Finding My Birthright

Joshua Camins-Esakov

Jan. 4 is a day I will never forget. It is the day I set out on the journey of a lifetime. I knew, from the moment I arrived at John F. Kennedy International airport it would be amazing, but the experience was beyond my wildest dreams, an experience unlike anything I had ever done. My ten day hiatus across Israel was unique alright. From Jan 4 to the 14 I traveled a country that is barely larger than the state of New Jersey. The program, called “Birthright Israel” gives practicing and non-practicing Jews, of full and part Jewish descent ages 18-26 a chance to go to Israel for free, and explore their heritage up close and personal. What’s the catch? Absolutely nothing!

Let me preface this article with a disclaimer, it is IMPOSSIBLE to go to Israel and not have a wonderful time. Of the 53 people (including staff) on my trip I know every single person had an amazing time. In fact, a large portion of the group chose to extend their trip. Alas, I am getting ahead of myself; we shall now start at the beginning.

Day after day was packed with food, friendship and fun. We went all over the country, from north to south, and from east to west.

The Israel experience began for real the day after we arrived. We were introduced to Noam, our medic/guard, and the eight off-duty Israeli soldiers who would be touring the country with us.  Introductions out of the way, the group climbed into the bus and set out to Tzfat, a small city in the northern part of the country. We got a taste of Israeli life and food while wandering around the Galilee Mountains, eating either falafels or shawarma (two well known Middle Eastern delicacies). We ended off the day with wine tasting at a very old and famous winery.

Day after day was packed with food, friendship and fun. We went all over the country, from north to south, and from east to west.  As Jan 9 dawned we headed into Jerusalem, the birthplace of all three western religions. The day was charged as we visited place after place. Many of us went to revel in the spirituality of the Wailing Wall, which is the only remaining piece of the second temple. To cap off an amazing day we were given free time at the Mahane Yehuda Market. The fresh fruits, vegetables and baked goods were like a dream come true.

What felt like thousands of people wandered the streets buying supplies for the Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner.

For me the most amazing part of the trip was not the Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea, camping on Negev desert, the camel rides, or even the windy “snake” path up to Masada. The most powerful moment for me was Jan. 10, when our group went to a place called Yad Vashem, the National Holocaust Museum. The beauty of the museum was marred by story after story, image after image of bigotry and hate. As we ended our walking tour I looked around and saw that I was not alone in weeping for those who were lost; there was not a dry eye to be seen. The day did not end with Yad Vashem; from there we walked a short way to Har (mount) Hertzl.

On the mountain we witnessed the graves and memorials of Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and others. Then we went to the northern side of the mountain, and there, simple yet dignifying stood the graves of the soldiers who had fallen to protect Israel. Each Israeli spoke. Some had friends buried here, some had family, and others were simply mourning their country.

Many broke down as the stories of the heroes were told. The simple beauty offset the sadness of death. As I heard accounts of the death of American born Michael Levin I realized, there is more to this life than you or me. Tears fell as we sang the National Anthem; we swelled with pride as our mouths formed the words “Our hope will not be lost, the hope of two thousand years, to be a free nation in our land.”

“Birthright Israel” is an amazing experience. There are opportunities to party and to sightsee, to work, and to have fun, to learn and to teach. But, above all else, this program helps us.

When I went to Israel I was a Jew. Now, I am not just a Jew, I am a member of something bigger than any of us. Although the program I went on was limited to Jews, there are others, for Christians, Muslims, old, and young. I highly recommend a journey to Israel, at the very least you will get a new appreciation for the beauty of nature and ancient cultures, and, at the most, you will realize that you are part of something bigger than you or I, you are part of a community, a culture, and a world.

As they say in Hebrew, “Shalom,” Peace.