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After Birthright, Bethlehem

Since the 10-day trip ended, I’ve explored Jerusalem’s Old City, crashed a wedding, and, most importantly, met with Palestinians.

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While there’s a lot of Israel to see on Birthright, there’s a lot more Israel left somewhere on the periphery, or completely obscured from view. Ten days, even at Birthright’s harried pace, leaves barely enough time for sights, facts and figures, and hardly a moment for political nuance. Experiencing Israel in the biblical and historical past tense all but overrides the unstable present. On-the-ground developments in the past week include the vandalizing of a mosque by Jewish settlers, the resumption of hostilities in Gaza, mass social-justice protests in Tel Aviv, and a New York Times op-ed declaring the inevitability of a third Palestinian intifada. These bulletins, all requiring context and explanation, were left understandably unaddressed by our trip leaders, and I imagine that most would surprise or confound fellow Birthrighters, many of whom knew little about Israel’s political situation. But one could argue that Birthright has a built-in solution to its obvious pedagogical limitations—at least for those who can delay a return to their desk by a week or two. It’s called The Extension.

Not every Birthrighter will feel comfortable (or financially stable) enough to extend, and many of those that do might not feel the inclination to leave Tel Aviv—and yes, full disclosure, I write this post from the balcony of a boutique hotel overlooking Dizengoff Square. But Birthright encourages this process, and makes it relatively painless to do so. For anyone convinced that Birthright’s full-speed-ahead mentality aids and abets the construction of a false consciousness, The Extension is the time to do the hard work of dismantling it. To borrow one of tour educator Yoav’s most suggestive malapropisms, Extension gives one the time and space to get “complexed.”

Given my particular idiosyncrasies and interests, this meant crashing an ABBA-enhanced wedding at the Mount Zion Hotel, searching for unexplored corners of Jerusalem’s Old City, a trip to the Kotel for Kabbalat Shabbat, breaking bread with a Haaretz editor, a few naps, and most memorably, a visit to the West Bank with the Jewish educational organization Encounter.

Traveling a few miles from our South Jerusalem hotel to Bethlehem and its environs, our small group of Tablet staffers and a few others met with a cross-section of Christian and Muslim Palestinians for a series of open, civil, and completely unrehearsed discussions about an occupation that many Israelis have permission to ignore. (Since Bethlehem is located in the West Bank’s Area A, under full civil control of the Palestinian Authority, Israelis are not allowed to visit.) We visited the offices and studios of the Ma’an Network, an independent news agency; a nonprofit fair-trade art collective run by a Christian Palestinian woman; and the home of a family who refused eviction in the face of Israel’s West Bank Barrier construction, and will now be connected to its village by a tunnel.

Some of our conversations were maddening; a few were poignant. From the hilltop of Al-Walaje Village, we saw Jerusalem’s Teddy football Stadium in the near distance, and our guide, Marwan, remembered the excitement of his only visit, 17 years before. Another interlocutor, a nonviolence educator with the makings of a transformative politician, dispirited us by claiming that any entry into politics would mean forfeiting credibility with his community. Palestinian political agency was uniformly minimized. “We have the righteous case,” he lamented, “but a bad lawyer and a rigged court.” Instead of pontificating amongst ourselves about the possibility of a third intifada or what the “right of return” might mean in practical terms, we got to ask Palestinians directly. We got different answers, zero conclusions.

At the end of the afternoon, our group reentered Jerusalem by walking through Checkpoint 300, an experience made no less disquieting by the fact that, with U.S. passports in hand, we sped along with ease. I know that Bethlehem—where our group had no reason to feel unsafe—is not Hebron, and it is not Gaza. But it also isn’t Tel Aviv. Everything I took in underscores the moral imperative to challenge the creeping “normalization” of an unequivocally abnormal situation.

The eight hours of Encounter deserve some decompression, some further research, and at least another week of reflection, but I know I will come to see this short and unsensational detour as a crucial point on my Birthright continuum. Toggling between the “two Israels,” with the suspicion that I was missing out on many more, is the only way I can plan to return home with a matured perspective. The way Birthright feels about Israel—and they’re right, of course—is the way I now feel about Bethlehem: Every Jew should see this.

How Birthright Changed Us

A trip to Israel connected participants to our Jewishness. But it didn’t make us more politically engaged.

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(Adam Brener)

On the final evening of our trip—in the sleepy, slightly seedy coastal city of Netanya most famous stateside for the Hamas suicide bombing that killed 30 people in 2002—I asked several participants the following, deliberately open-ended question: How did the past 10 days change your opinions of, or attitudes toward, Jewishness or Israel—if it did at all? I also asked one soldier, my Jerusalem roommate Chen Mor—a Navy man who had managed to join us for drinks—how his experience had changed his perception of Israel and American Jews.

Reading the responses, including my own, I’m struck by the extent to which Birthright seems to have worked—up to a point. It created young Jews who say they are more likely to engage with their Jewishness, and also ones with visceral connections to Israel.

On the other hand, it doesn’t seem that this feeling of connection translated into political awareness. In particular, the almost total lack of discussion of the Palestinian issue seems to have disarmed participants: I wonder what they will say when they are asked, back at campus or at work, about the issue; and I wonder what they (especially someone like the second respondent, Aimée) will decide for themselves in their own research. Birthright Israel is undeniably empowering, but it may not always empower in exactly the way some of its funders would wish. But, as our guide Yoav would say, that’s what makes us Jews.

Ben Engelberg: Coming in, I didn’t necessarily have any stereotypes, but I was open to broadening my horizon. One of the real thrills was being with the soldiers. Lots was just experiencing the land, but being with the soldiers brought a more personal connection.

It’s not like we had deep talks, but we realized that when you think of an IDF soldier—we think they’re different, but we have so much in common. Although our lives are so different. Maybe there are some things I’ve felt I would not do in my life, and I feel like if I had to do something like join the army I’d be more likely to do them.

Aimée Gogan: I’ve always been heavily involved with human-rights groups. I’m a women’s studies person, and there’s always been a focus on Palestinian women. I tended to avoid it, because I have always felt protective of [Israel], and Judaism in general. Now that I’ve been here, I do feel a deep connection to Israel, but I do think that when I get home I need to do a little—a lot—more research and find things out on my own. I feel I can no longer not engage. I’m a political person. Now that I’ve been to Israel, I feel responsible. Also, I brought my brother and sister.

There are a lot of people who have had a lot of problems. I read a Nation article before I came here. I told [my brother and sister] to keep an arched eye, but it’s hard when you’re here. You have this amazing tour guide, one of the most amazing people I know; these others; even you bloggers—I felt like when I would agree with you it made me feel right.

Today I was at Independence Hall, they played “Hatikvah,” and I cried, and I don’t know where that came from: lack of sleep; leaving; affiliation with people. I definitely need to take a step back when I get home.

Micah Levine: It really opened my eyes to the fact that there’s more to life than I was used to. I’d never traveled out of the U.S. It showed me what a connection to Judaism—the bond people can share can really bring people together. From Day One it was easy for us to click; by the time you leave you feel like you’ve known them for years.

Chen Mor (Israeli soldier): I saw a better picture of living in the Diaspora. Describing it is not like experiencing it. It’s different when you are with people not from here. I saw Israel through the eyes of Jews who aren’t. Every time you go to the Kotel, you have a different experience. This was one of those.

Molly Recht: My family is more religious than I am. I’m more about the tradition. I love that there’s something about being Jewish—you have a strong connection with other Jews, coming from the same background, and the lingo, as small as that is. Being here has deepened those roots.

I was saying, I have the urge to read the Torah, drop into synagogue. Today at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv [where David Ben-Gurion declared Israeli statehood], they said the United States government said, ‘Don’t do it now,’ and Ben-Gurion said, ‘If not today, then never’—I went up to the docent and asked her for it in Hebrew. I want to get it tattooed on my body. It’s just so inspiring. Our ancestors fought so hard for where we are now. It brought me closer to where I come from.

Ross Rubinstein: Before the trip, if I was asked if I was Jewish, I’d say yes. Now I have a whole new outlook: the soldiers, the history. The Jewish people have suffered for so long. I get the idea that everyone worked so hard for the Jewish faith. I appreciate it. It’s good to know you have a place.

Marc Tracy: I’ve always felt very strongly connected to my Jewishness, but I always tended to intellectualize my attachment to Israel, even before I began to work at Tablet Magazine—at which point I saw this detachment as additionally a professional obligation. Birthright renewed, and in some places gave birth to, a visceral and soulful attachment to Israel, but it also taught me that scholarly or journalistic detachment is a mistake because it makes you different from all the people you’re writing about. Israelis aren’t detached: They feel strongly about their country. (Israeli Arabs aren’t detached, either: A walk through Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhood of Abu Tor displayed much pro-Palestinian graffiti less than a mile from the Old City.) The Zionist right, the Zionist left, the post- or anti-Zionists—they don’t feel detached.

This isn’t about objectivity. In fact, true objectivity demands an awareness of your own subjectivity. I’m a Jewish Zionist. It was silly for me to feel detached, and I won’t anymore. This is a country I believe in, and one I happen to like as well. We’re all people, with various affiliations, and my own affiliation enables me to understand the affiliations of others. These, too, are facts on the ground.

But a lack of detachment can’t involve an abandonment of principles. I feel strongly about the importance of Israel, and I also feel bad about the occupation (which I was able to see a teensy slice of on a trip to Bethlehem Sunday), and triply so as a fellow Jew. So, my renewed connection to Israel fills me with a desire to get to know the people of Israel better—the better to understand why they have elected a right-wing government, and the better to see how I can make a difference in a country in which I do not (and do not wish to) vote; a country that I think speaks for me and that I think I can speak for, but only to a small extent, and while maintaining respect for the fact that it isn’t my country.

The fact that I am a professional Jew actually may have made me an ideal Birthright participant. I know what to say when the Palestinian issue is raised. I worry whether many of my fellow participants have just been loaded with a massive new personal commitment without the necessary grounding.

Ultimately, I emerge from this wanting to engage even more deeply with Birthright—I wouldn’t be shocked to find myself volunteering for it in some capacity—while at the same time using my detached, intellectual side (here’s where it comes in handy!) to point out its flaws and attempt to reform it to make it better. So, kinda how I feel about Israel.

Joe Vela: I never really had a connection with Israel and over the past years my connection with Judaism was disappearing. I haven’t felt the spiritual connection in a long time, haven’t been to temple for a couple of years—maybe for Rosh Hashanah. But now I want to go.

I was at the Kotel [Friday night], and I saw an acquaintance from school, and saw a good friend [who was on] a different trip. Then suddenly there’s 50 people singing “David Melech Yisrael,” spinning and jumping. And I put my friend on my shoulders. I would go to temple at home to feel like I was back here.

There’s something they couldn’t teach you in Hebrew School. Every corner you turn there’s so much history, and everyone’s speaking Hebrew.

Emily Walworth: I felt like I didn’t know much before, so definitely. I feel I want to learn more about Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—I want to research these things. I feel more in touch with a cultural side of Judaism. Being in touch with your roots—I feel I should make that connection more when I get home.

Sonia Wilk: It didn’t at all. I’d been to Israel before, technically for five days, but it was Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom HaZikaron. I don’t feel it changed me at all, but I am extending my trip for three weeks to see if Birthright propels me into a change.

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Why Eminem Was Essential to Our Trip

Our trip leader’s spontaneous pop culture references became a running joke—but they also kept us engaged

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(Margarita Korol)

Atop Masada, or maybe it was at the lookout point when we first arrived in Jerusalem, while in the midst of turning a complex historical event into a digestible story, our trip leader Yoav would suddenly say, “Back to reality.”

We all knew what was coming next, and it wasn’t only that the story would make a jump to the present or pick up a previous narrative thread: “Oh there goes gravity, oh he’s so mad but he won’t give up that easily,” Yoav would sing, mimicking Eminem’s dry voice and staggered cadence as he sang the rapper’s 2002 song, “Lose Yourself.”

Anyone drifting off (as Leon Neyfakh points out, Yoav’s Masada story lasted nearly two hours) suddenly snapped, well, back to reality. The first time he did it, we all laughed at the reference to a defining pop culture moment (Israelis, they’re just like us!) and soon his use of the phrase, and the singing of the resulting stanza, became a running joke.

We listened for it, we responded to it, and we remained engaged in the discussion, or lecture, or story. The guy is good.

In addition to singing the entirety of “I Got Tefillin,” a parody of the Black Eyed Peas’ catchy hit, “I’ve Got a Feeling,” by Jewish acapella group Six13 that none of us had ever heard before, Yoav made references to Walter Sobchak, John Goodman’s memorable Shomer Shabbos character in The Big Lebowski, did a decent Sylvester Stallone impression, and rattled off the chorus bar of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give it Away.”

The plugged-in educator’s most obscure reference, elicited after he said nothing more specific than the phrase “I’ve noticed,” was to this Touch and Go song, which those of us within earshot were wholly unfamiliar with. While there certainly was no language or culture barrier between us and Yoav, this particular cultural moment may have unfortunately been before our time. Either way, he had our attention.

The Roll Pics: The North and Tel Aviv

Select stops from our last days on Birthright

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GPS clues us in.

Jungle fever during the day's requisite hike near Tzfat.

Musical session overlooking Tzfat.

Observing the production line at a stop at the Golan Heights winery.

Wine tasting during a heatwave hit the spot for most.

Overlooking Lebanon.

Rafting near the Jordan River with Israeli soldiers.

Trip photography buff Ross Tiffen snaps a bidding farewell to IDF.

 

Yosef Caro street in Tzfat is the canvas on which local artists paint and hustle their wares.

Participant Sam Gogan had a clear theme in his Birthright chronicles.

 

Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where the state of Israel was founded.

Our new swag.

The Longest Days I’ve Ever Had

Birthright made insane demands on our time, but showed us how to make the most of a day

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(Photo by Stephanie Butnick)

“I just won’t sleep, I decided. There were so many other interesting things to do.” -Jack Kerouac

Yesterday, when a few of us Tableteers arrived at our hotel in Jerusalem and knew we needed to be across town in an hour-and-a-half, we efficiently divided up tasks—I did the pharmacy run, while another colleague did laundry—alternated showers and shaving, grabbed fast lunches, and managed to make it. As my days get shorter—I can’t ignore the symbolism of the fact that our trip ended on the longest day of the year—I hope I retain Birthright’s lesson of getting the most out of a day.

I learned this lesson sometime between Wednesday and Sunday. On our second night-and-morning in Israel, Wednesday night, we were told that we were waking up at 3:45 a.m. in order to hike up Masada in time for sunrise. I didn’t see the point. You can see a sunrise anywhere, and 3:45 is absurd even if you aren’t jet-lagged. On our sixth night-and-morning in Israel, Sunday night, having completed an emotionally wrenching day at Yad Vashem and Har Herzl, and having then driven over three hours to a northern kibbutz 500 yards away from the Lebanese border, we were told we would be waking up at 6:30 a.m. I, for one, just started to laugh. What did 6:30 in the morning even mean anymore?

The early mornings and late nights, the 18-hour days, was another Birthright Israel coup. My colleague Stephanie Butnick does an great job capturing the vertigo we all feel right now—we who for the first time since the Sunday before last don’t have a specific place to be and specific thing to do at a specific time. But the point of all this regimentation and the insane hours was less ideological than practical: There is just so much to do, and this is the only way to cram it in.

At one point, I began wondering if this isn’t the way to live life. I mean, right? Grab five hours a night; catch some shut-eye on a subway or a bus ride; be a bit tired, but get the most out of the day. But I quickly realized that wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t work because only on Birthright, as Stephanie noted, is everything taken care of for you. You can wake up early in the morning and plan to board the bus an hour later because you know breakfast and the bus will be waiting. You can sleep on the bus because you can rest easy knowing you will arrive at your destination. You don’t have to confirm the hotels in advance, or pick the meal spots, or do absolutely anything other than follow directions.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve just described a happy childhood. So, yes, the result is that you become a kid again for 10 days. Birthright conspiracy theorists, take note: Yes, you do, to some extent, become putty in their hands (although one thing the experience taught me is that you can’t brainwash intelligent people). But the reason is that this is simply the most efficient way of doing things.

And while I can only speak for our trip, to say there were no logistical screw-ups would be unfair to how smoothly our trip was run. There were no logistical hiccups. It was a small miracle of organization, without which some activities would surely have been left by the wayside. Credit here should go to our bus driver, Chaim; our security guard and medic, Smadar (a 24-year-old woman who carried around a backpack, an empty handgun, and two clips wherever we went outside of Jerusalem); Mark and Ilana, our Canadian counselors; our guide Yoav, who by all evidence truly doesn’t sleep; and last but not least, our trip organizer, Amazing Israel, which is the Birthright division of Routes Travel. Tablet Magazine approached Birthright Israel; Birthright put us on an Amazing Israel trip. I’m extremely glad they did.

I had the thought that, truly, I got my money’s worth. Then I remembered that the trip was free.

Earlier: Back to Reality, and Responsibility

On Birthright, Our Zionist Coach

Our Israel tour guide first seemed an IDF G.I. Joe. He turned out to be like a football coach: tough but righteous.

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(Photo by Margarita Korol)

It wasn’t immediately obvious when we arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport that Yoav Bruck would be the central figure in our lives for the next 10 days. We had been meeting Birthright staffers since before our plane took off—including our two counselors, Ilana and Mark, and our armed guard, Smadar—and while Yoav was by far the most imposing of all of them, we didn’t really have any way of knowing that he, more than anyone else, would overwhelmingly define our experience in Israel.

The first thing he said to us after our luggage was loaded was “Welcome home,” which provoked knowing smirks from those of us who had arrived in Israel intent on resisting any attempts at propaganda. For me at least, smiling privately and skeptically at this early moment was a way of affirming that Yoav—at this point just an anonymous guy with a microphone—was not going to have his way with me.

He didn’t waste time getting to the point: Anyone who was expecting our trip to be a vacation was going to be shocked. He was going to work us, he promised. Not a minute of the next 10 days would be unaccounted for, and we would be expected to play by his rules and run at his pace. Above all, we were to never be late, listen when spoken to, and required to bring water and hats wherever we went—no exceptions.

Over the first few hours on our bus ride to the Negev desert, people who had been to Israel before remarked that Yoav was a typical Israeli man: built like a tank, hair cut close, bronzed skin, and a booming speaking voice that seemed to come from his stomach more than his throat. “He was like an Israeli G.I. Joe,” said 22-year-old Ian Rifkin later.

Towering above us from on top of a rock in the middle of the desert on that first afternoon, Yoav screamed at us like the army commander he was before he became a tour guide. It appeared that several people had neglected to bring hats with them on our cave-crawling expedition, and Yoav was not happy. “I don’t waste words,” he said, the tone in his voice not just enraged, but clearly designed to make us realize that we were under the supervision of a person who was not afraid to risk us not liking him. Certainly he knew his yelling might cause people to peg him for an unreasonable jerk on the first day. And indeed, the episode did make some of us concerned: Would our guide turn out to be an unlovable hard-ass? The prospect of 10 days with a guy who favored army-style tough love and cartoonish severity did not inspire optimism.

We realized we had nothing to worry about over the course of the next two days, as it became clear that Yoav’s bouts of fury, though frightening, were going to be brief and localized, rather than emotional or drawn out. We came to trust his sense of fairness and accepted that the logistical and disciplinary demands he made on us were rooted in unassailable priorities. We stopped talking whenever he started. When he asked for volunteers to carry water or load luggage onto the bus, we all raised our hands. Eventually, his occasional explosions, usually provoked by someone being late, became gradually less convincing—not because they were any less fluently delivered, but because most of us came to accept that everything Yoav did as a leader was meticulously, wisely planned.

Yoav was not an Israeli G.I. Joe, it turned out: He was a Zionist Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights: tough but righteous, at times intimidating, but never anything but 100 percent on our side. Like Coach Taylor did with his fictional Dillon Panthers football team, Yoav made us want to follow his instructions not only because we didn’t want to disappoint him, but because he had succeeded, in a remarkably short time, at convincing us we’d be better people if we did what he said.

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On our third day in Israel, as readers of this blog already know, we woke up at 3:45 in the morning and were driven to Masada. We were deeply tired. Most people had gotten less than 10 hours of sleep in the two days since we got off the plane, and here we were about to hike up a mountain. The stage was set for a sleepy morning.

When we arrived at the foot of Masada, Yoav stopped us for a huddle and gave a rousing speech that made me feel like I was in a locker room preparing for the biggest game of the year. “Guys, how am I going to put this in words?” he said. “Climbing up Masada— excuse my language—is bullshit. Climbing up this hill is not that difficult, whatsoever. There are many places in Israel, many places throughout the world, where I can take you, which are much more challenging physically than climbing up Masada. This is bupkis, OK? It’s nothing.”

He let it sink for a second, then continued: “Viewing the sunrise from the top of Masada is also not that extraordinary. Guys, you can come to my place, to my balcony in Jerusalem, and see a beautiful sunrise with all the Judean desert below. The sunrise on Masada is beautiful. But that’s not the goal of coming to Masada. If one came to Masada, climbed up, saw the sunrise, and came down from Masada without understanding, without learning, without grasping the unique, extraordinary events that took place on that cliff two thousand years ago then that person did nothing. NOTHING. He just climbed up a cliff, saw the sunrise, and thought he was a hero.”

His point was we were supposed to listen. Yoav had a story to tell us, and he wanted us to hear it. He knew it was going to be a tough one—there was going to be zoning out and drifting off. This speech was his way of trying to reach us, of making it that much more important in our minds to stay awake and pay attention. As we started up the mountain, I half-expected him to lead us in a chant of “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”

He didn’t have to. As far as I could tell, the story he told on Masada—which clocked in at almost two hours—was a blockbuster hit, as well as a pivotal moment in the trip. Yoav spoke masterfully, unfolding the tale slowly and deliberately, with plot lines opening up and winding together and the drums beating louder and louder as we got closer to the climax. Every 15 minutes or so he’d move us to a different part of the site, thereby forcing us to stretch our legs and regain our focus, while also giving the story a natural undercurrent of suspense. By the time he got to the climax—when the Jews on the mountain decide to kill themselves rather than die at the hands of the Romans—people were totally enthralled, bursting into applause when he reached the end. As I walked down the mountain afterward, I thought to myself about all the times Yoav had told that story to the more than 90 Birthright trips he’s led in his life, all the ways in which he’d changed his delivery over the years, perfecting his pacing and tweaking the deployment of his big reveals.

A few nights later, sitting outside our hotel in Jerusalem, I asked Yoav whether the performance had been as carefully planned as it seemed.

“The Masada is a problem as a site,” he told me. “It is so difficult to guide. It is constantly hot. There’s no shade. And if you do go up for the sunrise, it is almost impossible to get the group’s attention. That’s why on Masada, I personally see to it that there will be a story which is basically a thickening plot. …That’s also the reason why I keep it moving from one spot to the next. I do it because I know otherwise people are not going to listen.”

It was like listening to a great mechanic explain how he’d built an engine. And watching Yoav over the past several days, as our trip wound down, I think all of us grew more and more deeply impressed with his skill as a teacher and a leader.

I know how that sounds, and there were most definitely moments when I shuddered a little at the extent to which we’re all eating out of his hand. At the same time, it was exhilarating to be in the presence of someone so on top of his game, someone who has perfected a complex craft over the years, and who performs his job with such charisma and virtuosic precision. And while sometimes I thought about the fact that Yoav works his magic multiple times a summer, with one group after another, and felt like something of a rube—the same way I have upon realizing that a beloved band does the same stage banter night after night—it mainly just made me more impressed by his ability to sustain such enthusiasm and affect such spontaneity.

I asked Yoav in Jerusalem if there are patterns he’s noticed over the years, in terms of how group dynamics form during the opening days of the trip, and how people’s behavior changes as they get to know each other and him. I wanted to know how much of what was happening during our Birthright trip—the weird sense of unity that took hold sometime between days two and three, especially—was structural and inevitable, rather than a function of the specific personalities and affinities that comprised our group. Answering the question, Yoav sounded like a veteran primatologist: “Things repeat themselves all the time,” he said. “I already know that people are going to come up to me and say certain things—and I like it. I like seeing how people are all the same.”

One thing he does every night before he goes to bed, he added, is make a map of everyone in his group and figure out how they’re all doing in relation to one other.

“I take a piece of paper and actually draw for myself the group,” he said. “I ask myself, ‘OK, what happened today? What were the dynamics? What was happening?’ I go through the names of the people and think, who was what, how was whom, and then, how can I upgrade? How can I make it even better?”

* * *

The one thing everyone in the group has said when asked about Yoav is that they don’t know where he gets his seemingly boundless energy. He’s always up first, and as far as anyone can tell, he’s always the last to go to bed. No one’s ever seen him take a nap on the bus and no one’s ever seen him lose his train of thought out of exhaustion. Even when he can go to bed, he doesn’t: After midnight on Wednesday, for instance, instead of going to his room and getting a little rest before our 6 a.m. wake-up call, he was sitting in the common area of the campground wearing a headlamp and playing chess with Marc Tracy.

I asked him that night how much sleep he gets. “Two to three hours, on average,” he answered. Someone in the vicinity expressed disbelief. “In your real life?”

“This is real life,” he said.

That might be the most difficult thing to understand about Yoav. After our trip, he’ll have one day off, before taking a whole new group of young people under his wing. Before the summer ends, he’ll have led seven Birthright groups just like ours. How he keeps his eyes clear or his heart full through all that, I have no idea.

Back to Reality, and Responsibility

The disorienting transition to freedom after 10 days of regimented scheduling

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Our Birthright Israel trip ended this afternoon, and after tearful goodbyes and promises to stay in touch, those of us who opted to extend our stay in Israel found ourselves, and our bags, on a Tel Aviv sidewalk. We stood in a cluster, smartphones in hand, and waited for someone to tell us what to do next.

But no one did. Because after 10 days of regimented scheduling and jam-packed days, we were suddenly on our own.

With the exception of the occasional Mahane Yehuda lunch or Ben Yehuda Street dinner, the plans for everything we did and everywhere we went were prepared in advance, deliberately and methodically. The one time we were tasked with making a major decision as a group—choosing the color of our official trip t-shirts—the conversation descended into a chaotic, confusing mess that resulted in the somewhat surprising dark green shirts that arrived from the printer the next day (though the design totally rules).

Were we hungry? Would we need water? Maybe a hat? All of these were pressing questions. Where was the nearest bathroom? How long until dinner? What time did we need to wake up tomorrow?

We stood around for what seemed like a while, until the crowd slowly began to disperse. Some people headed to a nearby ATM, others of us hopped into hotel-bound cabs, and a few just began walking. Our time together, for most us at least, was ending—and it was time to grow back up.

The Roll Must Go On

Our journey is done, which means it’s time to reflect on the unbelievable past 11 days

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(Photo by Zachary Goldbaum)

We tackled Yafo today and had a final brunch. Everyone’s been dropped off: the people ending at Ben-Gurion, the extenders on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. Our journey is over. Sad-face. (Seriously.)

But extending is part of Birthright Israel—roughly half of the 40 people on our trip have done so—and so The Roll, too, will be extended. Check in tomorrow for several posts on the defining feature (and Most Valuable Player) of our trip, our tour educator Yoav; in particular, Leon Neyfakh has a profile revealing Yoav for the Zionist Coach Taylor that he is.

Into next week, we’ll feature a dispatch from post-Birthright Israel, reflections from several participants on how the trip altered their attitudes toward Jewishness and Israel (or didn’t), and more. So, stay tuned.

Hooking Up in the Holy Land

The social dynamic of our Birthright Israel trip, before the soldiers and after

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The social dynamic of our Birthright Israel trip has been pretty interesting. Though we all came to Israel with different intentions and goals, there’s always something in the back of people’s minds while on this trip—sex.

We’ve all heard the rumors and stories of Birthrighters drinking too much and engaging in sexual acts with their fellow trip-goers and new Israeli companions. But what really happens?

The trip is made up of mostly twentysomething Americans who grew up with similar Western values and have many shared cultural experiences, including hooking up. It’s a social experiment, taking 50 young people away from their family, friends, and significant others for 10 full days, keeping them sleep-deprived and in close quarters.

As the trip unfolded, it turned more and more into a high-school social environment. Conversations of who is hot (and who isn’t) dominated lunch talk and seemed close to completely overshadowing anything culturally significant. Flirting devolved to an elementary level, becoming more and more obvious and painful to watch. We basically turned into preteens who hadn’t been bar mitzvahed yet (a rite of passage we’ve already taken care of).

Things really changed when our Mifgash started, and eight Israeli soldiers joined the group. Friendships that flourished for the first three days were left in shambles following the addition of the “hot” new soldiers. I overheard one girl say, “They’re all hot, I would do all of them.” This is certainly not just a one-sided thought. I believe about 85 percent of the males on this trip were looking forward to seeing some “hot Israeli chicks.” We weren’t disappointed (though two of them were reds).

After five days spent desperately wooing the soldiers, it was time to bid them farewell. With so many potential romances unfulfilled, goodbyes were especially painful. Suddenly our group lacked that certain je ne sais quoi—how do you say that in Hebrew?

Sexual tensions may have been escalating, but still no one seemed to be acting on them. Things were pretty tame … up until the last night. With the pressure on and our departure imminent, the gloves (read: pants) came off. We threw caution to the wind and M&M distinctions out the window for one last night in the holiest of lands. Hopefully the bus ride to Ben Gurion airport wasn’t too awkward for anyone. Yowza.

The Birthright Trip Is Going to … the Beach!

With a heat wave preventing a hike, we go for a swim in Caesarea

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(Photo by Margarita Korol)

One of my favorite Simpsons lines has the bartender Moe carrying an orca (long story) and remarking, “Aww, who woulda thought a whale would weigh so much?” A similar joke comes to mind when pondering the weather yesterday in the northern town of Tzfat: “Aww, who woulda thought Israel in June would be so hot?” But actually we are going through a heat wave in Israel, a hamsin, and by yesterday afternoon in Tzfat, even our unflappable tour educator Yoav was bemoaning the temperature; the group struggled to stay awake in the Yosef Caro Synagogue (literally half the group was asleep, and if you’ve been reading the blog, you know that Yoav is a very engaging guy!); and the soldiers’ departure combined with the heat to create a sort of delirium, which was only compounded when we realized we would be sleeping outdoors.

We knew that the original itinerary for today, day nine, had been nixed by Birthright Israel’s situation room (which, according to Yoav, tour educators call every night and every morning to see what is and is not permitted that day). It had been deemed too hot for a hike that would have taken us through a small waterfall. So, what was in the offing?

“We have been cleared for a different, six-hour hike,” Yoav told the group, assembled near the campground before dinner. “The problem is that we still also have Tel Aviv to do, so wake-up call will be 4:30.” Now, over the past week, I’ve realized that the prime constraint on each Birthright Israel day is the rule that the bus driver cannot be asked to drive 12 hours after he first begins driving; I quickly realized this cancelled out a 4:30 beginning.

But not all the group is so Type A, and therefore many believed Yoav for a few seconds, until he admitted he was joking and then came out with his perfectly phrased reveal:

“We are going to the Mediterranean!”

This morning (wake-up call: 6:30; it is still Birthright), we piled into the bus and set off for Caesarea, on Israel’s coastal plain between Tel Aviv and Haifa. We learned a bit about the town, and its harbor, and King Herod, and, um, that stuff. Then we swam for an hour. Now we are in a café in Tel Aviv. We’re fewer than 24 hours away from the end of this crazy thing, and we’re finally seeing how Israelis live, at least in our dream-world.

A Support System for Israeli Soldiers, and for Us

An IDF soldier, whose job is to comfort families of fallen soldiers, was also there for me

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Hani, 19-year-old IDF soldier(Photo by Margarita Korol)

The best part of our trip’s Mifgash component was getting to know the eight soldiers who joined our group. The 19-year-old Hani, pronounced like honey, has a demeanor so sweet and warm that after five days together, we had a hard time saying goodbye to her and the rest of the soldiers.

The Kiryat Gat-born Hani is a mashakit nifgaim, which means she travels around the country visiting sick or injured soldiers at home or in hospitals, while maintaining contact with families of soldiers who have died in service. This is the same position my father held when he served in the IDF after moving to Israel from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

In order to become a mashakit nifgaim—a position today assigned predominantly to women—Hani underwent an interview process in which qualities like empathy and sensitivity were assessed. When I was younger, I would picture my father entering strangers’ homes with the tragic news that their loved ones had died in service. It always made sense to me that a refugee of a totalitarian system could muster the strength necessary to perform this difficult task.

Another female soldier, Maayan, knows Hani’s role all too well: two of her uncles died in service. Even today, 30 years later, Maayan’s grandparents still receive visits from soldiers like Hani. (Hearing this, I wished my country would do the same.)

A few days later, we visited Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl, where Israeli leaders and soldiers who died during service are buried. It was an emotional day for all of us, Israeli and American, as we considered the impact of the universal draft on Israeli society. It was also the anniversary of a car accident that killed my 14-year-old brother, Eli. Born in Israel and raised in the United States, Eli was our civilian soldier taken too young. There were no answers or logic then, and today there still seem to be few.

At Mount Herzl, Yoav had us walk around the graves looking for individual details we could relate to, and then asked us to trace that part of the inscription. (The soldiers assisted with the Hebrew, adding to the activity’s significance). Pacing the symmetrical rows of stones and hedges, I heard Maayan read the name of a French-born 19-year-old soldier who died during duty: Eli.

Later on, Hani asked what I had chosen to trace. I shared the inscription, and my family’s tragedy, even though I had met her only days earlier. Hani held me in a firm embrace and told me everything would be okay. It didn’t solve much, but it provided a much needed sense of humanity and support. Her country is lucky to have her.

Manscaping on Birthright

Breaking down grooming habits among the men on the trip

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(Photo by Stephanie Butnick)

A lot of guys on this Birthright trip trim their chests. Joe sometimes trims with a five blade, Matt trims regularly with a one, and Ross uses the separate trimming attachment. They’re all idiots.

Let me explain. Spring break, senior year: Acapulco. I was staring my shoulder hair in the face, in the mirror, and decided it was time to take action. To quote Dashboard Confessional, my “hair [was] everywhere.”

I recruited my equally hirsute college roomie, took a trip to Target, bought a home waxing kit and the first season of Dawson’s Creek, because we were lonely.

Together we waxed our shoulders. When the bleeding subsided, I was looking down the barrel of two pristine deltoids.

Acapulco was great, but it had nothing to do with my clean shoulders. It had everything to do with my winning personality, and willingness to buy friendship. Which is why I’ll never wax, shave, Nair, tweeze, or whittle again.

The first time the shirts came off during Birthright Israel, when we took a dip while hiking in the Ein Gede nature preserve, the conversation quickly turned to manscaping. As much as it hurt to be objectified by a group of women, I was ready to defend my manhood.

Matt’s chest had a five o’clock shadow, Ross’ chest looked like a fleshy mushroom (fine, with washboard abs), and don’t get me started on Joe. I’m a red, and maybe the heat made me delusional, but I’m pretty sure my au natural look made the women swoon. Mark my words, the days of manscaping are over. We’re returning to the glory days of Burt Reynolds, Tom Selleck, and now, Zach Goldbaum.

The Roll Vids: How (not) to Bargain in the Israeli Marketplace

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Mahane Yehuda(Photo by Margarita Korol)

 

Our trusty leader Yoav takes advantage of lulls in our packed schedule to convey tidbits on Israeli history and sometimes streetsmart advice. On our way to the Mahane Yehuda market, we learn a technique that may or may not be useful to your haggling swagger. See for yourself.

 

Yoav.

Truth-Telling at Rabin’s Grave

An Israeli who prayed for the late prime minister’s demise bravely comes clean at his tomb

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Yitzhak and Leah Rabin's tomb at Mt. Herzl.(Anglican Friends of Israel/Flickr)

Hints of our tour educator Yoav’s personal politics have trickled out over the past seven (it’s only been seven!) days of knowing him. He’s fond of citing the Prophets and referring to various tragedies that have occurred on Tisha B’Av, the holiday on which, by tradition, both Temples were destroyed. At Saturday morning’s b’nai mitzvah, he chanted Torah, and later explained that he knew the whole thing by heart. During a candid conversation on Ben Yehuda Street Saturday evening, he foreswore party identification, but disclosed that in the most recent elections he voted for Likud. But it was Sunday, at Har Herzl, Israel’s main military cemetery, where we—where I, anyway—gained real insight into Yoav’s politics, Yoav as a man, and how the two intertwine.

Though I’ve craved more exposure to real Israelis in the cities we’ve toured, getting to know Yoav has been an education into the Israeli people. They don’t make them like him elsewhere.

Near the base of Har Herzl, tiers of tombs all facing the Old City, we gathered around a particular grave as the soldiers nodded grimly: this was one of Israel’s most famous martyrs, one whose name is household here; they all knew his story. I already knew his story, too. His name was Ro’i Klein, and he died during the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, when he jumped onto a grenade to save the lives of six of his soldiers.

Yoav knelt down, lit a candle, and opened his binder to a picture of the young man. He began to speak, with self-conscious drama, of how he knew Klein. They had attended the same pre-military yeshiva. This yeshiva was in the settlement of Eli—a settlement more controversial than the average one; a settlement controversial enough that a whole neighborhood there was recently uprooted, which mean the destruction, yes, of the home of Roi Klein’s family. At the yeshiva, Yoav and Klein, along with several other friends, trained hard for the IDF, none harder than Klein; they also studied Torah and honed their belief in the prerogative of Jews to settle the Land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria. They lived in Eli following their yeshiva time and military service. In Klein, Yoav described a man at once gentler than any other and fierce when it came to combat, a man who referred to his soldiers as his yeledim. When Klein fell onto the grenade, Yoav told us, he shouted out “Sh’ma Yisrael.”

This could have been macho-Zionist overkill. If I were reading this where you are sitting, I might think it was. I remain uncomfortable with (and most definitely unconverted to) Yoav’s politics. Yesterday morning, on the bus ride to our morning hike in the Golan Heights (a subject about which I am uncharacteristically hawkish and therefore do agree with Yoav), he and I had a pointed debate over the viability of a two-state solution. Somebody else complained that the settlements are not given sufficient attention on Birthright (we talked about the Syria conflict yesterday, we’re doing Lebanon today), and I agreed, and was only willing to give Yoav a partial pass when he noted that Birthright doesn’t send its charges to the settlements or the Palestinian cities and towns of the West Bank.

But I hope you trust my testimony that Yoav’s beliefs have the credibility of perspective earned and fought for. And he loves Israel and the Jewish people. My Roll colleague Akiva Gottlieb thought to ask him where the grave of Uri Grossman, one of the last Israelis killed during the Second Lebanon War and the son of the dovish novelist David Grossman, was, and Yoav was able to tell us its exact location and quickly send us there while the group tarried.

But I’ve saved the reveal. When we ascended Har Herzl, we went to the grave of just one of Israel’s former leaders, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Yoav explained to the group Rabin’s story: the great Israeli commander and war hero turned Labor politician and prime minister who initiated the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians, only to be struck down by the bullet of a Jewish Israeli assassin in 1995. Then Yoav disclosed that as a 19-year-old yeshiva student, he had prayed for it. While extreme, the sentiment was not unheard of; in March, Shmarya Rosenberg wrote in Tablet Magazine that at the time he and others wished and even plotted to kill Rabin, under the theory that his willingness to cut deals with Yasser Arafat put Jewish lives at risk. Yoav admitted that even his rabbi at the time, the rabbi of a religious Zionist yeshiva in the West Bank, would have condemned this position. But he held it nonetheless, and he came clean about it to us.

“But—and there is always a but,” Yoav would say, as it is one of several epithets he relies on in talking to the group. When Rabin was killed, Yoav said he realized how horrible his mindset had been. He called the Rabin assassination “the greatest lesson” of his life, and said he vowed back then to name his first son Yitzhak. Yoav’s son, middle name Yitzhak, recently turned 14.

This won’t be true for everyone, but for me the content of Yoav’s beliefs are secondary to the structure of his believing. I would have voted for Rabin, and probably to re-elect him; I am disgusted that anyone, much less fellow Jews like Yoav, wished for Rabin’s death. But the lesson I take from Yoav–and I know it can be traced to some of the worst Zionist stereotypes of diaspora Jews, but so be it–is that Israel is a place that allows for a Jewish life with wider swings and greater drama than anywhere else in the world.

That’s not the life for me. In fact, Jewish history is such that I think the Jews should minimize the amount of drama surrounding them. But as one of those Jews for whom this is not and should not be my life, it is important to know that the age of Jewish heroism and Jewish villainy isn’t over.

The Stakes of Being Skinny

My Israeli roommate and I both grew up reed-thin. The implications for him as a soldier are far more profound.

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(Jesse Sacks)

I’m in bed at our hotel in Jerusalem on Saturday night, with Dan Caspi, the 20-year-old Israeli soldier who joined our trip Friday, asleep in the twin bed next to mine.

Our evening ended about an hour ago with a screening of a short documentary called A Hero in Heaven about Michael Levin, the American-born soldier in the IDF who was killed at 22 during the 2006 war with Lebanon after making aliyah from Philadelphia. Yoav warned us before putting the movie on that if we needed to leave in the middle, we should do so quietly so that we don’t disturb others. The implication was there was a good chance the movie might upset some of us so badly that we would have to look away. “This is important,” Yoav said. The movie told the story of Michael Levin’s early embrace of Zionism, his irrepressible resolve to move to Israel, and the outpouring of mourning that followed his death. The movie was made by Levin’s parents and ended with his mother calling upon young Jews to learn about Israel and the history of their people.

When the movie was over, Yoav told us that we would be seeing Michael Levin’s grave the next day at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl and reminded us that we needed to be up at 7 a.m. to go to the Holocaust Museum. When we got up to our room I asked Dan if Levin was someone everybody in the IDF knew about. He said yes—that in fact, he had seen A Hero in Heaven before. I asked him if he had felt the same impulse to protect the state of Israel when he joined the army two years ago. He didn’t say yes or no. Instead he reminded me that his generation of soldiers joined the army under very different circumstances than previous ones—that in the “old days,” as he put it, there was more of a sense that this young country’s place on the map was not guaranteed, and that it urgently needed to be defended. Today, he said, that sense of responsibility definitely follows young soldiers in the door, but in many cases quickly gives way to a feeling of restlessness, and an acute desire to “break free.”

“When you’re in the army, you’re not living—you’re serving the country. That’s the meaning of serving the country,” Dan said, “It’s important. We need to, we have to—if we want to keep Israel here. But still, the personal feeling is that you wish to be something else.”

Since joining our trip, Dan has used the phrase “break free” over and over again when talking about the day a year and one month from now when he will be allowed to leave the army. It’s not how I expected IDF soldiers to talk—as we saw in that Michael Levin documentary, the culture here is to regard service to Israel as the greatest honor imaginable. For Dan, it sounds like it’s more like a regular job—one in which he feels bored and cooped up. He wants to get on with his life. The plan right now is to move to New York and start a band with two of his friends, who also live in Israel and also want the same thing.

Dan’s job in the army is intelligence. He lives and works on a base in the very north of Israel, on a mountain two kilometers high, where it snows five months out of the year. Dan works in an office with one other guy his age; his job, which includes a lot of sitting around and typing, was given to him two weeks after he started basic training as an 18-year-old, when his unit commander decided he was too skinny for combat.

Dan is tall, probably around 6’1”, and weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 145 pounds. He’s been skinny all his life, despite concerted efforts to put on weight, and he hates it. For a moment we bonded over this: Looking at my slight frame yesterday while we were changing for the Sabbath, he asked me if I had ever tried eating weight gain powder, and whether it bothered me how thin I was. I told him that it did when I was younger, and for a moment we commiserated about our inability to ever get bigger. Then I realized, with considerable embarrassment, that the stakes for Dan have always been much higher than they ever were for me: Whereas my main fear when I was a teenager was that I wouldn’t get as many girls to like me as some of the more muscular kids in my school, he grew up with the knowledge that unless he succeeded at overpowering his body’s natural inclinations before he turned 18, he would be denied the chance of ever becoming a true soldier.

He spent two weeks in combat training before his commanders pulled him out and sent him to work in the office on the mountain. There he was relegated to being what’s known as a “jobnik” a sort of housecat who pushes paper instead of fighting. On the night we first met, Dan talked about this with obvious disappointment and enduring frustration in his voice, not even because he so yearns for combat, but because he feels like his skinniness robbed him of an experience that he believes would have turned him into a stronger, better man. Things being as they are, he’s caught somewhere in between being a soldier—and enjoying the glory and sense of purpose that’s supposed to confer on him—and just having a dull office job that’s holding him back from his dream of becoming a rock star with his friends.

He can’t wait to start trying to make that happen: Israel is not just an inhospitable place for the kind of alt-rock he wants to play, but it’s also a place where his favorite American bands hardly ever visit when they’re on tour. The Pixies had a show planned once but canceled it for security reasons, he tells me with some contempt. Pearl Jam, whose music he fell in love with six months ago after hearing “Evenflow” on Guitar Hero, won’t play here either. “Eddie Vedder supports the Palestinians,” Dan said. “It makes me pretty much want to fly to America to see him. No matter what he thinks, I still love his music.”

The fact that Dan’s work for the army prevents him from being able to play his guitar as much as he wants is one of the reasons he’s excited to finish his service. Eighteen to 21 are important years in a person’s development, he says, and compared to musicians in America, he is severely behind. Still, he keeps his acoustic with him in his room, which he shares with five other soldiers, and plays it whenever he can. He has brought it with him on Birthright, and has been playing songs for us by his favorite bands, like Pearl Jam and Queen.

I asked him last night if that phrase, “break free,” was one that everyone in the IDF used.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I do. It’s from the song by Queen.”

Our roommate Adam overheard this from the bathroom and sang the main line from the song: “I want to break free.”

“That’s right,” Dan said. “You don’t know how much, man.” He picked up his guitar and played the opening lick and then started singing the words.

“I want to break free / I want to break free / I want to break free from your lies / you’re so self satisfied / I don’t need you / I’ve got to break free / God knows, God knows I want to break free.”

Sitting here listening to the recording I made of Dan singing this song on my headphones, watching him asleep three feet away from me, I’m fairly certain I’m thinking exactly what the Birthright people were hoping I would think when I met these young soldiers. Namely, that they are not so different from us, but they are.

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