Birthright trip forms ties with Judaism, Israel

Eric Hamblett (right) traveled to Israel recently  on a Birthright Israel trip.

By Eric Hamblett

Growing up, my Jewish identity stemmed from my mother’s side of the family. As Reform/secular Jews, we celebrated our religion during Hanukkah, mourned during funerals and heard family history: travels and narrow escapes from Minsk, Russia,  to Ellis Island, from my “Bubby.” 

Due to my parents’ position within the foreign service, my family moved every three years; I never had an opportunity to join a synagogue, have a bar mitzvah, attend Sunday school or establish community roots.

It was Daniel R. Friedman, a native St. Louisan and mentor throughout my years at Washington University, with whom I connected to participate in Birthright, explore Israel, participate in the study of our rich culture and history, and learn about current and long-term issues affecting the State of Israel and Jews in the diaspora.  

Daniel told me about the trips he led for the URJ Kesher organization, and it did not take long for me to apply and encourage my brother to do the same.

We took off for our 10-day Israel excursion the first week of July and connected with 40 other young Jewish members at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. I met an eclectic, energetic and intelligent group of young adults from all over the United States, each with different passions. Diversity was a key theme, yet what tied us together was an urge to learn more about our heritage and Israel.

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Upon landing in Tel Aviv, our first visit was to the old port city of Caesarea, constructed by Roman-backed Judean King Herod in 25 BCE. Our guide, Eitan Julius, painted a picture of visitors arriving in Israel throughout the centuries by boat, and I listened, impressed at the layers of conquest, history and revival that had taken place. What would it be to travel 2,000 years ago? To live, and to make money?

The journey continued to our resting grounds for the first few nights, a kibbutz community in north-central Israel. I was oblivious to what these “collective communities” were all about but quickly learned about their importance. 

By pooling resources since the first was established in1909, “kibbutzim” have become responsible for 40 percent of the country’s agricultural output. Though much of the lifestyle and concept has changed, Israel has relied upon these collaborative and efficient practices to survive.

Another highlight of the Birthright trip was time spent in Jerusalem, where I got to see the Kotel (Western Wall) and explore the shuk (market) in the old part of the city. Through the close quarters and intersections of different historical sites, I felt a vibrant fabric. 

It was powerful to celebrate Shabbat in the city, with services led by several individuals on our Birthright trip, including our guide, who is a rabbi, with guitar accompaniment. Sitting in the bomb shelter of the Jerusalem Towers Hotel, we sang together, swaying side to side. For some, this was the first experience of such powerful cultural and spiritual connection to Judaism.  

After of the service, our group socialized over an oneg Shabbat spread of goodies bought at another shuk, the Machane Yehuda Market, earlier in the afternoon. Pistachios, watermelon, grapes, candy and amazing baked goods were passed around among the smiling group. 

As a child traveling throughout much of the world, I had not found a Jewish community to share many of my thoughts, questions and aspirations. On our Birthright trip, our group dynamic became incredibly trusting and open. 

Dan Friedman and Robin Bernat Brody, our U.S.-based leaders who were born and reared in St. Louis, promoted different rooming assignments and icebreakers each day that led to forming multiple friendships.

This community became even stronger on our visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, a stunning tribute and storytelling platform.

The night before our visit, our group sat in a circle and shared the experiences of family members who lived through or died in  horrors of the Holocaust, and told of personal encounters with anti-Semitism. It burned deep. Friends supported and comforted one another as horrific stories were told. I never felt more connected to my heritage than in that circle of openness.  

It set the stage for subsequent tour stops and demonstrated the  importance of the history and interconnectivity of all Jewish people. We visited the mystical city of Tzfat, the northern Golan Heights border, the ancient Masada ruins and the Dead Sea. 

The final days were spent in Israel’s cultural capital, Tel Aviv. I was taken aback by its booming technology sector and international flair. We were able to visit the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and tour an innovation center.

In St. Louis, I operate TechArtista, a co-working center in the Central West End, which helps entrepreneurs grow their businesses to scale. The ability to experience a similar industry in Israel opened my eyes. We heard one entrepreneur speak about his ambitions to grow from Israel and into the global economy. It was refreshing to hear him discuss how quickly local consumption in Tel Aviv can translate into international growth. I believe our local entrepreneurs need the same confidence, and I’m excited to work and make this a reality.

It won’t be long before I return to Israel’s hummus-rich lifestyle. The knowledge gained, friendships made, and culture and religion absorbed will certainly stick with me for a lifetime. 

I want to thank URJ Kesher, Dan Friedman and Robin Bernat Brody for making Birthright a life-changing experience.

For more information about trips to Israel, visit Birthright Israel (birthrightisrael.com) or URJ Kesher (gokesher.org); or contact Daniel R. Friedman ([email protected]), a St. Louis-based intellectual property/entertainment lawyer who volunteers twice a year to share Israel with young Jewish adults.