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Birthright Israel Helped Me Find My Place at Hillel

June 1, 2020 at 8:00 am
by Samantha Payab • Los Angeles, CA 2019 Birthright Israel Alumna
Samantha at Masada during Birthright Israel

Growing up in a Jewish community, I had heard many stories from older family, friends, and acquaintances about how amazing their Birthright Israel experiences were. I always knew that this was something I wanted to do. I just was not sure whether I wanted to wait until I was done with college or go during. 

By my sophomore year at the University of Oregon, I still had not found a substantial group of friends. I was not active at all with the campus’s Hillel. In fact, in my first two years of college, I absolutely refused to attend any Hillel event. Mainly, it is because I was wanting to force myself into new experiences. Those never really happened. So, instead of just starting to attend Hillel events, I thought it would be best for me to meet Jewish students on my campus through Birthright Israel

This was important because it would allow me to have a platform where relationships would naturally form through shared experiences instead of me standing awkwardly in the back at an event. This was also not my first time in Israel, it was my fifth! I knew that most of the sites and historical places I had already seen, but the purpose of Birthright Israel for me was almost purely social. Besides an excuse to be back in a country that I love. 

A view from an overlook on Samantha's Birthright Israel trip
A view from an overlook on Samantha’s Birthright Israel trip

As for the trip itself, I really could not have asked for a better experience. There were definitely moments that weren’t the best, but those could not have been foreseen and were in no way Birthright Israel’s fault. There are a couple of moments that stick out to me the most. The first one being the climb up Masada. This was my fourth time at Masada, but it was so unique. We woke up super early to see the sunrise from the top which was something I had not seen before. What really stuck out to me during our hike was how many Birthright Israel groups were all climbing the mountain at the same time. You saw all of the busses lining up to enter the park, and then on the actual climb, one could look up or down and just see a line of people linking from top to bottom. It was really something powerful. 

Another memorable aspect of the trip was that we had an Israel21C staff member and some of our activities were for Israel21C. There were things I would have never learned if it wasn’t for Rachel Poulin and her fantastic ideas of how to incorporate Israeli news into the trip. I also got to work with another creative and artistic student to design the shirts our Birthright Israel group wore!

After the trip, I made sure to maintain the connections I made by attending Hillel weekly for Shabbat dinner and other events. One student from the trip even became a roommate of mine! Our other trip leader was an Oregon Hillel staff member that I became pretty close with as well. Both him and I are geeky and bonded a lot over technology. I had mentioned to him on the trip that I have coded some websites and that this was something I wanted to get better at. He spoke with Oregon Hillel’s director, who then personally asked if I would like to help redesign their website. 

“I have made many meaningful connections because of one simple thing – going on Birthright Israel with Oregon Hillel.”

I immediately said yes and worked closely with those two staff members and one other UO student to design the site. I felt so accomplished after making the site live because it felt more impactful than the other websites I designed (Feel free to check it out!). We made it much easier for students to apply for Birthright Israel through Hillel. Through this, I got to know way more about our Hillel and the other staff members. I soon felt extremely at home at Hillel

I have made many meaningful connections because of one simple thing – going on Birthright Israel with Oregon Hillel. I am and will always be extremely grateful for this opportunity. Without it, my college life would probably not have taken such an upward turn, and it makes my time there more enjoyable and impactful. Thank you to all the donors at Birthright Israel Foundation who make this incredible experience possible for every Jewish student!!!

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Samantha at Masada during Birthright Israel
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