Ten Days Later: Why I Was Wrong To Wonder If Birthright Israel Changes Lives

It’s been about 36 hours since I’ve returned from leading a Birthright trip and I’ve been asked what seems like a million times, “So! How was it?!”

Oh, how to answer such a seemingly simple, yet oh-so-loaded question.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece challenging the notion that a 10 day trip to Israel could really change lives.

Are we here to go on some “one night stand” with holiness, a brief brush with something so awesome, with the hopes of going steady for life? Is a free trip to Israel for 10 days really going to inspire the millennials of our generation, obsessed with #immediategratification and impressed with short-lived trends, to make long-lasting changes in their relationships with Judaism and Israel?

And now, just days after the trip, I’m trying to make sense of it all.

I’m jet lagged. I have blisters on my feet. I’m overloaded at work.

My Facebook feed is full of notifications and tagged pictures of GoPro selfies of a group of 38 young, dynamic, incredibly special young adults that became my spiritual children, my surrogate family, my mishpacha, for the past 10 days.

I’ve taught my kids (who I missed terribly) the silly bus songs we sang, the cheers, the little nuances that help me feel the trip hasn’t quite ended yet.

I feel a bit empty.

I miss wearing the Birthright Staff name tag every day, a sort of stamp of import and elevated mission: I’m not just here to visit Israel. I’m here with a purpose like no other.

I miss spending so much time with my husband who we affectionately called Rabbi Yossi. I miss watching him push himself out of his comfort level, leading services, Havdalah ceremonies, Bar Mitzvahs. I miss watching him in his element, bonding with these thirsty souls, just one of the guys, his smile shining bright.

I miss the laughing, the conversations, the questions, the looks in the eyes of each one of them as the deepest parts of their souls slowly emerged, their skin softer, their steps lighter, as they discovered Israel and themselves.

I miss the Land. The air. The views. The people.

I miss so much.

So yes, the trip was special.

But does it change lives?

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I don’t know.

I’ve received inspiring messages, thank yous, promises to add more Mitzvot and hold more pride in their Judaism. I’ve witnessed spiritual awakenings in the form of tears, dancing, added commitment and looks of wonder.

So many moments that shifted our collective conscious.

The time when we hiked through fig trees, marveling at ancient tree roots, delighting in the refreshing water splashing our feet. The time some of us first tasted schwarma. The time we met a ‘crazy’ man who lives on the border of Lebanon, filled with passion and clarity like no other. The time we welcomed the Shabbat as the sun set over the Kinneret, the first breathtaking view that would be joined by many others. The time we met – and bonded – with 7 local Israelis who joined our trip for 5 days, friendships created for a lifetime. The time we danced without a care in the world. The time we stood together in the military cemetery, listening to our Israeli friend share the story of the death of his childhood best friend just a year earlier in the war, all of us crying like babies, without any shame, mourning the loss of innocent youth and all the blood that spilled to protect this Land we are growing to love and call Home. The time we celebrated the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs of our friends with so much pride and joy. The time we made our way to the Wall, lay our foreheads on the smooth stone, said Shema together and cried.

The desert mediations, the long bus rides, the late nights, the laughing, the songs, the joy of it all.

All of us, walking the Land, the heart of the world– our steps the heartbeat of the Universe, coming together to create the rhythm of Jewish life and family.

Can you hear it?

With all of this, I still don’t know what the lasting effects of this trip are.

I don’t know if it makes them more proud of their Judaism, visit Israel again, marry Jewish, hold their heads up just a bit higher.

I don’t know how long we’ll all keep in touch for, how long the yearning to learn more with last, how their journeys will continue to unfold.

I don’t know so much.

So will a free trip in Israel change their lives forever?

In truth, it’s up to them.

But one thing I do know- it’s definitely changed mine… in ways I’m still discovering.