Letters from Birthright: Stephanie Knecht

11169204_10153037892813429_7126642180993719280_nHi Jenny,

I was requested to writer this email on behalf of Karin Lagziel and our entire Young Judea Birthright trip, YJ592, to describe how life changing this whole experience has been. It’s unbelievable to imagine how we were able to travel nearly the entire country and learn about how rich our ancestry and culture is.

We started in the Galilee at Kibbutz Hukuk Balev where much of the group was first introduced to the concept of kibbutzim and the meaning of that lifestyle. Everyone was astonished to hear how Israel is the only country able to sustain this style of living, and it was amazing to hear about first hand from a father, a husband and child from this kibbutz. We explored the Golan Heights and saw Syria from the mountain tops. We hiked on land and through water and we soon discovered how much of a group and a team we were beginning to become.

The charisma and spirituality of two people we met on our trip really set the tone. In Tsfat we toured the streets of mystical art and fine jewelry and schwarma, of course. Then we soon found our way to the steps of an artist named Avraham. His explanation of Kabbalah and passion for his art really touched everyone, and we soon renamed our group Team Avraham instead of Bus YJ592. Another impactful person was Shalom, our guide at the Golan Heights Winery. His love and knowledge of fine wine and the process of growing Israeli wine grapes spoke to everyone. His personality and enthusiasm made our group feel so connected to him, and he stood as a mascot for the rest of our trip. He is even drawn into the design of the shirts we made.

The next night we did some team building activities which we LOVED. We split into small groups and basically played with rope. These obsticle showed us how much we had grown as a group unit. It was fantastic. We went stargazing that night and we all had an opportunity to stop and relax and be at peace, and really had a chance for self reflection. That night we slept in tents- that was for sure an interesting, unforgettable experience (I don’t recommend it).

After touring the north of the country we worked our way down to Bat Yam, a beach town just south of Tel Aviv. We soon met with the half of our family that we were missing, our Israeli soldiers. We met them on the beach and clicked with them immediately. That night we went out in the Florentin district of Tel Aviv.

The next day we started in Jaffa, which is personally my favourite city. It is truly a magical port and I took some of the best scenic pictures I’ve ever taken in my life. Then we did a graffiti tour and it was amazing to see that different side of Israel. We had lunch in the Karmel Shuk and then took a long drive to a camel ride which was just a blast!

What was truly life changing was the next morning where we woke up at 3am to climb Masada. It was crazy to me because at school I’m usually still studying in the library at that time! The hike was hard, but there was Team Avraham encouraging each other and pushing one another to be stronger. Once at the top, the sun started to peak over the distant mountains and watching the sun rise became something magical. Just imagine, something that happens everyday being so so different this one time. We toured the top of the mountain and it was amazing.

Then we worked our way to the Dead Sea which was amazing. We all had a blast! We covered ourselves in mud and took some great pictures, and discovered all the cuts we weren’t previously aware of.

The next day, we finally reached the holy city of Jerusalem. We started walking through Jaffa Gate through the Armenian quarter and then to the Jewish Quarter to go to the Kotel. The wall was so spiritual and symbolic to me and I felt a rush of electricity that I’ve never felt before. I delivered notes from my family members and I felt like I was doing such a mitzvah.

This night was one of my favorites. We split into seven groups and the seven soldiers hosted us in their homes for dinner in Rosh HaAiyin, which is the twin city of New Orleans. It was amazing to meet our soldier Adi’s family, see her home and really get a taste of Israeli life. Her parents were so welcoming and amazing and it was something I’ll never forget. We then went to a jazz festival in the city park, and it was such a great way to relax and enjoy each others company.

The next morning we went to Mount Herzel, the military cemetery, which changed my life. At first I was a little hesitant as to why we would start an entire day with a cemetery, and with just a few minutes I found myself already tearing up after seeing 19, 20, 18,and 21 engraved into the tombstones. These young people were children and friends and lovers, and I couldn’t imagine what that type of loss would feel like. Hearing the monologue of the obituaries really made me so emotional. I felt connected to Israel in a way I never imagined possible.

Finally it was Shabbat and we all had some time to just take a breather and relax, which was much needed. The next day we spent time at the Israeli museum. Then we held a bar/bat mitzvah for many of the people on our trip including one Israeli. This was so spiritual and meaningful to the participants as well as those watching the ceremony. We then went out to a fabulous dinner.

The next morning we started at Yad Vashem, which is always difficult for me, as I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and the grand niece of many who perished. It is always really emotional for me and sometimes hard to get all the way through a Holocaust museum. But this time I had friends to walk through with me and ask me questions about my family’s story, and it made it much easier to get through the entire museum.

We sadly soon said goodbye to our beloved soldiers who we probably would have packed in our suitcases if they could fit. But I’m not too worried, I’m sure to see them again.

The birthright mega event that night was so fun. We had dinner and then went to the concert of HaDag Nachash. It was a blast. It couldn’t have been a better way to spend our last night together.

Even though Birthright is an intense and physically difficult program, I feel like I’m leaving with memories that changed my life. I feel more connected than ever to Israel and the Jewish community that I was already so active in.

As a Tulane Jewish leader, I felt the obligation to encourage people to visit Israel, go to Shabbat at Hillel and explore all the Hillel has to offer for us before this trip, but now I feel the passion to do so. After going on this trip, I can’t imagine not going on Birthright again, but this time as a staff member. It was such a privledge to have such an incredible and life changing trip.

Thanks for taking the time to read my experience of this trip,which quickly turned into a short novel because I couldn’t stop typing.

Looking forward to seeing you in the fall.

Regards,
Stephanie Knecht