Exploring their Birthright

Sababa – loosely translated from Hebrew, it means, “It’s all good.” In June a bus of young adults from the Portland and Tucson areas shared this sentiment as they were whisked across Israel in a free 10-day whirlwind tour courtesy of Taglit-Birthright Israel.

We journeyed together on an adventure of a lifetime through the desert heat of the Negev, lavish natural reserves in the Golan Heights, breathtaking views of the Mediterranean Coast and the inspiring cityscapes of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

During our trip, we’d hear of another community bus traveling with us, “the Phoenix folks,” who occasionally crossed our path. We felt a strong connection with our fellow travelers of the desert as we arrived at each location and received tour guide communiqués “from the other bus.” Sporting “Life is Sababa” T-shirts, 40 participants from the Phoenix area filled that bus.

Our bus, operated by Awesome Israel-Kenes Tours, was marketed as a trip for “Young Jewish Professionals of Portland and Tucson.” Our communities were combined because they share similar traits. I was honored to co-staff this group with my Tucson colleague, Michael Achtman. This was Michael’s fifth trip to Israel. He is a Birthright alum and an active member in his Jewish community. “I try and stay very involved in the Jewish community and try to give it as much as it has given me,” says Michael.

Like the other 40 participants, this was my first trip to Israel. As a Jew-by-choice, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to experience Israel, and seeing the land through the eyes of others made the trip even more meaningful. Tucson and Portland filled half the bus, and the remaining seats were filled with participants from along the West Coast – California (including a former Duck!) and Washington. Having participants from other areas could have diluted the “tight-knit” feel of the community trip, but that was definitely not the case. Friendships formed quickly. All found common ground and shared openly right from the start – it was all good, sababa!

Since the beginning of the program 13 years ago, Taglit-Birthright Israel has sent more than 300,000 Jewish young adults (ages 18-26) from around the world on their first peer trip to Israel. Taglit in Hebrew means “discovery,” and it is through experience – touring, hiking, group discussions and social events – that participants learn about the complex and rich aspects of Israel. An intense 10 days, this adventure explores what makes Israel one of the most dynamic and creative places on earth. Trekking across each region, visiting ancient and modern cities and sites, each traveler was transformed from tourist to pioneer – connecting to the people, the land and their future.

Our itinerary followed the journey of our ancestors, literally walking in the footsteps of the Bible: archaeological sites, nature reserves, desert and mountain scenes (coincidentally the Torah portion for the week was Shelah, opening with the people ready to enter the Land of Israel, only to be delayed for another 39 years). Thank goodness it only took us a 15-hour plane ride from our departure in Los Angeles.

Each participant brimmed with anticipation of what each had been promised – “the most amazing 10 days of your life!” For some this was a trip to reconnect with their family’s heritage and for others it was an introduction into a rich culture. For everyone it was an essential piece to mold their Jewish identity. Jolted by some opinions but drawn closer through meaningful dialogue, participants gained a deeper understanding of issues debated worldwide. As Jews of the Diaspora, we connected to our Israeli family and learned that only by working together can we help shape a better future. Only as a community can we tackle the overwhelming challenges of our society and make it all good.

On a personal note, like our ancestors, it has taken me 39 years to enter the land of Israel. I, too, felt transformed upon entering this land … Israel is now a part of me. This experience has strengthened my Jewish identity, has given me a broader perspective on the challenges Israel faces and has made me a bolder advocate for a nation of amazing and caring people. Without the opportunity of staffing this trip, it would have taken me much longer to visit Israel. I am forever grateful for this gift and will continue to pay it forward.

Fellow Portland traveler Rachel Zimmerman says, “My experience on Birthright this summer was invaluable. It taught me the importance of a Jewish community. It also reaffirmed the void I’ve felt spiritually/religiously and has catapulted my involvement with my local Jewish Federation. I feel a Jewish connection I haven’t felt since BBYO – without Birthright I wouldn’t have found my way back to my Jewish community.”

Birthright is an investment in our future. Our communities will continue to reap the goodness brought forth within the lifetimes of these participants.

For more information about Birthright trips, visit www.birthrightisrael.com. Contact the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland at 503-245-6219 or info@jewishportland.org to learn more about local efforts to shape our Jewish future.

Nicole Walters is the marketing and communications manager for the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.

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