By Lauren Gorodesky
For anyone who has been on a Jewish Federation mission to Israel, we all are familiar with the typical questions we receive when we get back, such as if we felt safe, how we handled the desert heat or which place in Mahane Yehuda we stopped at for hummus.
These are all questions I’ve had to repeatedly answer in the last few weeks. I just returned from the Israel360 mission, an eight-day trip to Israel for young professionals in the Philadelphia region. While it may appear to many that this trip was simply another reiteration of a typical Birthright experience, I found it to be nothing of the sort. My first trip to Israel on Birthright was more of an introduction to Israel, whereas Israel360 was a deep exploration of the country, culture and climate.
Don’t get me wrong — there were a lot of similarities: I still ate a ton falafel, bought the same Judaica as other people on my trip (whether we meant to or not) and practiced all three words I know in Hebrew every chance I got, but the overall theme of my Israel360 trip was community.
Israel360 took us beyond the sights and wonderment that is Israel and brought us into the day-to-day lives of the typical Israeli. Our madricha, Maya, made it her mission to ensure that we didn’t just hear about the different communities of people living in Israel, but taught us from the perspective of an Israeli, and that was another experience in itself.
Living in the United States, you constantly hear about the conflict and violence in the Middle East from the media, yet everything Maya said, she said with an air of optimism and positivity. It honestly didn’t matter who you struck up a conversation with in Israel because the overall message was that Israel is a great place to live. It’s no wonder we met so many people who had made aliyah. There is just this great sense of pride for the country and the longer we were there, the more you could feel it.
What also made this trip different for me was the group of Greater Philadelphians that I traveled with. The age range was 27 to 40 and, as the youngest one on the trip, I wasn’t sure how much I’d have in common with everyone else, besides the fact that we were all connected to Judaism in some way and lived in the Philly area.
With this particular group, it wasn’t a surprise that we were all at different life stages. Some of us were married, some of us had children and many of us were just stepping our toe into adulthood in general. But we also had so much in common: We liked similar TV shows, had an interest in learning and we all were freakishly amazing at bagging fruits and vegetables while volunteering at a kibbutz.
While we may have been learning about the different communities in Israel, we were also forming one of our own. This became especially clear to me on the day we spent in the Jewish Federation’s partnership region of Netivot and Sdot Negev. This little corner of the Negev, which is home to a large number of immigrants and refugees who fled terrible violence and anti-Semitism, is now a thriving community that is committed to celebrating its vibrant diversity.
To see the impact my Philadelphia Jewish community has made in this community has been a valuable reminder of how people like me can truly make a difference both in Israel and at home. Because of the friendships I made on this trip, my experience in Israel is not something that I had to leave behind; it is something that I can build on back at home.
I highly encourage all young professionals in the region to apply for this trip to both find a new community and to get a glimpse of Israel — beyond the traditional Birthright experience.
Lauren Gorodesky is a kindergarten teacher in the Lower Merion School District.