Imagine a country that is not only holy to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but is also in the middle of a war zone.
Israel is at the crossroads of religion, culture, customs, war, and tradition. When I arrived in Israel in December 2014, it was only a months after the most recent conflict in the summer before. Needless to say, I was a bit anxious about what I would find. However, from the minute that I stepped off the plane, a new sensation took over. It was as if the excitement over seeing as much as I could during my 10-day trip overshadowed that other fear.
Taglit-Birthright Israel (Birthright) is a non-profit that sponsors free 10 day heritage trips to Israel for Jewish young adults aged 18-26. I went December 2014 with the Jewish campus life organization Hillel through my school the University of Georgia.
In this trip, I found not only a desire to explore more of not only my Jewish culture and heritage, but a love of travel and experiences outside of my comfort zone. We spent 10 days travelling up and down this country that is smaller than New Jersey, coming in close contact at times with countries such as Syria and Jordan’s borders only miles away. Hours were spent in outdoor markets, eating our way through cities, walking the same paths that prophets and world leaders had taken before, and seeing Israel through different eyes. From 5am hikes up huge mountains that once stood as forts, to swimming in the lowest place on Earth, the Dead Sea, and Israel offered a variety of different experiences all wrapped up in one country.
More than anything though, going to Israel taught me to be proud of my heritage. Going from a community with a large Jewish population to a large university of 35,000 incredibly diverse people, it’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of college life and lose sight of how important you really are is. That’s where AIESEC falls in.
AIESEC is about developing yourself as a leader, but also developing yourself overall to be a better leader. For me, I was able to understand the concept of “world citizen” in this trip because going to Israel and seeing the culture that you love so much in person really changes your perspective on how you live your life.
One of the most impactful parts of the trip was when we had seven Israeli soldiers join our trip halfway through. Service in the army is mandatory for 18 year olds with men serving three years and women serving two at least. That was a turning point for me in the trip because it really showed me the distinctions of the ways that 18 year olds in Israel lived vs. my life as an 18 year old in the state. They were fighting for their country’s safety while I was at university getting a degree.
The stark contrasts in our lives didn’t take away from how similar we realized we all were. They listened to the same music, watched the same shows, and wanted the same things for their future as we did. I had never thought about these soldiers as more than just peoples who were thousands of miles away, fighting for a country that I loved. Even months later we were able to reconnect with some of these people when they came and visited Athens. This time, we were able to show them our side of being college students. Keeping those connections really brought this trip full circle. Those 10 days brought me much closer with my religion, my community, and who I wanted to become. It’s the cross cultural exchanges that can really change a person no matter where they go.