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My Birthright Israel Story Is Still Alive, 13 Years Later

June 18, 2019 at 8:35 am
by Rachel Barnehama Birthright Israel Fellow
Rachel staffing Birthright Israel

No matter how many times I have heard the flight attendant announce “Baruch Habayim L’yisrael (Welcome to Israel),” over the loudspeaker, a chill radiates throughout my body. Each Birthright Israel trip I have had the opportunity to partake in, whether it be as a participant or as a Madricha (staff), brings me an overwhelming sense of excitement and adventure. Every visit to Israel still feels as if it is my first. Through experiences with Birthright Israel I have a chance to discover a new facet of Jewish and Israeli culture and diversity. Israel is not only the home of my forefathers, but it is my home as well!

My Jewish journey began from infancy. I was born and raised in Great Neck, NY where we are lucky to have a huge Jewish community. I was also raised in a house where Judaism and Israel were central aspects of our life. When the time came to decide what I would do for my first spring break freshman year (2006), the only choice that seemed natural was to go on Birthright Israel. However, like many of my peers who would experience Israel for the first time via Birthright, I had been privileged to go before with my family. This time around, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would I be bored seeing the same sights again? Would I experience anything new? Would I wish I had gone alone and have the free time to see my family and friends?

Looking back now, choosing a Birthright Israel trip was the best decision I could have made. It benefitted me, but it also inspired me to give back. For the years following my trip, I strived to encourage people to go to Israel with Birthright. I have since staffed ten trips and encouraged my participants on my trips to become madrichim (staff).

Photos of Rachel on Birthright Israel

To this day my friends and family ask me on a regular basis if staffing Birthright trips all the time gets boring. The truth is no. I could visit Har Bental, Independence Hall and the Kotel over and over again. Yes, there were surely times when waking up at 3:00 AM to hike Masada was the last thing I wanted to do, but, when you reach the top and see the smiles on the participants faces and watch them awe in amazement when they learn the history of Masada – it’s all worth it. You can see how Birthright is fostering everlasting connections to Israel and Judaism.

“You can see how Birthright is fostering everlasting connections to Israel and Judaism.”

One of the best reasons to staff a Birthright Israel trip is that you get to experience Israel anew through the eyes of the participants. Plus, I also got to experience different aspects of Israel like when I led an Israel by Bike trip or when we took the group to the Bahai Gardens in Haifa. I even had the pleasure of meeting Rami Meiri, an outdoor artist who spoke to us about his street art and even let my group partake in painting a piece of a mural outside his studio.

Participants on Birthright Israel trips within hours begin to form a family of their own, and this is due to the collective experiences they are having together. You can see their minds working when they are eagerly asking questions about Israeli society and it’s people. On one of the many long rides I’ve taken with groups, I overheard my participants discussing the conflict in Israel. As the staff, we take advantage of times like this and use it as a learning opportunity where we give participants the proper tools to debate Israel and hold open discussions.

“On one of the many long rides I’ve taken with groups, I overheard my participants debating the conflict in Israel. As the staff, we take advantage of times like this and use it as a learning opportunity where we give participants the proper tools to debate Israel and hold open discussions.”

One interaction I had with a participant still stands out in my mind to this day. Jeremy came on Birthright as a college sophomore, he was raised Catholic, and two days before our trip he was at Christmas Mass with his mother. Jeremey’s father was Jewish, but despite his lineage, he was the only Jew in his entire town. He held his Jewish identity close for many years but never learned about or practiced in any way until he met a friend in college who brought him to Hillel for a Shabbat dinner. It was there Jeremy learned about Birthright Israel. Throughout his Birthright Israel journey, Jeremey would ask me questions about Shabbat which he didn’t know occurred every week. He asked me to tell him the history of the Jewish people and was overwhelmed by the entire experience. He had no idea he would learn so much about his Jewish roots or his people’s history. Jeremy fell in love with Israel and four months after his Birthright Israel trip he returned to Israel to continue learning.

The beauty is, so many young Jewish adults like Jeremey have awe-inspiring moments on Birthright Israel trips each year. And every time I visit Israel with Birthright, it reaffirms my commitment to Israel and Judaism, but most of all reminds me why I decided to become a Jewish Educator. I know my grandparents who were members of the Hagannah would be proud that I am serving our people and doing my part to build Jewish identity and a love for Israel throughout my life and in my work.

There are so many people who have been a part of these exciting journey’s. To all my tour guides, co-staff and participants, thank you from the bottom of my heart for teaching me so much about Israel, myself and the world, and for changing my life with the adventures we’ve gone on together. Heres to the next ten!


In May 2018 Rachel graduated from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion with her Master’s in Religious Education and currently works as the Director of Education and Engagement at a conservative synagogue in Port Washington, NY. Rachel also holds a master’s concentration in Israel education from the iCenter and is a Birthright Israel Fellow. In winter 2018-2019 she led her tenth Birthright Israel trip.

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Rachel staffing Birthright Israel
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