What's one of the most "powerful" and "awesome" Jewish-identity experiences for young professionals these days?
According to Valerie Weisberg, Justin Drew, Dan Segal, Jessica Rutstein and Lauren Economou, it was their first trip to Israel with peers from Philadelphia. They traveled throughout Israel with 35 other young Jewish professionals from June 21 through July 1 on an all-expense-paid program co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and Taglit-Birthright Israel.
While the majority of the participants live in the Philadelphia area, most did not know each other before their 10-day bus tour of Israel began.
"The people made this trip for me!" said Dan Segal, 24, a resident of Old City. "Their friendships and our experiences together are the reason why my ties are strengthened — not only to those on our bus, but to my religion and the Jewish people as well."
Post-trip friendships and connections have continued with a weekly Philadelphia get-together; a Facebook group; and a pool party and barbecue reunion on Aug. 23, sponsored by Federation.
The trip inspired deep connections, according to participants, because the Philadelphia group developed personal relationships with Israelis; Israeli soldiers and officers roomed with the Americans for part of the trip.
"I really valued the time spent talking with and learning from the soldiers, both during formal activities, as well as during the more relaxed, laid-back times," said Jessica Rutstein, 24, of Center City. "Just having the chance to bond with our Israeli peers — and realize how much we had in common, as well as the differences between us — really helped me feel connected to Israel and Judaism in general."
According to Valerie Weisberg, 26, also a resident of Center City, "it took a trip to Israel to comfortably embrace my identity as a Jew. As the sun came up on Masada, I was given the opportunity to have my Bat Mitzvah."
The service on Masada and the celebration that followed was arranged by the group's two staff members — Sarah Sellers, Federation's group leader, and Steve Weisberg (no relation to Valerie). Valerie Weisberg, who grew up on Philadelphia's Mainline, and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Clinical Psychology at Widener University, did not celebrate her Bat Mitzvah when she was younger.
"As I read the transliteration of the prayers, tears flooded my eyes," she said. "I finally felt connected to my identity as a member of the Jewish people."
For Lauren Economou, 26, the trip was about connecting with her Jewish roots. Economou, a high school art and technology teacher in the Hatboro-Horsham School District and a Philadelphia Phillies ballgirl, said that she felt a personal tie when the group visited Michael Levin's grave on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
Levin, a Bucks County native, was 21 when he was killed in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Like Economou, he was an avid Phillies fan; his grave is decorated with such memorabilia. Hearing about Levin's life before he joined the Israeli army, said Economou, "made us realize that Michael could be any one of us."
According to participants, the trip motivated them to become more involved in Jewish life in Greater Philadelphia.
Justin Drew, 24, said the trip inspired him to take action. Drew, an account manager with the WB Mason office supply company, explained that: "My connection to both the Federation and Judaism has been strengthened by this trip. I plan on volunteering more at Federation events to help increase Jewish awareness in the area. This trip has also inspired me to start attending more Friday-night Shabbat services, and learn about my culture in a more in-depth way."
Rutstein, who is pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology at Widener University, noted: "I genuinely feel motivated to become active in Federation because I feel so grateful for having been given the chance to visit Israel."
Highlights of the trip included rafting on the Jordan River, hiking in northern Israel and attending a music concert in Tiberias. The group also visited Federation's Partnership 2000 cities of Netivot and Sedot Negev.
Segal, a sales representative for Sysco Foods and a cheerleader for the Philadelphia '76ers, summed up his experience: "I have never been on a trip like it in my life, and I doubt I will ever be on a trip like it again. It was spiritual, emotional, exciting, fun, educational, social and life-changing!"
For more information on future Federation-sponsored trips to Israel for Philadelphia-area young professionals, call Pam Pearlmutter at 215-832-0837 or email@example.com.