I’m trying to get some take away from the whole Birthright thing. I’m just not sure where to begin. Did it change me? Did it have some lasting effect?
It’s the first time I’ve had a fulfilling religious experience in a while. Possibly since High School, if I’m to be honest with myself.
I’ve been drifting away for a while. A long while. The whole notion of services and Rabbis and just about everything else associated with established religions bothers me. I go to a Synagogue, look at the list of events in an average Shabbat flyer and gag a little in my mouth. Oh, a middle school production of Fiddler on the Roof? A discussion on Medical Ethics from a Biblical perspective? Getting together to assemble Mishloach Manot? A weekly study on the importance of the Mishanaic tractate of Shabbat? My immediate thoughts go somewhere to, “Oh, this is what boring people do when they have no clue what they want. I get it.” I understand it’s a way to socialize with like minded boring as shit individuals, and it doesn’t really sell it for me. The charity work is nice, but seems more like an after thought than a focus.
Every trip, camp, and weekend getaway I’d staffed until this point left a bit of a sour religious taste in my mouth. The taste came from being forced to secretly brain wash and force feed the participants with religious messages they didn’t want. This includes staffing Ramah, a USY on Wheels trip, and a variety of religious school weekends.
‘Now’s the point where we’re all required to go to services,’ I’d say.
‘Now we need to say the after prayer meals.’
‘Let’s have a discussion on why it’s so important to be religious.’
‘God. God. God.’
‘Yes - this is also required.’
On all of these programs I saw the participants squirming in their seats watching us staff go through the service. It wasn’t resonating.They were so far detached from the service that rather than bringing them closer to Judaism, it pushed them away.
There was a collective thought, easy to hear: “Judaism? You mean that boring thing old people do because they don’t have any real hobbies? How about they grow a set? I have, and the moment I’m no longer under my parent’s wing don’t expect me to ever show my face in a Synagogue again.”
Despite that, it was also clear everyone involved was looking for a spiritual outlet. The version of Judaism we showed them was not it. They always had fun, but that’s a far cry from spiritually growing.
It was with that in mind that I signed up to staff a Birthright trip. Israel Outdoors seemed liked it was the least brain-washy.
When it started, I was surprised by how many inspiring religious stories the tour guide told. It was the first time I’d been inspired by a group leader on a trip I’d staffed. It takes a lot to make me care, but I love the feeling when it happens. I love the feeling of a connection with God, a spiritual reason for being, and a greater sense of purpose. It’s a rare feeling.
There was a subtle, but important difference in the way the group leader, Phil, presented everything. Rather than forcing the participants to do religious activities, he shared why others loved doing them. They weren’t forced to go to Kabbalat Sabbat services. They got the option to listen and experience it. They weren’t forced to sit through a lecture. They got the chance to hear stories on how past leaders dealt with their own spirituality. He made everyone care.
Watching people care was such a stark difference from past trips I’d staffed. I was used to dragging people through service after service, trying to say, “No, Judaism has some good things. I swear it does. It really does. Now let’s force feed you a bunch of crappy services.” This was the first time I watched a group of people actually transform and care about all of the different spiritual bits we threw at them.
Many wondered what was behind all of the different crazy traditions. I got so many amazing questions.
“Why do we light two candles on Shabbat?”
“What’s the deal with the Havdalah candle?”
“What is Havdalah?”
These were actual questions I got. That has literally never happened before. I’m used to questions like,
“Why are we saying the same boring service every morning?” and
“Why are you forcing me to go to services?”
They’re a very different breed of questions.
One participant said, “I went to Hebrew School for years growing up, and this is really the first time I connected with Judaism. I get it.”
A couple of people are planning to stay in Israel for a few more months.
A few of them had never done Shabbat before and wanted to do it again.
I’ve been in charge of plenty of potentially religiously uplifting moments (Staffing Hebrew High weekends a half dozen times, leading a group of high schoolers for six weeks across the US, staffing Ramah. I was once even offered a year’s position as an assistant Rabbi, which I turned down) This was the first one that resonated.
I’m forced to ask why.
Part of it was Phil. There’s no doubt about that. He told stories in a way that made everyone interested. Everyone hung on his words for each ten minute story he told. It wasn’t just a collection of random facts at each location. It was one man’s journey at a certain point in time. How Neberkenezer faced off with the Jews. How David brought together Jerusalem. How an alternative Temple was cooked up in the North. Some of the stories were historical. Others were biblical. All of them were fascinating. For all of his apparent Shaggy Rogers-ness (I dare anyone to find a picture of him where he doesn’t seem to be half yawning) he brought the group together in a way I’d never seen before.
On the bus ride to the airport at the end of the trip I said, “Many Rabbis live their whole life hoping to inspire others in the way Phil does on a daily basis with these tours.” I can’t speak for all of the tours he’s staffed, but I can absolutely speak for the one we were on.
Beyond Phil, the trip didn’t try to pander in a way that was unrelatable. It saw where the participants were and gave them something they cared for. Specifically, a connection to their roots.
“Here’s the place that you’ve read about for decades and why it’s important,” was what every stop screamed.
In the cities it was a matter of, “Here’s how us Jews live life in a place made for us. This is just simply the way things are.”
Spirituality resounded in everything.
It was also partially the group. They cared. They came in with the mindset of, “I want to make this meaningful. I get the fact that someone paid for a free trip for me, and I’m ready to take advantage of it.”
Did they drink and smoke hookah until 3am every night? Of course. Did that stop them from appreciating the hikes? Absolutely not.
It was an amazing group, and while I can’t say exactly what it did for any of the others, it had a profound impact on me. For the first time in a long time, my Judaism is stronger.
I’ve been drifting away for a while, and while I’m not going back to keeping strict Kosher or strict Shabbat, I did rediscover the spiritual path that I used to see in Judaism. That spark that gives me a deeper sense of meaning. It’s hard for me to understate that.
And that seems like a pretty good take away.