Birthright Israel: hardship, happiness and history for the Modern Jew

Standing in the Old City of Jerusalem, Rabbi Hersh Novack lectures to a group of Washington University and St. Louis area college students during a recent Taglit Birthright Israel trip. Birthright Israel is a partnership between the Jewish Federations, the Jewish Agency, and leading individual philanthropists.

By Rebecca Kriegman

At the end of my first full day in Israel, my Birthright Israel group made a Friday night Shabbat visit to the Western Wall. As we approached the dim glow of early evening and saw women in their dress skirts and men in their kippahs, all joyously coming together to celebrate the Sabbath in Jerusalem, I thought to myself, I don’t deserve to be here. I had only been in Israel for one day. How could I possibly appreciate a pinnacle of Jewish religion and culture like the Western Wall? How could I comprehend thousands of years of ancestry and history — the hardships and sadness, triumphs and joy of the Jewish people? 

Closer and closer to the Wall itself, I observed and took part in a gathering that unified a community diverse in age, belief, race, country, and language. Women in Hasidic dress, foreign tourists, Israeli soldiers in uniform, and Birthright groups awkwardly stumbling over their long skirts all came together in one Shabbat experience. As I finally came to the Wall itself, closed my eyes, and laid my palm against its stone surface, I reflected upon this powerful beginning of my first trip to Israel. 

Suddenly, I felt something wet on my forearm. I looked down to find a gift of nature — goopy, white, and totally authentic — Israeli bird poop. Considering the 15 or so birds perched atop the stones above my head, I should not have been surprised that yes, a bird pooped on me while I was touching the Western Wall. A woman standing next to me at the Wall paused her prayers, smiled at me, and said, “It’s good luck,” and handed me a Kleenex.

My fellow group members, in between their laughter at my misfortune, also told me that this goop on my arm was “good luck” — strange, but somehow good luck, an appropriate start to experiencing Israel as place of both strange and good luck for the Jewish people. I left the Wall on Friday night feeling more connected to a history of both luck and misfortune, one shared by all Jewish people.  


Through the rest of our trip, Israel constantly reminded us of the modern Jewish state as well as five thousand years of Jewish history. What would have once made me reflect upon the history of my ancestors instead made me reframe this history as one of our ancestors. Birthright was my first travel experience in which visitors were not separated, not labeled as “tourists.” We were not simply dismissed as T-shirt buying, photo-snapping, and falafel-eating Americans on vacation. Instead of cringing at the sight of us, local Israelis welcomed us home. So many people we encountered had stories to share of grandparents, parents, or themselves leaving their houses and lives in other countries to come “home” to Israel. 

The inclusion of the IDF soldiers into our group through the mifgashim program reiterated this narrative. As our peers, our chayalim, dressed in military garb and seemingly mature beyond their years, were still our age, still enjoyed the same sports, television shows, and nighttime outings as we did. Our tour guide reminded us how easily our parents and grandparents could have made different choices, leaving their countries not for America, but for Israel — how easily we could be standing in the shoes of our chayalim, or how easily they could have been standing in our shoes as American college students. 

At Mt. Herzl, a 20-year-old female soldier, pointed to the graves of three fallen soldiers she knew, all within just two rows of each other. She bravely shared their stories with our group. Her tears were the same as those of any young person who has lost a friend, or even an acquaintance. Yet, I was startled by the quantity of her losses and thought again about the difference in my American citizenship and her Israeli citizenship. How easily the two could have been swapped and how easily, if my own great-grandparents did not immigrate to America, I, too, could have been an Israeli soldier, standing in the military cemetery, mourning for fallen friends and family. 

Did I find it difficult to envision suffering on a trip of a lifetime? Bird poop, after all, does not count as suffering. Yet, Birthright Israel was not just a trip about suffering, nor was it a trip solely about celebration. Rather, it was about how a combination of both hardship and happiness connects all Jews in dimensions beyond time and space. I’d like to say that the bird poop was a friendly reminder that luck can come in the strangest of ways. For all young Jews, I would recommend getting on a Birthright Israel trip or doing whatever you can to make it to Israel or back to Israel. Beyond floating in the Dead Sea or riding camels in the Negev Desert, the trip helped me experience Israel in an embrace of a shared history and tradition connecting modern Jews to each other and to our ancestors.