The Tucsonans on the first Birthright Israel trip sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona had heard rave reviews from friends who’d been on one of Birthright’s free, 10-day trips to Israel — and they were at least a bit skeptical. But this group came back believers.
“Everyone goes on vacation and they always say it was the best vacation … but really that probably was the best trip of my life, without a doubt,” says Josh Weis, a 25-year-old financial planner. The JFSA trip, which took place June 12-20, was geared to young professionals and graduate students ages 22 to 26. Twelve Tucsonans participated, joining with Birthrighters from Oregon and California.
The Federation raised funds from local donors that were matched by the international Birthright organization, explains JFSA President and CEO Stuart Mellan.
Weis was “blown away” by the variety of lifestyles and cultures apparent in such a small country, from religious Tzfat — where he and the other men took a group dip in a mikvah — to “young and vivacious” Tel Aviv. One of the most intense experiences, he says, was a hike in the Golan Heights that ended at a giant waterfall, “a great payoff to a great hike.”
For Tatiana McCombs, 25, the trip was far more exciting than she’d imagined. “We actually got to go in there and touch and experience and learn about [Israel] and really get into the culture,” says McCombs, a chef at a Tucson restaurant.
“One thing that really hit me hard was the Kotel,” she says. McCombs expected to have “the normal tourist reaction, like, ‘Oh, there’s the Wall, that is so cool.” Instead, she found herself in tears. To share the experience “with other people I’d never known before, seeing how hard hit they were too” added to this uniquely spiritual moment, says McCombs.
Eric Herman, a 23-year-old engineer, describes the entire trip as “extremely memorable.”
Herman enjoyed visiting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, taking hikes and kayaking, but his favorite time was spent at Kibbutz Merom Golan in the Golan Heights, where the group stayed for three nights after an initial couple of days touring the Negev. “It was the first chance that we had to really bond as a group,” he says. “It was a great outdoor environment, so we all just went and had fun. That was where we stayed for Shabbat, so it all worked out really nicely.”
Another place the group bonded, says McCombs, was at the Dead Sea. At first everyone played around with the mineral mud, she says, but getting into the water, they were awestruck. “Everybody was floating, holding hands” and talking about their favorite experiences thus far on the trip. “Something about the water helped everybody open up.”
It was thrilling to see “a group of people who were not very engaged and might have been taking it as [just] a free trip to Israel becoming incredibly overwhelmed with the country and loving the land of Israel,” says Michael Achtman, 29, co-chair of Young Jewish Tucson. Achtman staffed the trip in place of JFSA director of leadership development Rebecca Goodman, who was nearing her pregnancy due date.
“One of my favorite moments was seeing one of the participants wrap tefillin for the first time at the Western Wall” and come back from his prayers in tears, says Achtman, who was on his fifth visit to Israel. His previous trips include a family visit, a Birthright trip as a student, and policy-
oriented trips as a member of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The mikvah experience in Tzfat was eye-opening, says Achtman, as most of the men thought a mikvah was only for women. “It was a good way to experience another observance level of Judaism,” he says, as no one on this trip was Orthodox. “I heard from a lot of [the men] that was a really neat experience.”
The women visited another mikvah in Tzfat, which McCombs describes as luxurious, “like a high-end spa,” and heard about different Sephardic and Ashkenazic mikvah traditions.
The Tucson contingent also visited the TIPS (Tucson, Israel, Phoenix, Seattle) partnership city of Kiryat Malachi, bringing art and school supplies for area children. Pairing off with local young adults at the community center, says Achtman, they learned “how our community has helped their community grow.” The Tucsonans and Israelis also discussed challenges common to young adults worldwide, and later shared a meal together.
The Tucsonans came back home “wanting to become engaged,” says Achtman, who expects to see participants become involved with Federation and Young Jewish Tucson. The group has already held one reunion on July 22; another reunion to thank some of the local donors who made the trip possible will be held on Aug. 21.
The JFSA plans to sponsor another trip next year. There’s already a waiting list of about a dozen names, says Mellan, who explains that JFSA has always contributed to a “pool” of Birthright funds that come from Federations, philanthropists and the Israeli government. Those contributions have helped fund trips for students through the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation. But the matching program allows JFSA to tailor trips such as this year’s post-graduate excursion.
For Goodman, who’d been on one of the first Birthright trips as a student in 2000, “hearing them go through the same experiences that I did, it was very meaningful. Hearing them come right off the plane [after landing in Los Angeles], they were still jumping out of their skin, they were so excited.” They were full of ideas for reunions and Shabbat get-togethers. “What it came down to,” says Goodman, was “‘now we’re back in Tucson, what are we going to do — how are you going to use us? How can I get involved?”