By Jonah Naghi
Over winter break, thanks to Clark University Hillel’s new Israel Outreach Coordinator Shira Moskovitz, Clark was able to host its first ever Birthright program. Birthright is an opportunity for Jewish young adults ages eighteen to twenty-six to go to Israel for ten days for free. It may sound ridiculous for a program to send approximately forty people to Israel for free, considering how expensive it is, but Jewish individuals and organizations, such as CJP (Combined Jewish Philanthropies) donate to make it possible. The vast majority of students on the trip were from Clark, but there were also students from other Worcester schools, such as WPI and Worcester State. There were even a couple of students from the Boston area that made the group more diverse and made the trip more interesting and fun.
Even though most of the students were from Clark, a lot of us did not know each other at first. It was very nice to see how the relationships and bonding quickly developed between the students and staff. The Birthright students were assisted by our very own Shira Moskovitz and Nathan Ciccolo from Clark University, as well as and three Israelis: “Ziggy” who was our bus driver, Lior Malka who was our medic, and of course Tzviki “Tzvi” Rosenberg, who was our tour guide. It was really great how the students and the staff became friends with each other. After a while it sometimes felt like we were one big happy family when we sat down and had dinner together.
To make the experience even better, about halfway through the trip a group of Israeli soldiers who were about our age joined our group to bond with the us so we could get to know each other’s cultures. They all spoke English and taught us some Hebrew along the way. It was really interesting to get to know Israelis our age and learn about their experiences in the army. Clark University sophomore Zohar Zimmerman said that, “meeting the Israeli soldiers was an amazing experience because they gave us an Israeli perspective on everything we saw.”
Personally, sometimes I felt very spoiled as an American, for while I am at college right now there are kids my age who serve in the army for two or three years straight. Most of the Israelis didn’t seem to mind, though. They told me that it’s kind of like going to college for them and it’s just part of their culture. We found this especially interesting.
We traveled all over Israel. Even though Israel is smaller than New Jersey, it is still a huge scramble to cover the whole country in just ten days. It was exhausting because we were jetlagged for the first few days, but sometimes we were able to take naps on the bus when the next location was an hour or two away.
Our free time was usually in the afternoon, and sometimes at night, when we would go out in whichever city we were in at the time and have lunch or dinner and visit the farmers’ markets or shops. The food that we usually ate during our free time was falafel and shawarma, which are delicious and unique styles of sandwiches.
Free time was also a great way to see what it was like to live in Israel. By just walking about the cities we could practice speaking Hebrew with the people who worked in the stores by asking them “kama zeh oleh” (how much is this) or “ey’foh ha-sheruteem” (where is the bathroom). As for the sites we toured, some of the more interesting places we got to see were the borders of Syria and Gaza, Mount Masada, Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust museum) and the Kotel (the Western Wall).
Early on in the trip we went up to the Golan Heights where we could see the Syrian border, and even a small Syrian village just outside of Damascus. We also went to a city in southern Israel where we saw the border of the Gaza strip and buildings and roads of the society within it from a distance as well. A lot of us thought it was really cool that we could see the borders because we hear so much about these places on TV all the way back in America, so to come to Israel and see them with our very own eyes is mind blowing. Clark University first-year Gregory Hand said that, “just being so close to this area and not just learning about what was happening, but almost living it, left a very large impact on me.”
Later on, we went to Mount Masada where we had to endure some hiking to go all the way up, but it was worth it. We got to see beautiful views from the top of the mountain and learn a lot about the history and the significance of Masada. Our tour guide Tzvi did a great job at Masada and throughout our whole trip, offering compelling and informative speeches on the background of every historical site we saw.
Towards the end of our experience in Israel we visited Yad Vashem and the Kotel. We toured Yad Vashem and learned about the events leading up to the Holocaust, the Holocaust itself, and its impact. It was a very powerful and emotional experience to say the least and it was emphasized that not only Jews, but really all of humanity should never forget what happened.
On the last day of the trip, we visited the Kotel. The Kotel is the last remaining wall that surrounded the Jewish Temple’s courtyard during the Second Temple era. Jews of many generations now have come to see this historical site and pray there. In fact, Shira mentioned right before we went to the Kotel that the reason why the wall feels so smooth is because so many people have put their hands on it over the years, which almost impossible to believe. It was really a great and emotional moment for us to go to the Western Wall. It has so much history and is place where perhaps some of our ancestors had come to pray hundreds of years ago. We were given scraps of paper to write on and put in between some of the cracks on the wall, which has become custom over the years. It’s kind of like throwing a penny into a well to make a wish. The Kotel is also right next to the Dome of the Rock, which is very interesting because it is a sacred place for Muslim. I feel it is a symbol of the diversity in Israel.
All in all, I would say that Birthright did its job. The goal of Birthright, according to Shira, is to “help young Jewish adults connect to Israel and the Jewish people.” Shira also mentioned that she thinks Birthright is important because “it is easy to be inspired when you are in Israel, watching the sunset on the Mediterranean Sea, but it is harder when you are staying up late writing papers for finals and studying for exams.” She went on to say that she has “the best job in the world! [She is] able to help college students deepen their connection to Israel and the Jewish people when they come back to real life!” I feel, and a lot of the other students feel, that after spending ten days in Israel, shopping around, seeing sites, and spending time with Israelis our age, our connection to Israel and the Jewish people was definitely made stronger and more meaningful. So we owe much recognition to Shira Moskovitz, who helped bring this new program to Clark, and we highly recommend young American Jews who have not been to Israel before to try this awesome program.