VSabuncuoglu, Alicia
VSabuncuoglu, Alicia

First trip to Israel sparks a journey into oneself

I recently returned to the Bay Area from my first trip to Israel. A group of 41 American travelers — accompanied by six young IDF soldiers, three guides, two gun-toting medics and one Israeli expert holding the baton — was introduced to Birthright Israel.

Our 10-day tour through the Jewish state had us on a whirlwind schedule: emotionally grueling days, activity-packed evenings and many bleary-eyed breakfasts.

Alicia Sabuncuoglu

After the tour ended, on my own nine-day trip extension, I sought out Tel Aviv’s literary cafes, went to Jordan with a new friend and stood at Caesarea beach over Roman ruins that have become tide pools under Mediterranean waves.

Without the framework of Birthright, I don’t know when I would have attempted going to Israel. My initial high school trip in 2001 was canceled after the second intifada broke out in late 2000.

Misled by the media, threatened with travel advisories and discouraged by friends, I came to think that the only people who feel safe in Israel are those who have already gone, or have family thriving there.

For me, discovering Israel for the first time required trust, optimism and a sense of the infallible reputation the Taglit-Birthright program has.

Now that I’m back home, I don’t think of Israel in terms of security.

Birthright reminds me of an incredible journey, a thousand sights, moments where I’ve never been so exhausted, so enthralled and yet skeptical in the same breath, so drained and fulfilled by the end of the day.

I remember a feeling on our eighth day, as the tour bus retreated from the Negev desert and my head jostled against the window. I began envisioning the day as a mirage of non-sequitur memories, so I backtracked through digital photos on my camera and wondered how we possibly managed to see so much. There were pictures of us wandering in a kibbutz and then sipping tea in a Bedouin tent, hiking out of a canyon alongside a family of ibex and then letting it all sink in at the mouth of a rocky cave, and later riding desert camels and then posing in front of a waterfall oasis.

All the same day.

But what accompanied each memory was a soundtrack of the people on the trip. The dynamic between us was friendly and fun-loving, and to have such genuine openness across the whole group was something I would have never expected going into the trip.

On our last afternoon before heading to the airport, we reflected on our time together — and there was an overwhelming repetition in our comments: about having renewed faith in truly good people, meeting cool Jews, our new opinions on Jewish men, or, for some on the trip, interacting with such nice “straight people.”

There were surprises for everyone.

While we sat in a closing circle to end the trip, one girl was in tears as she professed her enlightened Jewish self-awareness (she also believes in Jesus). One guy got on the flight home with a fresh tattoo in Hebrew across his entire thigh. And a couple that had been dating for four years came home with engagement rings.

There was even a romance between one of our travelers and an Israeli soldier.

Since the initiative was founded in 2000, Taglit-Birthright has sent about 200,000 people over 18 years old to Israel. Yet our group was exceptional. We were all between 22 and 26 years old, an older demographic, which weeded out the youthful teenage lot and reflected our experiences as recent college grads and new professionals.

We had tumultuous but bright-eyed thoughts of careers and continued degrees, mature leisure interests such as film festivals or half-marathons, yet playful ambitions of creating fun social networks in a post-college phase.

Birthright has multiple niche themes for discovering Israel; although I could have gone with hardcore adventure hikers or beret-bearing artists, I found our group to be ideal. Maybe it was because we all came from the Bay Area and Denver area, two very cool, smart, laid-back regions.

This is the nature of Birthright, allowing us to seek our identities as diverse Jewish individuals in the framework of a sprawling, detached, 4,000-year-old narrative. Most of us were brought up in a culturally Jewish family — I never had a bat mitzvah, but attended Hebrew school and Temple Sinai in Oakland and went to Jewish summer camps — but weren’t quite sure how Jewish we considered ourselves (one guy grew up going to church).

The trip wasn’t about changing our lives as much as it was about creating a meaningful experience in Israel. How many times had we read the words “Eretz Yisrael” (Land of Israel) in synagogue without having those words mean much?

Now we know that Israel is a place of remembrance, of tragedy and of ongoing transformation  — and that it is also an icon of modernity (which we rarely hear about in synagogue).

What we lack as young adults, perhaps, is a connection to a land, a cause or a sense of heritage. The Birthright trip helped forge a mifgash (encounter) with the Israeli people and with the land.

Discovering Israel put a real visual and emotional perspective to the stories I’ve been told all my life. I’ve come to see Jews as not just religiously Jewish people but also as culturally Jewish, with vast but amalgamated influences from their mixed origins and geographical movements.

Personally, I realize I don’t need to define myself or decide how Jewish I am as long I’m comfortable with my community and appreciative of my values that are — inherently and inescapably — linked to a Jewish tradition.

As I transition back to the Bay Area from my 19 days in Israel, I hope to find within myself a stronger Jewish consciousness, and to continue developing solidarity in rituals and modern routines.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, spoke about Jewish ritual in 1920. He said, “The real issue … is how to get our people sufficiently interested in religion to want a ritual.”

The Birthright ethic isn’t about religion; rather, it’s about community. Being interested in our community, the new people we traveled with and those we met along the way inspire us to want a connection.

And for people our age thinking about the kinds of social and cultural rituals to take on, finding meaning in “community” is key.

Alicia Sabuncuoglu, 24, is a 2007 graduate of U.C. San Diego. A freelance writer living in Oakland, she is a member of Temple Sinai and can be reached at alicia.sabun@gmail.com.