I applied to the trip on a whim. An acquaintance of a friend who I ran into on the metro one night mentioned in passing that the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington sponsored a trip for Birthright alumni to return to Israel. The trip was solely for young professionals living in the DC area who had been on Birthright before and had an interest in impacting the DC Jewish community in some way. At the time, I was on the cusp of connecting in a more meaningful way to my Judaism and felt pretty removed socially from the Jewish scene in DC. I had just been on Birthright the year before and welcomed the chance to return to Israel, but I didn’t really know what the Federation was or what my impact in the community here might be. That night though, when I got home and thought some more about the chance encounter, I decided to apply for the trip.
When I was accepted, I was shocked and slightly terrified. I went to the first in-person, pre-trip meeting with hesitation and a little bit of anxiety – everyone but me seemed to know at least one other person well enough to be sharing inside jokes, referencing the same mutual friends and being involved in the same Jewish programs. But once we got through the first awkward ice breaker, my trepidation was quite quickly replaced with awe. I was sitting in a room with 25 people in their 20s and 30s, who were Jewish, and all within them some core connection to their faith that in turn drove them outward to connect with other young people and enrich the community that brought them together in the first place.
Before applying for the trip, I knew not a single one of them. Now, we’ve carved out our own little sub-community, sharing Shabbats together, celebrating each other’s birthdays, and supporting each other’s work. The beauty of the trip is that the end result leaves you with a solid group of friends and supporters who share the same interest in leadership and community and who live in the same city as you. Upon returning from the trip, you create an “impact project” that does just that; impacts the DC Jewish community based on something you experienced or were inspired by in Israel. In our group alone, we have a diverse mix of projects in the works ranging from a comedy show that fosters coexistence dialogue through shared humor to an online forum to recognize the vibrancy of community influencers.
The trip itself is also its own humbling and enriching experience – on our trip, we attended a conference hosted by the President of Israel, planted fruit-bearing trees alongside the families whose yards they were growing in, and helped open a bomb shelter turned youth center for an Ethiopian Jewish community. We spoke to young Muslim, Jewish, and Christian girls involved in a soccer program together and heard from the leaders of a nonprofit aimed at fostering social entrepreneurship. We rang in Shabbat outside overlooking the hills of Jerusalem, we visited an Israeli micro-brewery, and we engaged in a rich dialogue about coexistence and tolerance in Beit Shemesh with members of the Haredi community that I still remember as vividly as if it happened yesterday. In short, we experienced Israel through the lens of the people who live, work, and lead there, and we were challenged to find new connections between who we met and what we can bring back to DC.
I was asked to co-lead this year’s alumni mission trip as a lay leader, an opportunity that this time last year I would not have even known existed, and one I am honored to take on. I hope the words I write here and my experience of coming in somewhat as an outsider will encourage you all to apply for this year’s trip, which takes place in November and coincides with the Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly.
Whether you went to Birthright in college, last year, or last month, apply. Whether you feel disconnected from the young leadership network and aren’t sure how you’d fit in or whether you are already immersed in Jewish programs and activities, apply. Whether you’ve been to Israel a dozen times since Birthright or none, apply. And if you don’t really know what’s intriguing you about the trip but you sense something is missing from the way you’re currently experiencing the DC Jewish community, apply.
I went into the trip last year feeling very much like an outsider and not quite sure what I wanted to get out of it, and I emerged with a renewed appreciation for the community we’re in here in DC, and with a clearer vision of how I might play a part in it. I hope you’ll find the same by taking a chance and applying to go on this year’s leadership mission. You’ll have a whole community of people ready to welcome you.