Over college winter break, a fourteen buses loaded with 575 students from schools across North America cruised down the neon-bathed streets of Tel Aviv. Edgy marketing, word of mouth and the unbelievable bonanza of a free ten-day trip to Israel through Taglit-birthright israel journey ripped grads and undergrads away from the lures of Cancun and Daytona and landed them on a tour led by Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies.
One bus, alive with 42 students mostly from University of Pennsylvania, ground to a short stop. Ahead, tomatoes by the thousands tumbled from the back of an Israeli produce truck. To the surprise of the “Choice Vegetables” driver, the students, who joined up with the tour as part of the Jewish Heritage Program on the UPenn campus, piled out and began scooping the juicy red globes back into their crates.
Their urge to interrupt their non-stop Israel adventure to gathering armfuls of wayward veggies because a fellow Jew was in need demonstrated that the point of trip was getting across loud and clear. “As Jews, they felt connected to each other, to the Israeli guy whose truck dumped the tomatoes. They wanted to help,” said Rabbi Levi Haskelevich, of Lubavitch House of Penn, who accompanied a busload of students on the trip. “It’s not something they’re likely to have done in the States.”
When not lending a hand to Israeli truckers, the students swung from zip lines off Israel’s cliffs, bumped along camel backs, swished and spat Merlot at a Golan Heights winery tour. From the valley where David fought Goliath and the caves where Jews hid from Roman soldiers to a Yom Kippur War memorial and downtime with Israeli soldiers, the students gained perspective on Jewish heroics past and present. Tears slid down flushed cheeks at the Western Wall and in the chill hush of Yad Vashem. The point of the whirlwind tour is to “strengthen our students’ connection to Judaism, the Jewish land of Israel and the Jewish people,” said the director of the Mayanot-Taglit-birthright israel program Avi Weinstein, who coordinates trips to coincide with college winter and summer breaks.
For Adam Rothblatt, a senior at UPenn pursuing a degree in International Relations, the small-scale moments of the Israel trip–his first–made indelible impressions. Shabbat at the Western Wall followed by a meal with British ex-pats who moved to Jerusalem fifteen years ago left Rothblatt hungry to meet more “people in Israel at the grassroots level.” Meeting Jews of stripes as different and plentiful as those on Joseph’s cloak jarred Rothblatt from his preconceptions. “Ideas and observance are a lot more diverse than I envisioned,” he said, his voice raw, recovering from the stream of activity on the trip.
Packing in a sliver of Israel’s richness: historic, spiritual, political is why the trip moves at the speed of a Tel Aviv taxi. “You don’t get a lot of sleep on our trips,” said Weinstein. During this year’s winter trip, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered his second stroke and surgeries. “You certainly felt a mood in Jerusalem, a kind of uncertainty,” said Rothblatt. Given Israel’s tumultuous past, Rothblatt felt that Israelis were resilient able to persevere no matter what the outcome. Sharon’s health crisis only adds to the experiences and questions that the students are left to unpack once they return home.
Therein lies a perk of experiencing a Taglit-birthright israel trip through Mayanot. Because Chabad on Campus and groups like Jewish Heritage Programs feed into their tours, the students can maintain the connection to their Israel experience long after their olive wood souvenirs gather dust. Most students participating in Mayanot’s tours come from schools where there is an active Chabad on campus. Chabad campus representatives, like Rabbi Haskelevich, accompany the students to Israel. At the trip’s end the bonds among the tour group are so strong that most “have vowed to keep in touch,” he said. “I try to keep in touch with them personally.”
A reunion Shabbat dinner is already scheduled at UPenn. Rothblatt may attend. He went to a couple Shabbat gatherings last year, but since his Israel trip, “I am probably going to attend more now.”
This week, Mayanot and Taglit-birthright israel are already working their magic for 90 students from Europe. Places at the Mayanot summer trip are already being filled. They will enter the land for ten days, hike, swim, desert trek and discover their bond with Israel and with fellow Jews cuts across party lines, religious levels and can be expressed in the simple act of picking up a tomato on a cool Tel Aviv night.