By Kenny Levy, NFTY-SW & URJ Kutz Camp Alum
The past three years of my life haven’t revolved around my Jewish community like it did when I was growing up. I’ve had some opportunities at Cal Poly to attend holiday services and to go to Seders at my cousins’ house, but I haven’t felt as strong of a Jewish presence in my life here. Prior to starting college, in the summer of 2014, I went on a solidarity trip to Israel that’s main purpose was to show Israel how strongly the Jewish community in America supports the efforts of the IDF and Zionist movement. This was a very impactful trip for me. Running for cover from an incoming rocket at a school 5 kilometers from the border of Gaza, as the sirens sounded in the courtyard, humbles you in a way that is very difficult to describe. Even in those moments, I wasn’t scared, rather I was thankful in the way I was raised. I didn’t have to worry about what I would do if a siren went off in the middle of the night, or while I was in the shower, or on the golf course. That trip was such an eye opening experience to the issues people in countries around the world deal with each and every day and how thankful we should be for the opportunities we have in America. The timing of that trip was also very important to me. A month after my trip, I went off to college and started on a new path on my own in California.
This past December, I returned to Israel on a Birthright trip where we had the opportunity to learn about the history of our people while standing where our ancestors once stood. After three years of being somewhat removed from my Jewish community, this trip gave me the opportunity to reunite with my ‘people.’ After we arrived in Tel Aviv, exhausted from the many hours of travel, we boarded our bus and drove to Caesarea, a port city in the North of Israel, near Haifa. We stood in a big circle in a grass field and played “A great wind blows…” For the next ten days, I would be traveling with this group of 50 people throughout the state of Israel learning about her history and making memories that will last a lifetime.
We spent our first four days in Haifa staying at a beautiful youth hostel with a view from our room overlooking the city and the Mediterranean Sea. The first few days consisted of a lot of touring interesting sites and getting to know all of my new friends. But I didn’t feel a strong connection to where I was until the first Shabbat service we had in the youth hostel synagogue. Although we come from different places around the United States and Canada, we all sang together the songs we once sang at camp or NFTY events. As I closed my eyes and sang along to Lecha Dodi, to the tune of Hallelujah, I could hear the birds chirping and the frogs croaking outside the Teatron at the URJ Kutz camp. I could feel my Hill 5 cabin mates sitting around me. I opened my eyes and saw my friends who were with me on this experience, who were also with me during my summer at Kutz. This feeling I had while sitting in a synagogue in our youth hostel in Haifa was the first time in a long time that I felt like I was back at home with my NFTY community.
After celebrating Shabbat in Haifa, we traveled south to Jerusalem. The night we arrived, we walked from our hotel to the International Convention Center to celebrate the 18th Anniversary of Taglit Birthright. There were thousands of people there. With low expectations of actually running into the friends I knew were there, I started to walk around and saw about 10 people from my NFTY and camp past. Standing with my group, arm in arm with my new friends and singing Hatikvah I once again felt a close connection with this Jewish community.
The next morning, we went to Mount Herzl. After visiting the historic sections of this cemetery and seeing the tombs of Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Golda Meir, we entered the section of the grounds dedicated to those who fought and died during the conflict with Gaza three years earlier when I was there. As I stood in front of the graves listening to some stories of the men and women who fought for the state of Israel, I remembered back to when I stood in this very spot three years prior to attend the funeral of a 19-year-old boy. I looked up to try to find his grave and found myself already standing at the foot of his resting place. I felt my emotions travel throughout my body as I remembered how I felt standing with this boy’s family and hearing about his life and the battle he fought at such a young age. This moment was the first time on the trip when I felt a connection to the current state of Israel, rather than just to the history of our ancestors. Then we went to Yad Vashem. I walked into the Children’s Memorial not knowing what would be through the doors. I was immediately chilled with emotions as I looked around at the reflections of a million candles surrounding me and a voice reading the names of the one and a half million children who died during the Holocaust.
After two emotional days in Jerusalem, we traveled just south of the West Bank to camp in Bedouin tents, eat the most amazing, delicious dinner, hike Masada for sunrise the next morning, ride a camel, and float in the Dead Sea. Then we drove to the south tip of Israel near the Red Sea to stay in Eilat. At the peak of the long hike we went on the next morning, standing in Israel, we had a view of each of Israel’s southern bordering countries: Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Then we hiked down to the beach and snorkeled above the coral reef in the Red Sea before returning to Tel Aviv for our last two days.
Our trip concluded celebrating our second Shabbat enjoying the beach in Tel Aviv. After 10 amazing (and exhausting) days, I left Israel with a new community, friendships, adventures, and memories. Once again I have the URJ to thank for these experiences. NFTY and the URJ Kutz camp brought me some of my closest friends during high school and I am so grateful for all of the opportunities the URJ has provided me. I feel so blessed to be a part of such an amazing community.