Every year, thousands of Jewish students travel to Israel to pray at the Western Wall, float in the Dead Sea and meet soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces.
For many, Birthright Israel trips are a rite of passage, marking one’s entrance into Jewish university life and introducing them to Israel. For others, the prospect of traveling to a new country with strangers makes them reluctant to take advantage of these free, ten-day trips.
Three of those students, who started out their journeys full of doubt, said their trips were positive, life-changing experiences.
Cayla Halloran ‘22, a special education major at Syracuse University, was initially hesitant to go on a Birthright Israel trip, fearing that she wouldn’t make any friends while in Israel.
Her concerns were quickly assuaged as she became much closer with two Syracuse University Hillel students. Although she knew these students before her trip, the trio bonded in Israel and now meets for Shabbat dinner every Friday.
Halloran also grew close with one of the soldiers, Yali, when they roomed together during the last stretch of the trip. Despite having divergent life experiences, their mutual love of card games and similar senses of humor helped them form such a close friendship. They chat daily over WhatsApp and FaceTime, reminiscing about trip memories.
“It was hard at first for us to relate to each other’s lives since I was attending school in the U.S., doing what I thought was normal, but she was an active member of the army, which was her normal,” Halloran said. “Even though we come from such different backgrounds, our similar goofy, joking personalities made it super easy for us to get along.”
This newfound sense of community with her fellow participants reached a pinnacle during their tour of Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem-based Holocaust remembrance museum. The last stop on the tour takes students from the somber displays inside the building out onto a balcony overlooking Jerusalem.
Stepping out of the darkness into the soft light of the evening sunset provided a moment of catharsis and community for Halloran.
“Walking outside and looking over the city, seeing it all built up and knowing how much the Jewish people have grown, there was just this sense of surrealness,” Halloran said. “We didn’t really know each other before, but now we were all here. I’m so grateful that we got to experience that together.”
For Jessie Gottlieb ‘22, an early grade preparations major at West Chester University, her concerns about Birthright Israel focused more on the cultural differences between the United States and Israel.
“I’m a very picky eater and I didn’t think I’d like traditional Israeli food,” Gottlieb said. “I also don’t speak Hebrew and it was jarring at first not to be able to read a lot of the signs or understand people’s conversations.”
Having Jennifer Reiss, West Chester University Hillel’s director of Jewish student life, staff her trip helped Gottlieb navigate these cultural differences. “She always made sure there was something I was comfortable eating,” Gottlieb said. “She’s somebody I trust and I knew that she was going to look out for me.”
Gottlieb was even able to find the comforts of home while praying at the Western Wall. She suddenly heard someone calling her name, and turned around to find a woman she knew from her childhood synagogue.
“It was such a crazy, full-circle moment,” Gottlieb said. “I’m standing here in Jerusalem and somebody from my hometown is here, too. That was something I’ll never forget.”
Adina Malmon ‘22, a psychology and Jewish studies double major at Indiana University, had just transferred to her school before going on her trip. Malmon barely knew anyone at her Hillel, but that all changed on Birthright Israel.
“Friends I made on my trip helped me step out and be more involved with my Jewish community on campus,” Malmon said.
She heard stories about people thinking Birthright Israel was “too religious” and made them feel distanced from their Jewish identities.
“I didn’t want to lose a connection to Judaism that I'd been hoping to cultivate,” Malmon said.
One of the first stops in Malmon’s trip was the Dead Sea. Floating in the ocean, surrounded by Israelis and tourists alike, she took a moment for self-reflection.
“I felt a spiritual awakening there,” Malmon said. “I thought even if it’s not my home specifically, it’s our home. I felt invigorated, and honored to be there.”
Later in her trip, after arriving at the Jerusalem outlook, Malmon once again felt her connection to Israel strengthen.
“I had attended all of these lectures about Jerusalem and looking out over all of it, I couldn’t believe that I was there,” she said. “I felt so fortunate that I was so close to one of the most central cities in Jewish history. I almost cried.”
Malmon now regularly encourages students at her Hillel to go on Birthright Israel.
“Take the opportunity and make the most of it,” she said. “You owe it to yourself to be able to feel a part of history. Every single step someone takes in Israel is a part of history.”