text by Gavriel Horan
When I first met the Taglit-Birthright Israel participants in Newark airport, it was a group of 40 strangers. Nobody knew that they would each leave ten days later with 40 new brothers and sisters. In such a short time, they became a family. In truth, Taglit-Birthright Israel taught everyone that the Jewish people have always been a family – just an estranged family that’s been living apart for 2000 years. We came home together for the ultimate family reunion.
The experience of walking our land, crying in our holy places, and dancing together in our ancient ruins brought the group together in a way nothing else could. Leading a trip with OU Israel Free Spirit, one of the most popular trip programs, for the first time, I myself was shocked at how powerful the experience was. It’s hard to imagine that a trip anywhere else in the world would have had a remotely similar affect.
Our Soldiers, Our Heroes
Perhaps more impactful than anything, however, was the experience of meeting the Israeli soldiers. Eight young men and women – the same age as the trip participants – joined our trip for five days. For the duration of that time, they became part of our “family.” Although they boarded our bus in full IDF uniforms, once they had changed into their civilian clothes, they looked no different than anyone else. The Birthright participants were surprised to discover that despite their different cultures they had so much in common. However, they also learned that the Israelis had something that most Americans have never known.
As Americans we were always taught to work towards our future – to go to college so that we could become something, so that we could raise a family, so that we could find comfort and success – but we had never learned the meaning of giving up our lives for someone else. Yet, each of them were willing to sacrifice their lives to protect this homeland and this people that we had only just discovered.
When we visited the military cemetery on Har Hertzl, the soldiers each pointed out the graves of people they had known – people who had died protecting them and their loved ones. At the grave of an 18 year old girl, someone turned to me and said, “Rabbi, it’s not fair. Eighteen! She was too young to die. It’s just not fair.”
“No,” I replied. “What’s not fair is that at 18, we have nothing worth dying for!”
Rabbi Noah Weinberg, of blessed memory, often said that if you have nothing worth dying for, you’re not really living. For the first time, I really understood what he meant.
But the Americans weren’t the only ones who got something from this cultural exchange. The Israeli soldiers were also visibly moved and inspired to watch us experience their land for the first time. Upon entering the city of Jerusalem, everyone rushed to the window of the bus to see the timeless skyline of the Temple Mount and Old City for the very first time. Many cried tears of joy at seeing this site that their ancestors had longed to return to for thousands of years – even though they didn’t quite know why it was so special. Everyone on the bus made sure to take pictures of the view – all but one, that is. One of the Israeli soldiers stood behind and took a picture of us taking pictures. “I’ve seen Jerusalem hundreds of times,” she later explained, “but I never knew how special it was until I saw the excitement on your faces. I will never forget that moment as long as I live. If I ever forget how lucky I am to live in Israel, all I need to do is look at that picture and remember why I shouldn’t take it for granted.”
Bringing Israel Home: A Four Way Tie!
Bring Israel Home was created by Aish NY specifically for the Israel Free Spirit, to help keep the Birthright spirit alive by encouraging participants to stay connected to Israel, their heritage, Judaism and each other. Bring Israel Home engages Israel Free Spirit Birthright buses to compete against each other in challenges related to Israel and Judaism. At the end of the four week competition, the winning team wins a reunion weekend in New York with their Israeli soldiers. The bond between the students and soldiers was so strong, that most are willing to do anything for a chance to repay the Israelis for having shared their world with them.
Seven groups competed in Bring Israel Home. The level of interaction between the members of the groups was extraordinary and the teams worked together to motivate participation. By the end of the first week, five out of seven buses had completed 100% of their challenges!
The tension was in the air during the second week as all eyes looked to see who might fall behind – but lo and behold, four out of the five leading groups continued to achieve 100% participation! This continued throughout week three as well. As the competition came to an end last week, the same four buses maintained a perfect score! A four-way tie was never anticipated. Bring Israel Home had to find a tie breaker that would fairly determine the winner.
That’s where you come in! As a final tie breaker, each of the four winning groups was asked to create a short video comprised of the challenge submissions that they completed during the course of the competition. The video was to include at least one photo, clip, or quote from everyone in the group. We invite you to watch all the videos below and cast your vote for the video that you feel best expresses the value Bring Israel Home provided the group, by allowing them to hold onto their Israel experience and strengthen their communal bond.
The group with the winning video will get to bring their Israeli soldiers back home to New York for an unforgettable reunion.
Each group has become a family – and they want to share that love and connection with you. Against all expectations, the bond that they formed in Israel has continued to grow and strengthen back at home. Thank you for helping us to bring Israel home.
YOU BE THE JUDGE!
Bring Israel Home is a part of the Israel Free Spirit, Taglit-Birthright Israel, follow up initiative developed by Aish NY. Vote for the video you feel best demonstrates how the group kept their Israel experience alive.
Your vote will determine which team wins the chance of a lifetime to bring the soldiers from their Israel trip to NY for a reunion.
Haven't been on Taglit-Birthright Israel? Registration for this summer is now open. Click here to apply.
Video 1: Group 428
Video 2: Group 471
Video 3: Group 472
Video 4: Group 500
Cast Your Vote
(Voting closes Friday, March 8 5:30 p.m. EST.
Final voting tally will be confirmed by Aish New York.)