2018-01-31 / Voice at the Shore

Birthright connects local co-eds to Israel—its past, present and soul

By RABBI DAVID M. WEIS Spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Northfield


Birthright kids about to go snorkeling in Eilat. From left: Jake Dagen, Angela Glaser, Matt Gavenda, Josh Moses, Alexa Field, Isabella Engle, Ethan Fischer, Brenda Shor, Molly Ludwig, Allie Vain, and Justin Kran. Birthright kids about to go snorkeling in Eilat. From left: Jake Dagen, Angela Glaser, Matt Gavenda, Josh Moses, Alexa Field, Isabella Engle, Ethan Fischer, Brenda Shor, Molly Ludwig, Allie Vain, and Justin Kran. In the early morning darkness of December 25, I loaded two vans with 17 mostly-local college kids and their luggage and headed to Newark airport, where we embarked on a 10-day trip to Israel. On January 5—just after the “Bomb Cyclone” winter storm —I came home a changed man. While people here shivered and shoveled, I had the privilege of being inspired, awed and energized by the wonder of these kids and the love of Israel that emerged in their hearts.

I’ve been to Israel more times than I can count. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in love with Israel. The country is part of my soul. Although I am an American and love this country, Israel is my spiritual home, where my history and my heart resides. Despite its myriad challenges and problems, as well as— yes—the mistakes that Israel makes, it is still a miraculous country filled with dreams of a better tomorrow. I wanted to share the Israel that I know and love so well with our young people. I wanted them to see Israel through my eyes, and I wanted to experience Israel anew through theirs.


The Birthright group on top of Mt. Tzfachot. From left: (back row) Emily Wynne, Josh Childs, Josh Moses, Molly Ludwig, Ethan Fischer, Shayna Lowenstein, Claire Gadon, Jake Dagen, Allie Vain, Alexa Field, Eric Haney, (bottom row) Danielle Jacobson, Rabbi Weis, Isabella Engle, Matt Gavenda, and Hope Greenspun. The Birthright group on top of Mt. Tzfachot. From left: (back row) Emily Wynne, Josh Childs, Josh Moses, Molly Ludwig, Ethan Fischer, Shayna Lowenstein, Claire Gadon, Jake Dagen, Allie Vain, Alexa Field, Eric Haney, (bottom row) Danielle Jacobson, Rabbi Weis, Isabella Engle, Matt Gavenda, and Hope Greenspun. As a 62-year-old rabbi, seeing the entirety of Israel in 10 days with a group of energetic college kids was quite a challenge. The days were long and filled with activities. We landed and went directly north to Caesarea.


Sisters Claire and Ava Gadon rode together on a camel during a Birthright trip this winter led by Rabbi David Weis. Sisters Claire and Ava Gadon rode together on a camel during a Birthright trip this winter led by Rabbi David Weis. Starting our journey from this ancient city allowed us to frame a conversation about how Israel exists in two worlds—it is a place where the ancient and current worlds collide. Caesarea was built by King Herod, who also built the Second Temple, as well as Masada. He built Caesarea as a Roman city with a hippodrome (ancient Roman racetrack) and a theater. He also built a Temple so Jews could proclaim their eternal covenant to reach for the Divine.

From there we traveled into the Galilee, to the mystical city of Tzfat, to learn about Kabbalah.

We learned more about challenges facing modern day Israel as we toured places like the Golan Heights, where we discussed geo-politics and the Syrian border, where we saw just how close the Syrian conflict is to Israel.

All the while, we were growing as a community. We learned that Israel is a country of incredible diversity and ingenuity. We saw boutique wineries creating remarkable vintages; an olive oil company creating make-up and healthcare products; high-tech start-ups revolutionizing the world; and non-governmental organizations working to help at-risk kids from every corner of the world.

As we grew closer to Israel, we grew closer to each other. Eight Israeli soldiers joined us for five days and became part of our family. These incredible young people put a face on Israel and let us see more deeply into its soul. I loved having them with us. We learned about the lives of these young Israelis and they learned about ours. They learned about a Judaism that is not Orthodox. They learned that American Jews feel love and abiding connection to Israel.

The soldiers accompanied us to the Kotel, Yad Vashem, and Har Herzl (Israel’s military cemetery). These places were moving and emotional; they reminded us of the difficulties of our people’s journey. Yet we were also inspired by our people’s determination and tenacity.

We also had many fun times with our new Israeli friends. Together, we went dancing in a nightclub, rode camels, slept in a Bedouin tent, and climbed to the top of Masada. When the Israelis left us, we hugged and cried. One soldier took me aside and gave me the insignia pin from her uniform beret. I was touched and affirmed.

We then headed south to Eilat, where we snorkeled in the blue waters of the gulf and climbed to the top of Mt. Tzfachot. There, we got to see where four countries come together—Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. We pushed on to Tel Aviv, where we witnessed how the hopes of early Zionists have since blossomed into a major cosmopolitan city of skyscrapers and entrepreneurs. We walked the beach and saw the future. As we prepared to return home, we knew that we were forever changed.

Why does a 62-year-old man try to keep up with these kids for 10 days? Because they are our tomorrow. I have known many of them for as long as they can remember. I have taught them Torah, enabled Judaism to live in their hearts, and shared every major event in their lives. Now I have shared with them one of my great passions. Forever we will have shared Jerusalem. I am blessed. 

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