Many of the participants in Monmouth County’s second Taglit-Birthright Israel trip last month reported that their moment of true connection with Israel took place at the gravesite of an Israeli soldier.
During half of their 10-day tour, the young visitors explored Israel with five Israeli soldiers and one Israeli college student. On the last day, with their Israeli friends, the Birthright group of 40 young adults (including 19 from Monmouth) gathered on Mount Herzl at the gravesite of a fallen soldier.
“We saw firsthand how passionate Israelis are about their country and its defense,” said Monmouth trip leader Lorin Mordecai of Monroe Township. “The soldiers played and translated a recording of a song that was written for their friend. It was definitely a moment we will never forget, because we all felt the same emotions, and we all felt like one big family.”
The Birthright trip was made possible through the efforts of Alan Winters of Elberon and Lauren Reich of Manalapan, said Jewish Federation of Monmouth County president Joseph Hollander. Winters and Reich made their own gifts and raised a total of $60,000, matched by a Taglit-Birthright grant, which enabled the federation to offer two trips to Monmouth young adults. One was held this past January; the second returned on June 29.
“Taglit-Birthright is probably one of the greatest ventures that federation is part of,” said Winters. “It is a wonderful experience for the participants, as well as for the State of Israel.”
Plans are under way for the federation, together with Birthright alumni, to hold a phonathon soon to raise funds for the upcoming winter and summer 2012 trips, said Evan Levitt, federation’s financial resources and development director.
Recruitment and registration will kick off at the New Jersey premiere of a documentary on Taglit-Birthright on Wednesday, Aug. 3, Levitt said (see related article).
Just days after the second Monmouth Birthright group returned, participants spoke to NJJN about their experience.
“It was exceptional. It was a unique opportunity to witness Israeli culture and see firsthand all the places and stories I knew about only through books,” said Brett Reisman, 22, of Matawan, who works in benefits consulting and investment analysis.
The experience prompted Reisman to look into possibly moving to Israel one day, if he finds a similar job in financial services there. “The positive energy of the Israelis, and how they are so proud of who they are really made an impact on me,” he said.
The 10-day free trip included visits to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Tzfat, the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, and Sderot. The group also visited Rishon Letzion to learn about its community of immigrants from Ethiopia. A highlight was an overnight stay at a Bedouin village, followed by a sunrise climb up Masada.
“I had lost much of my Jewish identity over the years, and this trip brought it back,” said Jason Frommer, 23, of Holmdel, a recent graduate of Hofstra University. “Climbing Masada and watching the sunrise was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I truly felt connected.”
Jamie Hirschhorn, 22, of Manalapan described the trip as eye-opening. “I wanted to be able to identify with our history more and really know Israel beyond what we see on the news in America,” she said. “It’s our responsibility as Jews all over the world to have pride and connect with our religion, even if we find it in our own way.”
The trip helped change his perspective on Israel, said Greg Luhn, 24, of Shrewsbury, who works with AmeriCorps VISTA, a national anti-poverty service program. “Beforehand, I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about Israel, and I might have been more prone to criticize it as ultra-conservative and religious,” he said. “Now I have a vastly improved understanding of the situation.”