Yael Shaw’s journey to Israel


Yael Shaw

Ellen Futterman, Editor-in-Chief

What about your Israel trip still resonates the most? Did visiting the Jewish state change your connection to Judaism? How did the actual trip compare to your expectations?

The above questions are just a few the Jewish Light asked a number of St. Louis Jewish teenagers and twentysomethings to consider when they went to Israel this summer. Most were going there for the first time, while a couple had visited with their families when they were younger.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Kranzberg Family Foundation, the Light was able to engage these young people, asking them to chronicle their Israel trip by shooting a short video, or videos, of the sights, sounds, people and places that most impacted them.

Today kicks off the first of these videos, which we are featuring on our YouTube channel. Yael Shaw, 20, will be a junior at Washington University when the semester begins later this month. Originally from Glencoe, Ill., Yael went on a WashU/Hillel Birthright trip with roughly 25 other students May 15-27. She had been to Israel with her family two times prior to this trip — at ages 8 and 13, the latter for her bat mitzvah at the King David Hotel. She grew up Conservative and keeps kosher.

Here is Yael’s video of her trip. What follows is a Q&A that the Light did with her a few weeks after her return.

Did traveling to Israel impact your feelings about being Jewish and if so, how?

I’ve always been very connected to my Judaism. I’ve been to Israel in the past. I wasn’t really expecting this trip to change my feelings toward Judaism but more enhance them. It definitely, in the moment, made me appreciate Israel more, and appreciate the community that comes along with being Jewish and being in Israel.

How was this trip different compared to the other two times you visited?

It was very different. We went to many of the same sights, but the previous times I was with my family, so it was very much a touristy trip going to all the touristy places, and spending time together, learning as a family and seeing some distant relatives who live there.

It was soooo different going with a group of friends. That was something I really wasn’t expecting to feel as much as I did. It was so much fun, and we were all learning together in a way that I never truly felt with my parents. Also, we went out at night, which I wasn’t doing when I was traveling with my parents. Or like hiking up Masada and driving all the way to the Ramon Crater – those were things my parents were not willing to do.

A lot of doors opened up with my friends that I didn’t get to experience with my family. Part of that, too, was that I was going with people who observe Judaism differently than I do.

When you close your eyes, what is the one lasting vivid memory of the trip that stays with you?

There are two that come to mind. The first is Yad Vashem — it was such a poignant part of our trip. We went toward the end of our trip, so we had all gotten to know each other and gotten pretty close. We were really supporting each other and going through it together. It was such an emotional day. You can go to Holocaust museums in the United States, but it’s just so different when you are there (in Israel) and going through it with friends. That is definitely a lasting memory that I have.

The second one is more uplifting. The night we went to the Bedouin tent, it was a three-hour drive straight into the desert. We had a bonfire and stayed up the entire night and gazed at all of the stars. We talked about what we loved about the trip so far and learning about each other and learning about various historical sights we’d been seeing — it was a time we got to really know each other. It was incredible.

What surprised you the most on the trip?

How differently I saw Israel through the eyes of Birthright and my friends. I really wasn’t expecting to have that sort of reaction. I was thinking I would have a similar reaction to what I experienced with my family. And it was different because I was with people of all different backgrounds and experiences with Judaism. I did feel differently when I was at these various places, and I did participate in different conversations than I had with my parents. I think that was the most surprising part for me. And probably a part I loved the most about the trip was being there with friends and how that changed my experience from when I went to the same places with my family.

Do you want to return? What did you not do on this trip that you would like to do on a subsequent trip?

I definitely want to return. I would love to be there with friends in a non-organized trip setting. There were times that we had to be back at a certain hour — it was organized and they wanted to make sure we were safe and everything, but I’d like to go back without those restrictions and experience it the way I would want to experience it. Also, I would like to hike Masada. I hiked the first part of Masada, but I just had COVID prior to going on Birthright. I was wheezing when I tried to hike it, so I ended up taking the trolley. I’d like to go back and finally conquer that and do it myself.

Yael is a common first name in Israel, and probably somewhat unusual in the United States. Did you meet many Yaels while in Israel?

Yes, one of the highlights of my experience was when I went to Roma coffee and told them what my actual name was to write on the cup, and they knew what it was and could pronounce it. At Starbucks in the United States, I just give them “L” and even they have trouble with that. I did meet other Yaels, who of course knew how to pronounce it, and that was lovely.