Lauren Contard

I went to Israel for the first time this past December. I went on Birthright and then stayed another week and a half on my own. I don’t know that I can really explain the impact it had on me fully,  so rather than trying to summarize my whole trip I want to just share two moments that especially stand out in my memory, and hopefully those together will give some idea of my feelings.

Going in to the trip, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was 25 when I went, older than the typical Birthright participant, and I was worried that the guides would treat us like kids, trying to force a certain point of view on us.  We climbed Masada at dawn the first morning, and that evening we all gathered for a debrief of the day. The Israeli guide (who was wonderful overall, by the way) talked about the story behind Masada, explaining the sacrifice the rebels made, and asked us to think about that in comparison to sacrifices we’ve made in our own lives. Some of my peers went around talking about things they’ve had to sacrifice in their lives, and as I sat there listening to the discussion, I was honestly disappointed. This was exactly what I had worried about – it was all kind of pat and shallow; it wasn’t doing any justice to the complicated feelings I had about Masada. Then the American guide (a young Rabbi who runs an organization in Brooklyn that’s sort of a synagogue alternative for Jews in their twenties) raised his hand and said, “I actually find the story of Masada really disturbing.  It basically glorifies death and suicide, and yet Judaism teaches that suicide is a tragic thing. So whenever I go to Masada I find it really difficult to square that with how I think about Israel.” And I remember being relieved at that moment, and thinking, "This is going to be exactly what I was hoping for."  It wasn’t even so much the substance of what he said that was a relief to me; it was the fact that he was willing to say it. Even as our guide--one of the people responsible for what experiences and ideas we got from the trip--he wanted to talk about the things that caused him confusion or difficulty, and he encouraged us to confront those things too. This was an example of the spirit of questioning and debate that I love about Judaism, and it set the tone for the rest of the trip, which was filled with challenging, mind-expanding conversations that I’m still thinking about.

The other moment I want to talk about is from the second half of the trip, when I was travelling on my own. I went to Jordan for a few days on a tour, and I had an amazing time, but I was shocked by how much I missed Israel when I was there, in a deep sort of way that I couldn’t quite articulate. I got back to Jerusalem on Friday morning, and that evening, I went to the Kotel for the beginning of Shabbat. I left my hostel shortly before sunset for the 20-minute walk to the Old City, and the streets were filled with people going the same way - every single one streaming in the same direction for the same reason. I realized, of course I missed Israel when I had spent a few days away – this kind of Jewish unity doesn’t happen anywhere else on the planet.

I hope those two stories give some idea of what my trip meant to me. In closing, I’ll mention that a few weeks ago, I went on a pre-High Holidays Shabbaton with my Birthright guide’s organization that I mentioned above. We did an activity that involved reflecting on the past year, answering various questions about what was important I was asked to think about all the experiences I’ve had over the past year and talk about which stood out, and I immediately said, “That’s easy. I went to Israel.” There wasn’t even a close runner-up.

Thank you, and shanah tovah.