I just sent my fourth (or fifth if you count a partial refund of my 2012 trip deposit) donation to Birthright Israel a few days ago.
I’m far from a person rolling in dough — running my own babysitting business and freelancing my hours does not make me wealthy by any stretch of the imagination — but I have no issue with donating money or time to worthy causes. Birthright is the personification of hope. I am certainly no stranger to feeling fragile and having opportunity after opportunity denied to me both in college and when I studied abroad in London several years ago. I know how unreliable and weak a thing like hope can be. Hope can lie to you. Let you down. Leave you. Conversely, hope is the thing that saves you, pulling you by the reins out of a flaming stable that was once your life. My life has always been on fire, but Birthright splashed the water that put out the flames.
I first heard about Birthright at my second high school when a faculty member had told me about their trip. When I asked my dad about going when I was older, he said Israel was dangerous. He didn’t elaborate and I forgot about it. During my sophomore year of college, I received a phone call about Birthright. I was in no position to take the necessary time off of work as I worked in a daycare center and needed to be there to maintain the proper teacher to child ratio. Besides, coming from a working class background, it was not a feasible option financially as I needed money for college since my overpriced school did not care about the financial situations of people who were lower-middle class.
I received an email from Birthright in early 2012 and began looking at trip options. I was working as a nanny making okay money and with enough notice, I could take time off during the summer. I found a trip organizer called Shorashim and saw that there was a trip sponsored by Boston’s branch of Combined Jewish Philanthropies and JNF that was for young professionals and graduate students in Boston. I was thrilled to find groups for older people as I was twenty-three at the time and wanted to be around people who I thought would not want to party the entire time. After filling out the forms online, I sent off my application. By February I did my phone interview and anxiously waited to see if I would get picked.
It was now April and the day before Passover. As a nanny to a hyperactive 6-year-old boy, my days were long and exhausting. I took a quick break to check my email and saw a headline telling me to confirm my trip. I was in. I immediately ran upstairs to use the desktop computer in the house and had the 6-year-old fetch me my wallet so I could get my health insurance card and fill in my medical information. I could not wipe the grin off of my face. Still, it felt like a dream. I did not believe that there was something so amazing and free that was meant for me. But it was.
I went into my Birthright trip with no expectations. Although the trip was only 10 days, I did as much research as I could. I went to the library and read children’s books about Israel. I did not believe I could learn all there was to know about Israel from books, but as I discovered from living in London, it was the little things like the way people walked or the things that they ate that threw me off more than the bigger picture. And so I read about the flora, the fauna, the foods and the culture in Israel. I went to pre-trip orientations and socials. I joined the requisite Facebook group. I was prepared, logistically and emotionally. I was not prepared for the latter in London. And, as hard as it was to live in London, my first time being out of North America, if it weren’t for the pain there, I would not have appreciated the glory that is Birthright.
I grew up thinking that I knew everything there was to know about London. My paternal grandmother is British. I grew up listening to British musicians and watching shows and movies set over there. It was an English-speaking country full of history and I had an extended family there who would take good care of me. I paid the extra fees to participate in an internship and studied Political Science and International Relations. But as I would find out, I didn’t know anything about being in a foreign country. I knew the logistics of my program — the dates, obtaining a visa, etc. — but I didn’t know the emotional side. While London took a lot of adjusting to — and culture shock smacked me right in the face the second I got off of the plane — it was my cohort who made me so miserable. And I cannot tell a story of my appreciation for Birthright without telling my London one.
When I first arrived to London in August of 2010, I was violently sick. I had been sick a few days before I flew out and my father told me to appear as healthy as I could so that a flight marshal would not kick me off the plane. While on the plane, something in the dinner I was served chipped one of my sealants. I spent my second day in London running to the first dentist who would see me, on top of still being sick. I was sick for a week from jetlag and I constantly cried. Although I have never done drugs, I felt like I was on something. Things gradually improved once I met a girl in my cohort I called the Dandelion (see my post “Last Chance For Forgiveness.”)
We hung out all the time and everything was fine. Once we started to hang out with a girl in our cohort named DJ, things changed. I was 21 and the Dandelion was 22, so the drinking age being 18 didn’t matter to us. But DJ was 20 and could, for the next few months, legally purchase alcohol. Now, all the Dandelion wanted to do was party, something I liked to do sometimes, just not all the time. I tried telling them about my mother and how her substance abuse issues made me wary of alcohol, but they would say it was in the past and showed zero sympathy. While the Dandelion was never as mean to me as DJ was, their insults and comments about me being a Goody-Two-Shoes or how I would make a terrible politician were relentless. They just put up with me, even though my efforts to hang out with them wasted their time. I was ruining their fun because I wanted to talk about the cool things I was learning in school as opposed to getting plastered. They made me feel so unimportant and useless. I had spent my entire college career fighting off constant criticism and negativity for actually attending class and not being a “good” Jew because I chose to work with children instead of becoming a doctor or a lawyer. Nothing I ever did was good enough.
I left Richmond University in London five and a half years ago. DJ, the Dandelion, another guy in our cohort named David and the Dandelion’s then-boyfriend, Aleks, have never said they were sorry for all the terrible things they said or did to me, both when we lived there, and, especially, with the Dandelion at our disaster of a reunion in December of 2011. I have hoped for years for an apology that, I hate to admit, will probably never come. It has become blatantly obvious that they are not sorry at all. They threw me away like a piece of trash the minute I was seen as too much of a prude. I was just a burden who slowed them down.
Even if they said “I’m sorry,” I know it wouldn’t be real. I remember discussing this in 2013 when I lived in Israel with one of my Fellows from Netanya, Dascher. She told me how brave I was to move abroad again after all that happened to me in London. I needed to be around people who would appreciate, respect and listen to me; these were the things my London cohort couldn’t do. Those attitudes are reflections of their attitudes and personalities. My cohort only needed me when it suited them. Did they forget I shoved food down their throats so they wouldn’t puke from drinking? Did they forget I grew up on food stamps and knew the cheapest places to eat? Did they forget that I bought them treats when they were sad or sick? They never thanked me.
These days, I try not to think about London too much, although I do not try to fight the tears, either. They slide down my face with ease, as if they’ve been waiting for this moment to fall. I could forget about David, Aleks and I recognize now that DJ must’ve had low self-esteem if it meant that she would pick on someone who just wanted to be her friend. But the Dandelion’s presence is often around me, even if it has been four and a half years since I last saw her. If I am lucky, maybe one day she will finally say that she’s sorry for hurting me.
When I think back to our awful reunion all those years ago, I would be fine if she didn’t say that she’s sorry for saying she would never make a fool of herself after drinking again or continuing to kiss the random British guy while she had a boyfriend or for ditching me in the sketchy bar while I was hobbling on crutches. I can live with that. But her not saying sorry for hurting me is a punch to the gut. This is why I chose to let things flow on Birthright and, for whatever reason, the Birthrighters gravitated towards me. Birthright changed everything.
I could talk about my Birthright trip until I’m blue in the face, but words will never express my extreme reverence for the soldiers, staff, locals and Birthrighters who were the first people in years to finally put a smile on my face after dealing with a job that I dreaded, four years of college where I was never respected, a semester in London where I was seen as a prude or ridiculous for wanting to be Massachusetts’ first female Senator someday (which Senator Elizabeth Warren beat me to) and family members who berated me for not having a “real job.” Those ten days on Birthright were so transformative, but it was two nights at Kibbutz Almog that had really hit my heart.
My first day at Kibbutz Almog had been after I had begun to fall in love with one of the boys in my group (see my post “A Nice, Jewish Boy.” And, as I’ve gotten used to, he had a girlfriend and my heart shattered into a million pieces. My roommate, Ali, one of the most beautiful and kindest souls on the trip, consoled me and told me she was happy to have done my hair and makeup for me, even if it had been fruitless in the end. The next day, I tried to ignore the pain but sadness was etched into my features. I could at least take in the beauty around me — the Western Wall and the Mahane Yehuda shuk to name a few (although being there right before Shabbat was nothing short of insane) — and that helped a little bit.
Later on in the night, it was time for the group’s nightly discussion. My Israeli tour guide, Neitsan, asked the group how we were feeling about the trip so far, since this was the fifth day of the trip and we were halfway done with our 10-day adventure. I debated if I should say anything, but I decided that my Birthrighters, soldiers and staff deserved to hear the truth. As Neitsan was about to move onto the next question, I slowly raised my hand. There was shock on her face because I was very quiet during the trip, due to my tough experience in London and wanting to not say something stupid. Once I began to speak, I finally let myself feel the raw pain that I had pushed away for years. Now that this door was open, the entire dam broke.
I began my story with how it was more important for me in college to make the Dean’s List than it was to party all the time. This was something I was constantly judged for and I had thought that my cohort in London would be different. They weren’t. Going to London did not fix my problems because, as I at least realize now, it didn’t matter how much I changed on the outside or that I was in a new location where nobody knew who I was; my internal battles still showed up. I changed the scenery but not the situation.
I thought that I would never find people who could handle me at both my worst and my best but Bus 129 did. I told them the stories of how wonderful they had been to me over the past five days — Laurence helping me on the way down into the Golan Heights, Caitlin letting me borrow her Israeli cell phone so that I could call my second-cousin, Martyn in order for me to make plans to see him and his wife, Estelle (which I was able to the night before in Tel Aviv), Sarah M. fixing one of the straps on my dress, or the soldiers answering all of my questions, to name a few. Even with every mistake I’ve made in my life and even with everything I lack, Bus 129 loved me anyway. I finished up by saying a thank you to Bus 129 for giving me the love and acceptance that I had been denied in both college and London. I was proud of myself for admitting my burdens, no matter how badly I wanted to stop, but I also felt a bit nervous for how Bus 129 would react.
When I was done, I stayed quiet. The group was quiet at first, but then they broke out into a chorus of “Awws!” The rest of the discussion continued, although I don’t remember any of it.
After the discussion was over, we all began to pick at the foods that were on some tables in the room. Our assignment earlier in the day had been to pick up a snack from the shuk that we could share with the rest of the group. As I was picking up some grapes, I felt a hand grab onto my left shoulder. It was from the boy that I was no longer allowed to love. The boy began to explain that I was brave to admit what I did and that he was also the same as me in that he cared more about his grades than partying in college. He said he had faced opposition for this decision and that I wasn’t alone.
This was the first time that a boy who was essentially a stranger had said something like this. Teachers have to say this. Friends have to say this. A Birthrighter doesn’t. I was speechless. I thanked the boy and went back to my grapes, trying to process how sweet he was and how sad I was that he’d never be mine. I felt a bit better later on in the night after one of the boys in my group, Jeremy, had convinced me to go dance at the small bar on the kibbutz. I threw on a skirt that I wore as a dress, took down my hair and danced the night away with most of the group. It was the most fun I had had in a long time. And, every time I’ve seen my Birthrighters over the years, be it a big gathering or a small one, it’s like we were never apart.
I tell the story of my time at Kibbutz Almog because not only was it my favorite kibbutz that I stayed in on Birthright — and not even due to the amazing pool, food or how that kibbutz was my group’s longest stay and thus we didn’t need to keep repacking our luggage — but because of how in just a few days, Birthright gave me the social experience and friendship I was denied for so long. I felt like I was a part of something bigger. I moved to Israel just over a year later, the only person from my group to do so. My Birthrighters were ecstatic for me and supported me financially and emotionally every step of the way. And it is my dream that every person who goes on one of these trips will be lucky enough to have these connections that I was able to have.
Birthright is so thoughtful. It provides experiences that are so detailed and beautiful. There are no words that will ever do it justice. My heart has always been a big puzzle, but there was always a piece missing. Birthright was that missing piece. Birthright gave me a look into Israel’s heart and it is my moral obligation to make sure young Jews from around the world can take in the splendor of such a legendary place. If I am not recruiting for Birthright, then I give it PR or I donate money. But out of all the things I could choose to support, why has Birthright become my raison d’être?
I want young Jews to be exposed to Israel up close. They cannot feel, smell, touch, taste or breathe Israel from a book. College students in particular are not going to get positive thoughts about Israel — and Judaism/Zionism generally — from their campuses. They need to see that Jews are not a uniform block of fair-skinned people with Polish grandparents — something the current students at my alma mater have expressed via their social media profiles — and that Israel is not some war zone with bombs flying everywhere.
Israel is a mishmash of new and old. It is fancy apartment buildings standing next to older walk ups and small homes the size of garages. Israel is antique stands and restaurants passed down through the generations, soldiers of all colors in uniform in the checkout line at the grocery store speaking Russian or French or Hebrew, or any of the multitudes of languages in the country, to men and women with their babies in the carts. Israel is the sand, the jellyfish on the shorelines and the navy boats that patrol the seas. Israel is assimilation in action, different Jews coming together, combining to make something special and different in all of her medley of glory. Israel is lasting and strong, a country trying to breathe upon the ashes of the deceased, a mix of all the Jews that wanted this place. Every Jew deserves the chance to go here.
A stranger who gave me money for Israel told me to pay it forward. After I had gotten accepted to teach English in Israel, I set up a fundraiser. I was planning on paying for everything myself, but if people wanted to help me, I would welcome it. I first reached out to Deborah and Joshua, a Jewish couple I had been working for as a babysitter for their (then) two children, Samara and Tal. They sent me $100. Joshua’s parents, whom I had never met, sent me $100. Deborah and Josh reached out to their friend, Thomer and he sent me $180. When I sent him a thank-you note, he told me to thank Deborah and Josh and that they made a “strong case for helping [me] out.” He also said that “If/when [I’m] ever in a (financial?) position to help others out, please pay it forward.” I am not wealthy, but I give what I can. Thomer said to pay it forward. And so I did.
I would rather give money to Birthright than my alma mater. I attended my college’s five-year reunion a few weeks ago. My class was more than 200 students when I graduated in 2011; only 10 or so of us attended the reunion. Timing-wise it was hard for most people since we work and many of us only came to Massachusetts for school, although some people did stay. The biggest classes at the reunion were the senior citizen women, as they had the financial means to retire and student loans didn’t exist back when they were in school. I listened to a speech by the outgoing president about how great the college was doing and how she wanted the alumni to donate.
I scoffed. I already spent enough money on my bachelor’s degree, and I am certainly not going to give more money to a college that cares more about its image than its mission statement, charges the prices of a mainstream, liberal arts school when it was founded as a teaching school (newsflash: no one goes into education for the money), or denies leadership opportunities to people like me, a working-class girl who doesn’t have a rich daddy that can pad the pockets of the administration (see my post “Masa Israel And My Second Chance.”) Birthright gave me chances. College didn’t.
Perhaps the most important reason I write checks to Birthright is due to the Jewish children I have been taking care of over the past few years.
I think of Elijah and Benjamin and how their love for reading about geography would work well in Israel, a country so full of history.
I think of Hannah and how she would want to chase after the stray kitties as opposed to just chasing her baby brother, Teddy.
I think of Brody and how he would love to sit atop an Israel Defense Forces tank instead of just playing with toy vehicles.
I think of Julia and how she wants to see all the places in her Ella Goes To Israel book.
I think of John and how much he’d love krav maga and how his younger sister, Sydney would love to run through the sea at any of the beaches that adorn Israel’s coastline.
I think of Katie, a child who speaks Russian, French, Hebrew and English, and how much she’d enjoy visiting her maternal grandparents in Netanya, the place I heard all four languages when I was a resident.
I think of Jacob, Noah and Joshua, the three boys I used to nanny for and while they have been to Israel before, they deserve to keep going. Jacob loves the kosher McDonald’s, Noah loves the Fuze iced tea and Joshua loves the palm trees. It remains to be seen what their new sibling will enjoy.
I think of Samara, who used to say how beautiful I was, and how she would be exposed to the various colors of the Jews in the rainbow. I think of her younger brother, Tal and how much he’d like to see an Israeli ambulance instead of his toy ones. And I think of the baby in their family, Sammy, and how wide his eyes would get at seeing IAF fighter jets.
I have watched their eyes grow when I tell them about Israel. They should always have that sparkle. I certainly would not be a good Jew, or an educator, if I didn’t help the children who have Jewish blood get to—or back to—the Land of Milk and Honey. I do this for them, both the ones I have worked with personally and around the world. Because who am I as a follower of tikkun olam, if I do not practice what I preach?
I staffed my first Birthright trip back in January (see my post “Babies Got Me Birthright.”) It was hard, I won’t lie, but to see these young Jews take in Israel was once of the most fantastic things I have ever seen. During the late afternoons, we would watch the sun drop down right in front of our windows, as if the sunset were made especially for us. We could see the sky blaze in corals and peaches, pinks and oranges. As the sun would set below the horizon and the sky would start to turn into indigo while the stars started to blink, I couldn’t help but think of the sunsets I saw on my own Birthright trip and how these young Jews were now staring at the same sky. To hear the touching words from my participants, whether it was the Brazilian who was gay and felt more comfortable being gay in Israel than in his own country or two of the American women who had a Bat Mitzvah on the top of Masada, I could not even begin to explain how thankful I felt. I hope, one day, I can help lead another trip. I didn’t—and still don’t—have the words to express exactly what I felt back in January or why I still owe Birthright gratitude. Typical Taylor.
I hope that Birthright knows that it was through them that I learned how to honor life and that meeting members of the Israel Defense Forces showed me how precious life is. I was made aware of how we can never know when our time is up, to grab every chance to help others, to try and stay happy in the face of adversity and to enjoy the journey. These are a few lessons of so many that other young Jews should be able to latch onto. I hope I have helped them.
I don’t doubt I will be writing another check to Birthright this year—and not even because I made a vow to myself that I will send a check to them every time my alma mater hits me up for money—because they are the steppingstone to a journey that has been touching hearts since 1999.
Writing checks to Birthright is something I will not second guess. And I will keep doing it because Birthright has allowed me — and countless other young Jews — to live our lives in the sunshine that we have been starved of.