They say, “There’s something in the water that makes you love Israel.” Before I traveled to Israel on Mayanot, I didn’t believe it. I thought you had to be extremely religious to love our homeland. I, myself knew I wasn’t as connected to Judaism as I wanted to be, but I didn’t realize how much I wanted and needed to reconnect until El Al interviewed me in JFK airport. I’d realized I’d spent the last six years forgetting everything I’d worked so hard to learn up until my Bat Mitzvah, and I couldn’t even write my name in Hebrew anymore. At that moment, I knew Israel would make a difference in my life, but I still wasn’t aware of how impactful it truly could be.
The first night of the trip, I looked around the room during our icebreakers wondering how the trip would turn out. Who would become my friends? Would I make any new friends or stick with my old ones? I never could’ve guessed how close our 38 students on bus 107 would become after only ten days together. Each day on Mayanot 107 was an adventure, and each day left a lasting impact on our lives. For me, the most impactful moments on our trip were the Western Wall on Shabbat, Mt. Herzl and Yad Vashem, and the Negev Desert, each being important for different reasons but all influencing me for the rest of my life.
Not every bus is as lucky as we are to spend Shabbat at the Western Wall, but I am so happy to have had that experience. Before we walked to the wall, we were standing inside the old town, and our Rabbi asked us if it was anyone’s first celebration of Shabbat. I was too shy and embarrassed to raise my hand, but it was true, and I had absolutely no idea what to expect. We walked down to the Wall, girls on one side, boys on the other side, and we formed a circle. No one knew what to do until a few of our group leaders started singing. A few of the girls on our trip started remembering songs and singing along quietly, until a group of women next to us joined our circle, singing loudly and proudly. Before we knew it, about 100 of the Mayanot Michigan girls were singing songs, dancing in circles, and laughing like we never expected we would.
By the end of the songs, a few of us asked one woman in the circle who’d joined us why she was so happy, and I will always remember her response. She told us she had gotten engaged a week prior, and to celebrate, she and her fiancé’s family and friends booked a trip from England to Israel. Then, she told us that each one of us would certainly be as happy as she is because we each would find someone who we love, someone who loves us, and someone who would make us love ourselves. I truly have never seen someone so happy in my life, and this woman, although I may never see her again, made a huge impact on me.
I realized that happiness is contagious: just being happy can make everyone else around you happy. The light that you shine projects onto everyone else, so I realized that I could make a difference in someone else’s life just by being happy myself. Now, I look at everything differently, and I try to find the positive in everything around me, all thanks to this woman at the Western Wall.
Mt. Herzl and Yad Vashem are two mountains next to each other, each with a special devotion to commemorating the Jewish who have fallen. Mt. Herzl, the military cemetery, made me realize how short life is, and again, to find the happiness in each day because you never know when it will be gone. 90% of the soldiers buried in this cemetery are 18-21. I looked around at the many graves filled with Israelis who had barely made it past my age of 19, and I sobbed. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, but I knew I was so grateful for the six soldiers on my birthright bus for risking their lives to keep Israel and its citizens safe.
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, truly hit home. Every inch of this amazing museum is so well thought out: it starts off with a forest filled with trees dedicated to “righteous among the nations” meaning those who helped save a Jew during the Holocaust. It truly empowered me because I realized that no matter how much evil the world encounters, there is still good in the world.
Once you enter the museum, you head underground, and you keep going downhill until the stairs at the end, representing liberation. Although every single part of this museum was crucial and impactful, the personal belongings of the victims hit home the most. One letter I read from a woman who was in a cattle car read goodbye to her family, and she hoped she would see them soon. Another picture from a young man’s pocket showed him as his girlfriend at summer camp. These people had real lives, just like how we live today, and everything was taken from them at once.
The last part of the museum contains books with each victims name. I looked around, knowing how many ancestors’ names would be in this room, and I vowed to “Yad Vashem,” remember the names. I asked my family about our relatives who died, and I felt more connected to them, although we’d never met. This memorial is so important for every person to see, and as much as cried, and as much as it hurts to remember what happened to our people, I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn more about this tragedy and feel more connected to my ancestors.
The second to last night of the trip was spent in tents. I was nervous; I hadn’t gone camping in 10 years. There were bugs and camels, and I thought I wouldn’t sleep at all. But our busses stayed out by the campfire hanging out and singing songs while our soldiers played the guitar until late at night, and in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by bugs, I realized I was also surrounded by people I loved and people who loved me. I called El Al at that second and decided to extend my trip three more days, and this was the best decision I could’ve made.
They say, “there’s something in the water that makes you love Israel.” But, now I know that’s not true. There’s something inside of each one of us that makes us love Israel, our homeland, and I am so beyond grateful for the gift Mayanot granted each one of us. I know coming back to America wasn’t the end of this trip, but only the beginning, and I am already counting down the days until I can go back to Israel again.
The gift of a Birthright Israel trip is made possible thanks to an innovative partnership between Jewish philanthropists, Jewish communities and Federations, the people of Israel through the Government of Israel, and individual donors from around the world who believe in our mission.