While visiting Israel last month on the first Taglit-Birthright Israel trip from Monmouth County, 40 young adults climbed Masada one morning before sunrise.
From the summit, they shouted “Ani chai” (“I’m alive”) in unison, hearing the words travel through the valley and circle back in an enormous, embracing echo.
The experiment was inspired by participant Austin Dam, 22, of Little Silver, who first bellowed the words while meditating deep within the Negev desert the day before.
“I felt this huge adrenalin rush and started shaking and crying. It was a really profound experience I can’t quite put into words,” Austin said. “I’ve never felt so connected and so in-the-moment like I did in Israel. I’ve never been in a place where there was that much history that had to do with me and my people.”
That strong sense of connection to Israel is exactly what Alan Winters and Lauren Reich intended when they embarked on an effort that raised $60,000 for Jewish Federation of Monmouth County’s first Birthright trip. The funds were matched by a Taglit-Birthright grant that enabled 20 young adults from Monmouth County to participate in the free trip.
The Jan. 2-12 trip was led by Israel Experts touring company, with group leader Jason Moses of Howell, and included visits to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Tzfat, Kibbutz Ein Shemer, and Masada and the Dead Sea. The Monmouth contingent were accompanied by 20 young adults sponsored by United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
“It’s an eye-opening revelation for these young people to go to Israel for the first time. They will help support Israel one day, just the way their parents and grandparents support Israel today,” said Winters, an Elberon resident, and Dam’s grandfather.
The Monmouth federation hopes to sponsor its own Birthright trip every year, said president Stu Abraham. “Helping build stronger connections to Judaism and Israel is one of the most important things we can do at federation,” he said. “I only wish when I was that age that I could have been offered a trip like that.”
‘Our unique culture’
Until now, Monmouth County applicants were waitlisted on other regions’ trips, said Reich, a Manalapan resident whose three children have gone on prior Birthright trips. “If we don’t get these young adults to Israel, not only will they not have a connection to Israel, but in many cases their ties to Judaism will not flourish,” she said.
The Monmouth group included three siblings — Melissa, Adam, and Emily Osborne — who said they plan to host a Shabbat dinner reunion next month at their Fair Haven home for all the participants. The Osbornes each said they were moved by the trip in ways that have changed them forever. They’ve been going to temple services nearly every Shabbat since their return, and Melissa, 25, is working with a Hebrew language tutor once a week.
“Before the trip, I was a little intimidated about going to Israel,” said Adam, 22. “But when I was there I realized it was the best experience of my life.”
Travis Tarrab, 25, of Holmdel, was also hesitant about taking time off from his job in retail sales to visit Israel. When his mother, Sheri, the federation’s campaign vice president, offered to supplement the income he would miss while away, it clinched the deal.
“Feeling unsure of how I would connect to Israel went out the window as soon as we boarded the flight in New York. By the time we left the Western Wall I had discovered just how touching faith can be,” Tarrab said.
Many of the participants said they are keeping in touch with the many friends they made in Israel, including the IDF soldiers who accompanied them for several days.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last month that Israel approved $100 million in funding for Taglit-Birthright Israel over the next three years. The goal of the funding increase is to enable Birthright to bring 51,000 young Jewish adults annually on the 10-day free educational trip by 2013.
“This trip made me realize that Judaism isn’t only about religion, but also about our unique culture that we have to perpetuate,” said Samantha Farber, 20, of Marlboro. “I want to say thank you to federation for sending our group on this once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Registration is now under way for a second Birthright trip to be held this summer, which is also open to 20 participants from Monmouth. For more information about applying for the summer 2011 trip, visit www.taglit.israelexperts.com.