Mayanot Israel Birthright: Jewish Longhorns become family on an incredible journey

By Rachel Goodman

On May 21, 2014, one rabbi, a student leader, two trip leaders, a medic and 40 students formed Bus 697 of a Mayanot Israel Taglit Birthright trip. As a participant of this trip, I can say that just 11 days later this diverse bunch was no longer a group of relative strangers, but instead family.

While the trip was organized by the University of Texas Chabad’s director, Rabbi Zev Johnson and student leader, Ethan Prescott, UT students, while the majority, were not the only attendees: University of Hartford, Wisconsin, North Carolina at Wilmington, Indiana University and Wake Forest were all represented.

“Traveling to another country with only two days notice and without knowing anyone can be intimidating, luckily our group made it easy and enjoyable,” said Sarah Gordon, a student from UNC at Wilmington. “I went on an incredible journey with 40 new people I can now call my family. My experience was eye opening and full of intellect. I had an amazing time with amazing people and couldn’t be more thankful for my experience.”

That experience started with a tour of southern Israel. One of the first places on this journey was “The Salad Trail,” where we learned how the Israelis have made the arid Negev desert blossom. Touring through greenhouses growing tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs and suspended strawberries, Mayanot 697 was free to pick and eat whatever we desired and got a taste of what it is like to work the land by pulling orange and purple carrots straight from the fields.

While this was a new experience for even those of us who had previously toured Israel, Mayanot 697 could not leave the Negev without having some quintessential Negev experiences: Bedouin tent hospitality, a reflection experience in the tranquil silence of the desert, a camel ride at sunrise, a trek up Masada and an afternoon at the Dead Sea covered in the sea’s skin moisturizing mud.

These first few jam-packed days culminated with a relaxing Shabbat in Tel Aviv. Despite coming from varying levels of practicing Judaism, Rabbi Zev created an atmosphere where all of us could feel that special spirituality that can only be found in our homeland. That energy was only strengthened throughout the trip as we visited some our religion’s holiest places: the synagogues of some of the greatest kabbalists in Tzfat, the ancient city of Tiberius and the Old City of Jerusalem.

For many of us, this trip was a way to help us find ourselves, our own connection to our people’s land and religion separate from what we had learned in Jewish day school, religious school or from our parents.

“It was amazing to get to explore Israel at this stage in life when we are maturing and forming our own sense of identity,” said UT student, Jenna Goldberg. “Going through UT was a great decision because not only did I get to know Rabbi Johnson on a personal level, but I got to experience Israel with other children from my school that I never would have met otherwise.”

There are so many different lenses through which we can view Israel and seeing it through that spiritual lens with UT Chabad added an unbelievable amount of depth and perspective for us all and served to strengthen our connection as a group.

“This was the first time that we celebrated so many simchas on a Birthright trip,” Johnson said. “At the Western Wall we had two bar mitzvahs, four bat mitzvahs and five Jewish namings of students. To experience Israel and the spirituality of the land via the students’ enthusiasm was very eye opening for me. The way they supported each other so naturally proved that as diverse as we are as a people, Am Yisrael Chai.”

While we all were deeply affected by the places we visited, perhaps what left the most indelible mark was the addition of seven Israeli soldiers to our group five days into the trip. It was a chance for us to see Israel through the eyes of Israelis our own age, to see how our life experiences are similar and different, to truly learn from one another.  

“I wanted to go on Birthright because I felt I had a responsibility to show Jews from the U.S. this amazing country from my point of view,” said Ariel Abraham, a 21-year-old artillery crew commander. “I wanted to show that in Israel we don’t ride camels on the highway and that there aren’t suicide bombings every hour, for example. That our soldiers aren’t murderers as portrayed by much of the media, that they are young adults and very friendly.”

It was incredible how much we learned and how closely we bonded with our Israeli counterparts in the short amount of time we had together. A main takeaway for us all was the realization that Israelis our same age are incredibly more mature mainly because they have experienced so much of the real world as compared to those of us who spend most of our time in the classroom.

This was most evident at our last experience with our Israeli soldiers at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem. There, we saw the graves of heroes such as Michael Levin, Hannah Szenes and Yonatan Netanyahu, and heard some of our soldiers’ personal experiences with the tragic losses that are unfortunately so common to Israeli citizens.

“The last day I was on the trip, that Thursday in Jerusalem, was the most meaningful for me,” Abraham said. “Even with the countless times I’ve been to Jerusalem, it amazed me seeing a Jew being at the Western Wall for the first time in his life and after that going to the military cemetery was very tough for me to say my personal story but I felt that I had to tell it to let [them] know some of the stuff I have been through.”

Our soldiers truly opened our eyes to another Israel, one much different from what we see on the news. From their lessons and the lessons of other Israelis we encountered along the way, a more complex, more multifaceted Israel emerged. Throughout the trip we learned the history of Israel from Biblical times to today from our tour guide and incredible storyteller, Ariel Pulver. A central theme was the Arab-Israeli conflict. Driving through the Jordan Valley we discussed the hostility of the region and its importance to the State, and at the Mount Scopus overlook in Jerusalem Ariel explained the different quarters and why Israel must never give up our holiest city.

While we never felt in danger, the conflict was finally real to us, something tangible we could see with our own eyes. At the most northern point of Israel on the border of Lebanon lays Misgav Am, a kibbutz that has been barraged by rockets because of its proximity to the border. There, we heard from Aryeh, a highly opinionated war veteran who made aliyah in the 60’s and has literally witnessed the conflict at his doorstep. In a glass-paneled room overlooking Lebanon, he explained our location and opened the floor to questions. The more he talked, the more evident the intricacies of the conflict became. As we left the kibbutz, we could see a Hezbollah base in Lebanon not more than a mile away. It was truly an eyeopening experience.

After everything we had seen and heard, we finished our trip with Shabbat in Jerusalem. While our Birthright experience had shown us how our homeland could make a diverse group of people a family, Shabbat at the Western Wall showed us that this family was much larger than the 45 of us. We danced and prayed with Jews from all over the world. While we may not have spoken the same language, our religion brought us together. Despite our different cultures, we knew the same songs, the same dances, the same prayers. For all of us, we felt at home.

“It’s been said that what one can accomplish in 10 days in Israel, takes 10 years to accomplish outside of Israel,” Johnson said. “Spending 10 days plus in Israel with a bus of 40 students, Jewish Longhorns and friends as well as another seven IDF soldiers and Ethan Prescott as the student leader was riveting. The friendships built, the land toured, the spirituality tangible, the growth accomplished, it’s actually difficult to put into words just how great this experience was together.”

Rachel Goodman is a UT sophomore and a graduate of Yavneh and Ann and Nate Levine academies.