People often ask me after having been guiding Taglit-Birthright Israel groups since the program’s inception sixteen years ago (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 fresh and special every single time!
The group that I just finished guiding last week is a case to point. It was an “Explore” trip (CYJ – 424) for the “Amazing Israel” provider, a thoroughly professional organisation that manages to successfully find the “golden mean” between juxtaposing fun with education. This particular group had, among other participants, some very talented musicians who helped us sing our way across Israel.
- We sang our way across Israel, from the “Lecha Dodi” (Come my beloved) prayer from the Friday night service, which we sang in Sfat, the place it was composed four centuries ago, to the “Oseh Shalom” prayer sang in an ancient synagogue in Gamla in the Golan, 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 legions.
- We sang “Im Tirzu Ein zu Agada” (“If you will it, it is not a dream…”) overlooking the city of Jerusalem honouring all of those who had the merit to stand on the same ground we were on, and who made the pilgrimage to our holy city. From Abraham, to David to the pilgrims ascending to the holy Temple, to the 19 year old boys of the Paratroopers in 1967, to Jews from all over the world today.
- On Mt. Herzl, on top of the highest elevation in the holiest city for the Jews, after having spend the day at Yad Vashem understanding what it meant not to have a State of our own and at the Har Herzl military cemetery weeping over the price we pay to keep that state, the Israeli IDF and American participants sang our national anthem together. “Hatikvah.” Together we sang how honoured we are to live in the generation where the “hope of 2000 years to be a free people in our land.” has become a reality.
- In the Judean Desert we rose in the darkness and hiked to an elevation 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 bodies and allow us to bond with nature and our own bodies.
- 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 recounted the tale of the Bar Kochba Revolt. 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 brethren united together”) song softly at first, and then building up with intensity with each repetition. 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 Tel Aviv we partied, danced and sung together celebrating the energy and pulse of modern Israel, aided by a concert of the Israeli hip-hop group “Hadag Nachash” in the harbor of Tel Aviv in honour of Birthright participants in Israel.
It was indeed a sensual experience. Our odyssey united our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell as we sang 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 the song 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, or hear “Hine Ma tov” and remember sitting in those caves. They may be reciting “Oseh Shalom” or singing “Hatikvah” and they will recall where they first heard these songs and whom they shared that experience with. In forging the connection between these 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 land. Indeed they realised 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!”