A Birthright journey from participant to fellow

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Being Jewish is a privilege. Throughout my journey with Judaism, this is a fact I have come to realize. From preschool at the Jewish Community Center through my confirmation at age 15, I was taught that being Jewish is special and a way of life to be cherished. This idea has held firm in my heart. It has been an anchor from which I have lead my life. Growing up, I knew someday I would go to Israel. But I did not expect to be invigorated by the country itself, as well as by the program that gave me my first Israel experience.

When I was deciding where to attend college, a Hillel center on campus was very important. I wanted to be able to meet other Jewish people, participate in programming and High Holy Day services. During my freshman year at the University of Rhode Island, I did just that. At the beginning of the spring semester, I learned that Hillel was planning a Birthright trip for the following summer. I jumped at the chance to finally go to Israel and see the place I had been learning about my whole life. With other participants from URI, I went through some introductory processes, and we were ready for our adventure.

That first trip to Israel seems as if it were another lifetime ago, but I can still remember every magical moment. It helped me grow in such a way that I cannot imagine where I would be today if I had not gone on that trip five years ago. From the minute we stepped off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport to the sad day when we said goodbye to “our soldiers,” every second is engraved on my soul forever.

Our programming included all the classic Israel spots. We went to the Western Wall, where I cried tears of pure joy as my hand touched this magnificent wall filled with people’s hopes and prayers. For a few nights, we stayed on a kibbutz in the north where we would sit as a group and learn about each other’s backgrounds, interests and reasons for taking the trip. We took a boat ride where we danced to local music. At the Dead Sea, this new clique of friends laughed as we covered ourselves in mud and floated in the warm, salty water. At Yad Vashem, we leaned on each other as we witnessed the horrors our ancestors endured. On one of the hottest days of the trip, we struggled to climb to the top of Masada. In the desert, we sat in silence taking in the peace and the star-filled sky.

Israeli soldiers traveled with us and quickly became close friends. Being able to bond with people the same age, but leading completely different lives, was inspirational. I was only 19 during the experience, and it changed my perspective on life. Every place we went, everything we saw, all the information given to us, made me realize that there was so much I did not know. The connection I felt to Israel was unlike anything I had ever experienced. That feeling of belonging, of fitting in and of genuine happiness was a feeling I fell in love with and did not want to leave. Birthright is only 10 days, but it was the best 10 days of my life. I knew that it was not over for me and Israel.

Fast forward to the beginning of my senior year in college and it was time to decide what I was going to do next. There was only one thing I wanted: to go back to Israel. One day, I sat down at my computer, opened up trusty Google and typed, “post graduate programs in Israel.” This led me to my next life-changing Israeli venture, Masa Israel Teaching Fellows (MITF). I have always loved working with children so when I found an affordable 10-month program where I would teach English to elementary school students I went through the application process. I was accepted – my dream was coming true. After graduating from college and working for the summer, I packed my bags and was off. MITF was a lot like Birthright, new friends, travel around Israel, programming opportunities and so much personal growth.

One day, I got an email from a program I had never heard of, Birthright Israel Fellows. It was offering all Masa participants the chance to apply for a three-year fellowship to staff Birthright trips. I was ecstatic and applied immediately. About a month later, my acceptance notification arrived, and I could not have been more thrilled. I was going to get to guide other young Jewish people like myself on their first experience in Israel. There was a week-long training by the iCenter, a group of knowledgeable and wonderful Israel educators who taught all of the new fellows what it means to be a Birthright leader. After this training, I began to look for staffing opportunities right away. I found one and scheduled a trip with Israel Experts and went on to lead my first Birthright trip this past September. I will lead another one this month.

All of my experiences with Israel have shaped me into the person I am today and continue to mold my life. None of it would have been possible if it were not for that first trip with URI Hillel. The leaders of my group and our Israeli soldiers guided us through a very spiritual, religious, and often turbulent place and showed us its beauty. I will forever be grateful to the Birthright Israel Foundation and to the URI Hillel Center for opening my eyes to all that this breathtakingly amazing place has to offer. Israel is the place where I came alive, and I am honored to be a leader for future Birthright participants.

LEAH GRAFF of Easton, Massachusetts, is serving as a Birthright Fellow. She went on a Birthright trip as a Freshman at the University of Rhode Island. Registration for late spring/summer Birthright trips opens Jan. 30. For more information visit birthright.com. The next URI Hillel trip is May 24-June 5.