group but to be honest, in the past 3 days I haven’t been in touch with anyone from my group…they wouldn’t get it. How do you explain to someone what we have been through? How do I explain to them that for 10 days now, I have been getting high on Judaism.”

“I never liked to identify as an addict or as an alcoholic. Today, I am proud to say I am a Jewish man in recovery…”

“…I am home. It is the best feeling in the world to know you are in the right place.”

“I got to celebrate my 24th birthday on Birthright, I will never forget how the Israeli soldiers lifted me up 24 times. It’s amazing because I never thought I’d pass the age of 19.”

“This trip is about spirituality but primarily about recovery.”

One of the participants didn’t say much, but he had a gift for each and everyone in the room, including myself. A bracelet with the following print; “Turn from evil and do good;seek peace and pursue it.”

Like I said, I had something fantastic about reality to tell you.

At times, I wonder what will be remembered in the Jewish people’s book of remembrance in 2,000 years. I don’t know where the Jewish people will be, what will be remembered and what forgotten but I find it hard to believe that the words above, spoken by these participants, won’t be passed on from generation to generation.

About the Author
Jonnie Schnyzter is a PhD candidate in Jewish Philosophy. Until recently he was Advisor to the CEO of Taglit-Birthright Israel. In the past he led Israel advocay delegations abroad and trained Israeli students through StandWithUs. Jonnie made Aliyah from Australia ages ago, but is still a passionate Essendon Bombers supporter.
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