Getting the “Birthright” experience, when you’ve already lived here for 10 years

The author travelling in Kibbutz Ein Gedi
The author travelling in Kibbutz Ein Gedi

By this point in time, it’s safe to assume that most American Jews under the age of 30 have at some point in their young adult lives participated in a Birthright trip.  After all, this is 2016, and in their relative short history, Birthright has somehow managed to have an explosive social impact on Israel in a way that probably previously seemed impossible — both for Diaspora Jews from all over the globe and sabra madrichim alike.

Today, if you ask the majority of young English speakers in Israel why they decided to make Aliyah, the story will be similar, and it will start with a young Jewish adult setting out to explore the Holy land for the first time, on a free(!) fast-tracked 10-day tour.

I wasn’t one of those lucky thousands (upon thousands), but I was a very lucky teen.  I had the opportunity to participate in a semester abroad in Jerusalem during high school, through the national Reform youth movement-NFTY. In a hopeful and peaceful time just before the start of the strikingly violent Second Intifada, we lived harmoniously in Jerusalem, and traveled the country, blissfully visiting sites, hiking, and just generally having the best time one could possibly imagine at such a tender and impressionable age.

It was glorious.  It was spectacular, and life-changing, and when it was over, I returned to America forever tarnished.  I had caught the Israel bug, and it lay dormant (or maybe not so much) inside me until six long years later when I returned for yet another semester abroad in college.  This time, it was just after the Second Intifada, and to my suburban American family, Israel’s most popular cities seemed to daunting — too dangerous.  Thus, I was banished to the sandy southern town of Beersheva, to study through the surprisingly frigid winter and into the summer hamsins.

Beersheva turned out to be great, however, in its own way. I had a real Israeli boyfriend, which was quite exciting for my 21-year-old self (and I had at the same time met the boy who was to become my future husband, and the father of our now going-on-3 children). I went on hiking excursions and international adventures on the weekends and holidays, and palled around campus with the other students. It wasn’t long before I had decided that as soon as I were to graduate I was going to make Aliyah.  Fast forward another year, and I was on a plane, travelling to a country that was in the middle of a war, which had had an unexpected and tragic beginning, and an uncertain ending.

As naïve as I was about the seriousness of the political situation, I landed in the bubble of Tel Aviv to begin my studies to become an English teacher. Ten years on and many, MANY ups and downs, struggles, an almost-move back to America, and also many joys later: I am not a Tel Avivan; I am certainly NOT an English teacher (sorry, Mom and Dad!); and I am not the huge “risk” taker that everyone thinks I must be.  What I still am is a Zionist, and somehow at my core, I am the same person who fell in love with Israel in the first place, even though I am completely different now.

As with any romance, it is important to keep the “spark,” so to speak, and, 10 years in, I want to celebrate my impending “Aliyah-niversary” by sharing the secret with you to keeping the Zionist fire burning in your heart. Sounds complicated or time consuming, but it is really a very simple concept:

Create your own “mini-Birthright” experience at least once every six months.

If you’re as lucky as me, drop the kids with the grandparents (or if not, drag those whiny little brats along with you to spit up/and or poop all over your stuff.  Just being realistic, here J), and set off for a desert adventure, or a mountain hike in the Golan. Feel the dirt, see (the) nature, and take in the fact that Israel really is one of the most beautiful countries on earth.

Repeat this as often as your busy everyday schedule allows, because I’m willing to bet that the view of a sink full of dishes and sitting on surging city buses wasn’t the reason you moved to Israel in the first place.  You moved here because of that moment when you found yourself crawling carefully between a crevice in the desert limestone cliffs, while on a night hike in the South with a group of 30 of your peers , plus a couple of mysterious M-16-slinging soldiers, and a weathered Israeli tour guide in dusty sandals.  All just existing together under the shining full moon and the endless night sky and stars.

So this is my recommendation: Stare at the base of the larger than life Masada mountain, and nudge your inner self just a little to remember that oh yeah, this is the land where ancient people actually walked, and talked, and lived.

Go to the Kotel and cry a little — or not. Just feel the buzz of energy that the people around you have as they stick a note in one of its cracks, filled with hope, just waiting for a direct line to a divine energy to answer their prayers, and fix all of their problems.

And even if that all fails, take a bite of a freshly-picked cucumber, and an even bigger bite out of the side of a juicy summer tomato (remember, you’ve been here for 10 years, you’re a real Israeli now!), and kiss your oleh chadash status goodbye.  You are no longer a newbie. You have survived, and lived, and experienced things that others will never in a lifetime experience. You are now more sabra than immigrant.  So close your eyes, breathe in a deep breath, smell the air and feel the earth. Then thank your lucky stars that you get to live in such an indescribably incredible place such as this, surrounded by some of the most sincere people you will ever meet in your life.  You are a lifer, and life is good.

About the Author
Jessica Halfin is owner and operator of Haifa Street Food Tours, through which she gives culinary tours to tourists in the beautiful coastal city of Haifa. She is an American immigrant to Israel of 10 years, an Israeli-trained baker and gourmet cook, and self-proclaimed “foodie.”
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