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JFSA Birthrighters connect to Israel, each other

On a Birthright Israel trip last month, young professionals from Tucson, Los Angeles and Seattle enjoy the mud at the Dead Sea.
On a Birthright Israel trip last month, young professionals from Tucson, Los Angeles and Seattle enjoy the mud at the Dead Sea.

Ask almost anyone who has been on Birthright Israel and they will tell you that the 10-day trip is a life-changing experience. This might sound cliché, but for many Tucsonans on the trip from June 10-20 — sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, local donors and the Birthright Foundation — it truly was.

Take Andrew West, a 24-year-old intake coordinator with the Salvation Army. Growing up in Tucson, he belonged to Congregation Ner Tamid, but drifted away from Jewish life after becoming a Bar Mitzvah. He decided to go on Birthright this summer because he was intrigued by the offer to visit a part of the world he’d never been to before, for free. “It’s not every day that someone offers you a trip to see a land not only important to Jewish culture, past and modern, but significant historically to many ancient religions and peoples.” So he joined a group of 22 young professionals and students connected to Tucson, all in their early 20s, led by Sarah Langert, JFSA leadership development and public relations director.

“When we finally got off the plane at Ben Gurion International Airport, I saw the sign that says ‘Welcome Home,’” says Mat Friedman, a 20-year-old DJ and the owner of Revolution Entertainment. And that’s exactly how he felt.

As they toured Israel, from the Golan Heights to the Negev, the Tucsonans shared a Birthright bus with young professionals from Southern California and Seattle. The connection among them was profound, and a key part of the experience. “We really felt like a family,” says Melissa Klein, a 24-year-old teacher in the GATE (gifted and talented education) program at Lineweaver Elementary School. “Some were religious, some were disconnected from Judaism, some were just getting involved with the community, but we all connected.”

West concurs.

“I have never immediately connected with 40-plus complete strangers in my entire life,” he says. “It was as if barriers that may have kept us from knowing each other in the real world — be it regional, social circles or religious standing — were crushed without hesitation. I found myself connecting with people on such a deep and significant level from the moment we met each other, only to be strengthened with each passing day.”

Romance blooms for Andrew West and Sophia Kerdoon in the Negev Desert.
Romance blooms for Andrew West and Sophia Kerdoon in the Negev Desert.

And that’s how West met Sophia Kerdoon, “the most amazing girl I’ve ever met in my life,” he says. “I don’t think this is everyone’s experience, by a longshot. But honestly, we connected right away and went on this amazingly romantic journey through Israel on a once-in-lifetime experience.” Their connection was so strong that on July 1, Kerdoon left her home in Los Angeles and moved to Tucson.

On the first day of the trip, tour educator Yoav Bruck said, “You won’t have all of your questions answered. You’ll have more questions.” Klein says, “By the end of the trip, I understood what he meant. I want to learn more about Israel and how we’re all connected to it.”

Shabbat in Jerusalem, especially Friday evening services at the Kotel, marked a high point in the trip. “Visiting the Western Wall was an intense experience for me,” says West. “I haven’t been very heavily religious over the years, but there was something about actually seeing the wall in person which shook me at my core. I left a prayer for my mother in the Wall, and when I turned around I was overwhelmed by the amount of energy occurring around me. As I walked away I felt chills down my back. I felt the presence and energy of devotion, dedication and faith on a level I had never seen before.”

Friedman also said that praying at the Kotel on Friday night was especially powerful. “This is something I’ve wanted to do my entire life,” he said. “I’ve recently come to appreciate Shabbat more as a celebration with people who are close to you. We had dinner as a group after services, and it just meant a lot to me.”

The next morning, during Shabbat services at their hotel in Jerusalem, Klein, Kerdoon and six others from the group became B’nai Mitzvah together. Klein said it was fitting for Bruck, who they called abba (dad), to lead the ceremony because he was the one who introduced them to Israel and made such a strong impact on their lives.

“It was always really tough for me to tell people that I didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah,” says Klein. “I was afraid I’d be seen as less Jewish.” As her mitzvah project, she wants to teach her third-grade students about community service.

Meeting the Israeli soldiers and students who spent five days with the group was another highlight for Klein. Experiencing the Mount Herzl military cemetery and Yad Vashem Holocaust museum with them gave her insight into what it means to be Israeli. “They are younger than us and have already experienced so much more than us,” she says.

On their last day in Israel, the group visited Moshav Netiv HaAsara, in the TIPS (Tucson Israel Phoenix Seattle) partnership region. There they met with human rights activist Roni Keidar, who was recently in Tucson, and added to the “Netiv L’Shalom” (path to peace) mosaic on the wall that separates the moshav from Gaza.

Klein hopes to help keep the Birthright group connected — and not just through Facebook. Some of them have already met up since returning to Tucson and she says they plan to do Shabbat together before the summer is over. Klein and Kerdoon have talked about continuing their Jewish studies together — pursuing answers to the questions raised by Birthright.

Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a local writer and editor. She can be reached at [email protected]