There are 360 degrees in a complete circle, so if we use it as a metaphor, to go 360 degrees is to come full circle, ending up just where you started, though not without significant changes.
It was sheer coincidence that participating in the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Israel 360 trip provided me with the most meaningful opportunity to come full circle that I had ever been given.
And yet I only truly completed the circle when I got the chance to give back to others by later leading a group of travelers finding their own extraordinary experiences in Israel.
Unfortunately, I had never capitalized on the opportunity to partake in a Birthright Israel trip — and then I discovered I’d “aged-out.” It was something I always regretted. Both my brother and sister and countless friends had always referred to their experiences as “one of the greatest ” of their lives — truly “life-altering.”
I always wondered how I, the daughter of an Israeli, who had always felt a profound connection to the land and great love for its people, had allowed this opportunity to pass me by. I didn’t realize then that it was fate, it was bashert. My time would eventually come.
In September 2012, my oldest friend told me about an organized trip to Israel sponsored by Federation’s Renaissance Group. Designed for young professionals, ages 27-35, this trip offered a Birthright-like experience to those who hadn’t participated in Birthright or had not visited the Jewish state in some time.
Without much knowledge about Federation — except the few times I’d answered the phone at my parents’ house when someone was soliciting for donations — I applied for the trip and signed up to attend the Young Leadership Celebration in October. I wanted to see firsthand what this was all about.
Right away, I realized what an unusual thing I was encountering. There were so many faces I recognized from being out and about in Center City as well as many faces from my past. Energized and excited, I anxiously awaited the verdict on my application. Soon after that evening, I was informed that I was in.
It’s hard to put into words what the trip, which took place last December, was actually like. In pre-trip orientations, I became acquainted with the 39 other faces I would spend 10 days with. How could I know then that so many of them would become my closest and dearest friends?
We experienced Israel through the amazing leadership of Sarah Bernstein and the loving guidance of Niro Taub, on a parallel track with more than 250 Federation supporters, who were participating in a Mega Mission. This multilayered experience was magical.
My connection to the land of Israel was affirmed, my love for the people deepened, but, most important of all, my understanding of the vital and essential existence of the state of Israel, our homeland, was fully realized. My experience was not unique; all 40 of the young adults in the group shared similar emotions as we reflected on what this trip had meant to us.
We all spoke of wanting to get involved when we got home. The phrase that deeply resonated with me was “pay it forward.” I was so grateful for the gift I’d been given that I wanted desperately to give it to others. My sense of responsibility ran deep.
In the weeks and months immediately following the trip, I immersed myself in every opportunity to get involved Jewishly that I could. I packed and delivered food boxes for the Jewish Relief Agency with my trip mates. I volunteered at Cook for a Friend in partnership with Temple University Hillel. I made phone calls seeking donations on Super Sunday.
Being involved in the community had its rewards, but it wasn’t until Pam Pearlmutter, who coordinates Federation’s Birthright programs, approached me about leading an upcoming Birthright trip that I was given the opportunity to complete the circle I’d begun with my trip to Israel. Here was my real chance to pay it forward. It all fell into place.
Watching my beautiful young charges experience a taste of Israel, develop an affection for the country, and talk about nothing but coming back, made my heart feel full. I know that the reality of their experience surpassed any expectations they could have had. They left with a new pride in the Jewish blood that courses through their veins.
In giving back, I received an even greater gift. I saw faith and hope in action — faith in a new generation of young Jewish men and women who will love and care about Judaism through all of their days. As a new generation of young leaders, I realized they will support and protect our greatest assets — our vibrant Jewish communities across the world — and our pulsing heart — the state of Israel.
Leah Howard, a teacher in the Upper Dublin School District, resides in Philadelphia.