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Go For Those Who Couldn’t

February 20, 2020 at 8:41 pm
by Aidan Segal • Pittsburgh, PA 2020 Birthright Israel Alumnus
Aidan and his 2020 Birthright Israel group on Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem at sunset

“In Israel, in order to be a realist,” Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said, “you must believe in miracles,” and for centuries in the diaspora, Jews under the oppressive arm of an undying anti-Semitism prayed for such a miracle to come into fruition –– to return to Eretz Yisrael. My ancestors of Romanian and Lithuanian descent immigrated to another land said to flow with milk and honey, and made a new life for themselves in America.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA the product of an interfaith family. I was raised exclusively Jewish and my love and admiration for Israel was fundamental in my challenging and ever-growing Jewish identity. Israelis represented everything I aspired to be in a Jew — brilliant and brawn, resilient and righteous. Theodor Herzl dreamt of such a land and believed in the destiny of such a people. 

I do too.

I’m sitting in the window seat of our plane en route to Israel. Alongside me are my traveling companions for the next 10 days, primarily students from the University of Pittsburgh –– my school –– and our new friends from the University of Denver. We have already gotten to know each other in the many hours traveling and we’re above the clouds somewhere in the Middle East, anxiously awaiting our first glimpse of the Land. At the sight of the glowing golden lights penetrating the night sky from below, we knew we had made it to Israel, the Light Unto the Nations.

This is one of many gifts of Birthright Israel –– the unforgettable feeling of going home.

Avraham Infeld, President Emeritus of Hillel, spoke to us in the latter half of our trip stressing that Jews do not have to be uniform, but we must be unified. That unification is and has been manifested in our collective yearning for home. For some of us embarking on Birthright Israel, it is a bittersweet experience as we are the first generation to see with our own eyes what has kept the Jewish soul ignited for so many agonizing years in exile. It’s a responsibility we must carry with us –– to go for those who couldn’t.

“Feeling the same passion they shared for this small, but powerful piece of land that we explored was as though I finally met them.”

I went for my Bubbe and Zayde. Like their misfortune of never having gone to Israel, I never got to meet them. My grandparents were staunch and unapologetic Zionists, vocal in their adoration and defense for the infant State of Israel. Feeling the same passion they shared for this small, but powerful piece of land that we explored was as though I finally met them.

With that being said, it is important that we enjoy our trip as well. This is what Birthright Israel has emphasized for over 750,000 young Jews who have embarked on the pilgrimage. This is not a place of our remembered sorrow, but of our restored glory. The contrast of the limestone walls of Jerusalem to the high rises of Tel Aviv are evident of our reverence for our past and our hope for our future.

We began our journey on Kibbutz HaOn where at sunset we reigned in Shabbat on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and the marvel of watching the country enter a state of rest brought us closer together as we spent the night getting to know each other, telling stories, and listening to the soldiers play the guitar.

From there we explored Tzfat, one of the four holy cities and the birthplace of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, where spirituality awakens and the fascinating artwork adorns the walls and narrow alleyways where the stray cats roam. Tel Aviv could not be more different. The place where the whole night we belted out Omer Adam’s song of the same name is one of the most boisterous cities with a nightlife like no other in the world.

Jerusalem, of course, is the epicenter of the trip. It’s the place we uttered in our prayers in Hebrew school and the physical manifestation of Jewish life. Joining worshippers at the Western Wall is simultaneously a feeling of total isolation as it is your own hand to finally place on the hallowed wall, but also familial togetherness as it something we do together, as a family, as Jews.

A piece of my heart is left in Israel as it was shattered when I had to leave, though it won’t be long until I return. The experience of going on Birthright Israel to the one place in the world where you never have to explain or justify your Jewishness or your Zionism, is a gift in that is made possible only by the generosity of Birthright Israel Foundation’s nearly 40,000 donors every year, but also because Israel is something you carry on you wherever you may go in your life.

When I entered Ben-Gurion Airport, I realized I was standing on the ground of a nation that for centuries was the prospect of a dream. It is a dream no more. Like the first prime minister, we have to be realists because we finally seen the miracle of Israel for ourselves.

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Aidan and his 2020 Birthright Israel group on Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem at sunset