Cat Korren

I was a tour guide on Birthright’s first trip back to Israel: Here’s what I saw

My sense of Israel crumbled on October 7, but introducing this beautiful, broken place to my group made me fall in love with it all over again
Source: Cat Korren (author), pictured (left)
Source: Cat Korren (author), pictured (left)

They say that love comes in many forms – looking at your beloved, a mother looking at her newborn, a father watching his child taking his first steps, reuniting with your best friend after months apart, the first snowfall in winter, the first flowers in spring…the list goes on.

But there is one kind of love, a deeply specific and simultaneously universal love that I recently met, that has set a new paradigm for the heights to which love can reach – the love of rediscovering the land of Israel through 17 pairs of curious eyes arriving for the first time in the Holy Land.

My name is Cat Korren and on January 1st, 2024, I had the privilege of beginning the new year as the madricha, or guide, with a historic Birthright Israel trip, the first Birthright (Taglit) trip organized by Tailor Made to return to Israel after more than 100 days of war. I found myself leading participants from around the United States to discover the land of Israel, stepping aboard an El Al flight that just two months before had taken me away from a war that left my country, my home, and my heart aching with the pain, destruction and “what ifs” that came in the aftermath of the October 7th attacks. 

As we boarded that plane, I looked into the eyes of each of the participants and wondered, who on earth are these people, who have decided to come davka (surprisingly, unexpectedly) in the middle of a war, contrary to many of their parents’ wishes, amidst what one could call the most divisive, existential conflict the world has seen since the Holocaust.

What drives them? What are they expecting to see? Are they afraid, nervous? Are they coming with preconceived opinions, expecting a specific narrative, to prove or disprove? How am I going to facilitate for them the eye-opening, enlightening, unforgettable experience that they deserve? Am I going to be able to keep them safe, positive, and happy while managing the waves of emotions racing through my body? Will I be able to alleviate the fear, grief, and sadness that has clouded my life since October 7th, which took the lives of too many friends to name and sent my partner to the army where he has spent the past three months in Gaza? Eretz Israel, my glass castle, my safe space, came crumbling down before me. 

Twelve hours later the captain announced, “Welcome to Israel, whether this is home or you are visiting, we hope you have a quiet visit.” Little did they know that this land is home for everyone, and that’s exactly what we were going to discover.

This was my third time leading a Birthright trip, so I was familiar with the ten day itinerary, with the sunrise treks up Masada, the peaceful Shabbats spent on kibbutzim in the Galilee, the nights out in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem’s infamous Machane Yehuda, visits to the Kotel, Yad Vashem, Haifa, the various versions of “AHA” moments that participants experience as their journey unfolds. However, I could never have expected that this trip, in the first days of 2024, would provide “AHA” moments (Awe, Happiness and Appreciation as I like to call it) every single day. 

In recounting our journey together, thousands of moments come to mind where I witnessed profound transformation, vulnerability, and healing taking place in the souls of each and every participant. Whether it was the tears of surprise and hope in the eyes of 250 evacuees seeing us on our first night at a hotel in Tiberias where they had been living for three months, hearing the testimony of a woman my age from the Gaza envelope who had survived October 7th through a series of miracles, or the extra falafels generously put in our pita from the Israeli and Arab men working in local rest stops, these moments were everywhere.

Rays of light burst through the sky on the top of a mountain in a Bedouin city echoing of god’s presence at all times, everywhere, volunteering in the agricultural fields of the north and a meditation that teleported us through time and space at the top of Masada led by our magical tour guide, Duby and concluded with the sound of fighter jets racing by, reminding us that there is still a war going on. Walking through the echoing halls of Yad Vashem seeing the suffering of the Jewish people spread out in front of us in the form of “history,” something of the past that is very much of the present. And somehow, after all that, just a few hours and integration sessions later, finding a way to dance together in high spirits as we meandered our way through the streets of Jerusalem’s famous food market with the aroma of knafeh and sounds of trance music vibrating in the background. 

One morning towards the beginning of the trip, I sat on a balcony with some participants as the sun rose over the Sea of Galilee. We talked about the nature of light and darkness that exists in Israel, the land of dichotomies, how it is here that one experiences, in the most extreme of ways, that good exists not in spite of, but because of evil; blessings arise from curses, unity from division, resilience from destruction, hope from war. It is a place that gives you the courage to break free from your comfort zone, that gives you a taste of the real meaning of life, that proves the meaning of unconditional love, and that, thanks to Birthright (Taglit) Israel, allows thousands of young individuals from around the world to, in the words of one of my participants, “rediscover something that they thought was lost forever.” 

There are moments in life that define us, cause us to experience ourselves as “before” and “after.” If I wrote this article a few months ago, I would have told you that October 7th was that defining moment in my life. 

But today, sitting in the shadows of a candlelit dawn of Eretz Israel, I gratefully express that on January 1st, 2024, my life was changed forever. I found home again, stronger and truer than ever before. 

Source: Cat Korren (author) leading an educational activity in the fields
About the Author
Cat Korren is a writer, researcher and explorer born and raised in New York but based in Israel for the past five years. Having spent three semesters of her Bachelor's degree at New York University's Tel Aviv campus, she engaged deeply with the history, archaeology and theology of the Holy Land. An avid world traveler, Cat's deep curiosity for culture, language and community have provided her with first hand experiences which give her unique lens as a Jewish, American-Israeli woman moving through of the world.
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