I have led four student trips to Israel over the years — a couple before Taglit-Birthright existed. But whether the students were from England or the United States, the part of the trip that I remember most vividly is the group visit to the Kotel, the Western Wall. As I write this piece, the San Francisco Hillel Birthright trip is heading for Jerusalem, where the group will spend a couple of days, including a priceless Shabbat.
Three memories come to mind. There was a young man, rather arrogant and belligerent, who wanted everyone to know how none of this Israel stuff was that impressive. He sauntered across the square to the Kotel with a nonchalant gait. When it was time for the group to leave, I had to peel him from the Wall, as he stood there wrapped in tefillin and tallit, his eyes shut, tears rolling down his cheeks.
I helped him wash his face before rejoining the group. I never asked him what happened and he never told me. But he gave me a hug and then a nod. You were right, he murmured. I’m not sure what I was right about or even if he was talking specifically to me. Perhaps he was addressing me as a representative of Jewish peoplehood.
On the same trip was a young woman from a strong Jewish family, who had had a bat mitzvah and attended Jewish summer camp. Prior to our visit, she told the group that she had been waiting for this moment for as long as she could remember. She went quickly to the Wall when we arrived but returned to me with a pale look on her face. Nothing had happened, she said.
And then there was a young woman who had no Jewish upbringing and almost no knowledge of her religion other than that her mother was Jewish. She actually asked if she was worthy to approach the Wall. Of course you are, I told her. The female group leader, a Hillel staff member from Claremont College, took her hand. “Let’s go together,” she said. The young woman wrote that this was a pivotal moment for her. Not just going to the Wall, but being led, hand-in-hand, by a fellow Jew.
No one can anticipate what this moment at the Kotel can mean for him or her. For some it is life-changing, for others it is not. But no one should deny themselves that walk up to those huge, roughly hewn stones. What will happen happens. Perhaps it is best not to prepare, not to analyze beforehand.
Birthright Israel was born out of a need to provide a generation of American Jews with a collective Jewish memory. The vision that these philanthropists and educators sought was one common experience to turn the tide on growing assimilation. They chose to focus on students.
Likewise, there is much we can offer to students closer to home, on U.S. campuses. Ninety-four percent of Jews continue on to higher education. There is no greater common denominator and there may well be no more last chances to engage with them as Jews.
These first formative years outside their parents’ house are full of new experiences as students strive to navigate an unsupervised and rigid study structure, day-to-day chores such as paying rent and doing their own laundry, and making choices with regard to friends, social mores and spiritual practices. It is at the same time scary, intimidating and exciting.
Some students come to Hillel at their parents’ behest and others come to taste something they never experienced at home. A Jewish campus experience in an exciting city is one of many choices. Our students study hard, many holding down two or three jobs, and yet they carve out time for a Jewish component in their lives.
For many millennials, something drives them to seek a defining experience. Standing before the Kotel is one such moment — whether standing there alone, surrounded by friends, or in the presence of thousands of years of collective Jewish memory.
Birthright is not necessarily about Israel, but about inviting a young adult to take his or her place as a member of the Jewish people. I feel honored, as a Hillel educator, to be entrusted by the Jewish community with such an awesome challenge and responsibility at this pivotal moment in our history.
I wish to thank those who conceived Birthright and those who fund it and make it possible. The entire Jewish people are in your debt.
Alon Shalev is the executive director of San Francisco Hillel. This Shabbat, his oldest son, Pele, will be called to bar mitzvah.