When you think about 40 Jewish teenagers taking a free 10-day trip to Israel, anti-Semitism typically is not the first association that pops into your head; rather, you think of learning about cultures, religions, political beliefs, etc. Having just returned from UF Birthright, a free 10-day trip to Israel available for all Jewish teenagers ages 18-26, it has been revealed to me that you cannot have Israel without anti-Semitism.
Since 1999, UF Birthright Israel has sent over 500,000 young Jews to Israel to learn about their Jewish history and culture and to help young Jews find meaning in their Jewish identities. To help in this discovery and cultural acclimation, Israeli teenagers, who are all soldiers in the Israeli Defense Force, accompany groups for the majority of the trip.
A quintessential part of Judaism has been the struggle for acceptance. Throughout history, the Jews have been discriminated against in countless circumstances, and because of UF Birthright, I was able to physically see this struggle across Israel.
Whether it was in the north, overlooking Syria and touring a bomb shelter, a staple for safety during conflict, or in the south, climbing Masada and learning how a mass suicide was the only way for Jews to stick up for their religion and die with pride. Being a Jew has never been easy. This hit home for me when we stargazed in the Judea Desert, the same desert that my ancestors roamed for 40 years in search for a place that they could call their home.
Israel is physically and geographically defined by historical accounts of anti-Semitism, yet we discovered that it is extremely uncommon for Israeli Jews to experience, first-hand, anti-Semitism while in their homeland.
One night, our group had a discussion about personal experiences with anti-Semitism. Almost all of us American-Jews had several experiences of discrimination, leaving the Israelis completely shocked; they said that they could never imagine being discriminated against on a day-to-day basis.
It is incredible powerful to think that state born out of asylum, in a time where anti-Semitism was alive and thriving, is almost completely relinquished of internal prejudices and hatred.
David Ben-Gurion, the founder of Israel, would be so proud to see that Israel is an oasis of acceptance for all Jewish people.
The high point of the trip was Yad Vashem, the Israeli National Holocaust Museum. Created in remembrance of all the Jews that were mercilessly murdered in the Holocaust, Yad Vashem was an extremely emotional experience for me. Walking through the museum, every attribute had a meaning, whether it was positive or negative. The museum attempted to focus on the happiness before the Nazi occupation; it gave life and meaning to every victim of the Holocaust, rather than just representing the individuals as a number. The emotional roller coaster of Yad Vashem made me so proud of my Judaism.
It was impossible to leave this trip without a newfound take on Judaism and Israeli culture. I am so thankful for all that I learned in the 10 days I spent in Israel. Growing up, I always knew that I was Jewish; it was what my parents instilled in me and it was what I was taught. Now that I have experienced Israel throughout UF Birthright, I can now say that I feel Jewish.
The connections I created with Israel and diaspora Jews is something I will treasure forever, thanks to UF Birthright.