I was very excited to be hired as a contractor this year to market University of Florida Birthright Israel, but there was one problem. I had never been to Israel, was never bat mitzvahed and wasn’t raised very religious.
It was strongly suggested by Rabbi Adam that I staff a UF Birthright trip and experience Israel first- hand.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Usually, the staff members are in their 20s and having dragged my suitcase up the 10th set of hotel stairs, experiencing the rigorous schedule of events and the endless amount of walking paths made of rocks, I quickly saw the benefits of a younger body.
Needless to say I was very nervous about going on this trip. I was nervous about being in Israel.
I was nervous about my lack of knowledge and experience as a part of the guide team. (Although our Israeli guide Reut, and other team member Jared deftly carried the weight of the student's education.)
But mostly I was nervous about being accepted by 30, 18-20-something students and five, 20-something Israeli soldiers.
I was a bit older than everyone on the trip. Let's not kid ourselves, if truth be told, I was the same age as most of the students’ parents. So finding acceptance or becoming a part of the group seemed highly unlikely.
But I am happy -- no relieved -- to say that by the end of the trip, I had received so much more than acceptance from 35, young adults. I received genuine love and sincere caring.
In my role, especially as an older staff member, I became a confidant for some, a nurse for others, a friend and even a student in my own right.
Far from a being considered a spy from the “Parent Network,” I was given the honor and privilege of becoming an “un-official” 20-something.
The trip itself was so much more than I could have even imagined. Most of the time it felt like I was on another planet and just five senses weren’t enough to take it all in.
I could never have imagined the beauty of Israel and its people, the colors, the smells, the differences in the terrains from North to South. The North was green and lush and beautiful. The South with its beautiful sunsets and a sky filled with stars that sparkled brightly like polished crystals too spectacular to take in.
And yes, I did all the items listed in your typical Birthright brochure: rode a camel, slept in a Druid camp, bathed in Dead Sea played in mud and floated in its salty, very buoyant waters.
Spending time with the soldiers and Israeli Staff, I realized how naive I was coming to Israel with my American bias on the conflict, not understanding all the nuances of the situation. I thought the solution for the conflict was simply equality and fairness for both the Israelis and Palestinians.
I quickly learned that couldn’t have been further from the truth. I came to understand better the depth of the situation and how I could never use my American eyes to see what was going on, especially after speaking with a soldier on the trip that had seen so much death and destruction of family and friends that even he was surprised he was still alive at the ripe old age of 22.
While those experiences were astonishing, it was the contagious enthusiasm and zests of my fellow bus riders that had the most impact on me. Although growing older has its benefits and rewards, my bus mates helped me remember what it was like to be young again, idealistically thinking about today, without worrying about the day to day issues with work, family and bills.
This is not to say the students didn’t have worries and difficult lives of their own. I was privileged to become their trusted confidant and was amazed at their courage and resilience as I listened to some students tell me the stories of their lives. From personal tragedies to dealing with their own debilitating disease, they all handled what was given to them with grace and the blessing of the innocence of youth.
My new family helped me overcome my fear of heights and conquer the climb up 980 feet to the top of Masada. And, then, patiently waiting for me to descend down the mountain using the snake trail, making what should have been a 20-minute walk more than an hour. And what was particularly rewarding was allowing me to share with the other young women the honor of becoming bat mitzvahed in of all places, Jerusalem.
The state of Israel, 30 students and five Israeli soldiers create unforgettable memories for me. Memories I now have available to dip into when I need a sip of courage to remind myself I can conquer mountains, keep up with 18 –20 somethings for 10 days and the ability to see through their eyes the joy and possibilities the future holds.
I suppose in some ways I was a spy. I represented all the parents who said good-bye to their children at the airport wondering what the next 10 days and nights held for their children.
But they needn’t have worried because each of the students shined brighter than the next and were undoubtedly changed by the sights, sounds and experiences they had on the UF Birthright trip.
I know Millennials get some pretty bad press; being lazy, self-absorbed, not caring about the world. But having spent 10 days together practically 24/7 with a gaggle of 18 - 20 year old I know this could not be further from the truth.
Because one of the important lessons I learned after 10 days with my new millennial family is that there is no cause for concern about that generation. In fact, I am confident -- because of their zest for knowledge, their resilience, creativity and compassion -- that our future and the world that will be resting in their brilliant hands will be shaped into a better, smarter, more empathetic and exciting place to live.
(Some of my over 500 pictures I took there)