I have led four student
trips to Israel over the years. The part I remember most vividly is
visiting the Kotel, the Western Wall. As I write this, the SF Hillel
birthright trip is heading for Jerusalem, where they will spend a couple of days including a priceless Shabbat.
Three memories come to
mind. There was a young man, rather arrogant and belligerent, who wanted
everyone to know how none of this Israel stuff was that impressive. I
had to peel him from the Wall, as he stood there wrapped in teffilin and
tallit, his eyes shut, tears rolling down his cheeks. I helped him wash
his face before rejoining the group. I never asked him what happened
and he never told me. But he gave me a hug and then a nod. You were
right, he said. I'm not sure what I was right about, or even if he was
talking specifically to me, or to me as a representative of his Jewish
There was the young
woman from a strong Jewish family, who had a bat mitzvah and attended
summer camp, She had been waiting for this moment for as long as she
could remember. She returned to me with a pale look on her face. Nothing
had happened, she said.
And then there was a
young woman who had no Jewish upbringing and almost no knowledge of her
religion, who actually asked if she was worthy to approach the Wall. Of
are, I said. The female group leader took her hand. "Let's go
together." The young woman wrote that this was a pivotal moment for her.
Not just going to the Wall, but being taken by a fellow Jew.
No one can anticipate
what this moment at the Kotel can mean for him or her. For some it is
life-changing, for others it is not.
Birthright was born out
of a need to provide a generation of American Jews with a collective
Jewish memory. There is nothing that can replace that moment at the
Kotel - whether you stand there alone, surrounded by friends, or with
thousands of years of Jewish memory.
Birthright is about
inviting a young adult to take their place as a member of the Jewish
people. I feel honored, as a Hillel educator, to be entrusted by the
Jewish community with such an awesome challenge and responsibility at
this pivotal moment in our history.
Executive Director, San Francisco Hillel