Birthright voyage proved compelling for local teacher


Just one year ago I would have never expected to travel to Israel — twice.

The first time was in July of 2007, when I was able to attend a professional seminar at the Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Educators of different ages, cultures, countries, and faith persuasions, joined to learn how to effectively teach about the Holocaust.

One of the only other young Jews in the program (Adrienne from Montreal) told me, “You have to go on Birthright israel. Do it, it’s awesome!” When I got back to St. Louis, opportunity knocked on my door in the form of Rabbi Hershey Novack of the local Chabad on Campus. I immediately seized the moment and registered for the trip.

On Christmas Day 2007, I set off for a second time to the land of my dreams, yearning for a chance to walk the streets of Jerusalem and breathe the crisp air of the Golan Heights. I flew on airplanes for what felt like days (and I despise air travel) where I became acquainted with the other participants of my bus. These 39 individuals were mostly students at St. Louis University and Washington University. However, some were young adults from the St. Louis community. A few were originally from other area codes, but it didn’t matter — together, we were all about to journey on the trip of a lifetime.

The first days were spent up north in the Golan Heights and the Galilee.

We hiked to the Gilabun waterfall, rambled through the Dan National Forest, saw the dazzle of the Kinneret, became sommeliers at the Golan Heights winery, sang karaoke in Tiberius, and learned about the security situation while trooping through bunkers on the borders with Syria and Lebanon. In my free-time, I nearly froze in the waters of a mikvah and talked to local artists in Tzfat!

Shabbat was a peaceful respite complete with a session of Stump the Rabbi — where any question was fair game!

After an incredible Havdallah service, we visited with a local Druze family. Then our bus collected eight Israeli soldiers who were part of the Mifgashim program, which brings together young Israeli and Diaspora Jews. These eight soldiers quickly became eight Israeli friends, and together, we broke stereotypes and barriers about pre-conceived notions of previously alien cultures.

Our bus headed south to the Yokne’am-Megiddo region, which is twinned with St. Louis’s Jewish community.

Upon arriving to the elementary school, we heard overpowering Israeli techno music, followed by an elaborate flag presentation. This was topped off with a heart-warming rendition of Jewish songs sung by a group of adorable Israeli and Ethiopian children — some of whom had arrived in Israel more recently then we did!

We joined with the children for arts and crafts projects. Despite the fact that I don’t know much Hebrew, and the two boys I worked with (Avi and Natan) don’t understand any English, we managed to form a special bond through our artwork.

A quick jaunt to Caesarea and then onward to Tel-Aviv, where we celebrated New Year’s Eve American-Israeli style. We visited Rabin Square, where Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin was felled by an assassin, and we visited Independence Hall.

Here it was difficult to hold back tears of pride and admiration. A walk on the beach and a visit to the market and shops of Jaffa rounded out our trip.

We spent the following night in the Negev with the Bedouin, where I learned that I am not so talented at playing music on the coffee pot. Hiking Masada was a workout, rewarded by a salty swim in the Dead Sea.

On to the city of Jerusalem. We started at Yad Vashem and listened to Ya’acov Handeli, a survivor from Greece. Then, we hiked to the top of Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery. This was the toughest day emotionally, as we mourned the tragedies of the Jewish people while saying l’hitraot (goodbye) to our soldiers, our new Israeli achinu and achotenu (brothers and sisters).

After a discussion about the day’s experiences, we attended a “Mega Event” complete with Israeli politicians, philanthropists, and rock-stars. The feeling of global Jewish connection was electrifying — I could see Jews from every part of the world!

We visited the Kotel, twice. Once during the ‘welcoming Shabbat’ services at nightfall on Friday evening, and again on Sunday, where some of the participants put on tefillin. During our time in Jerusalem we studied some Torah (about Kosher Pig no less!), hung out on Ben Yehuda street, and learned about the political situation from Gil Hoffman, of the Jerusalem Post.

Much too soon our journey was completed. We left for Israel as American individuals and returned as a cohesive unit who had all formed and deepened a connection with Israel and the Jewish people in our own way.

The land and the people are in my blood now. The phrase that keeps repeating in my mind while awaiting another Israeli adventure — dare I be clich é — is the first lines of Hatikvah: “As long as deep in the heart, the soul of a Jew yearns, and looks forward to the East…”

Israel awaits!

Bobby Bloch is an alumnus of MICDS and Kenyon College. He teaches English at Crossroads College Preparatory School. This summer, he attended Pardes’ Yeshiva Program from June 30 to July 21.