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KU Hillel Birthright stimulates student’s Judaism

In Israel, beauty is not only found on an off-road jeep tour through the Jordan Valley, residing in the disputed territory of the Galilee, with the height of the morning sun to shine the way. Nor only at the sight of a young boy playing and giggling next to the Western Wall, just to be shushed by an older man engrossed in prayer.

Beauty isn’t confined to the street art of Tel-Aviv, a city that accepts all for who they are and contests strongly for the title of the Gay Capital of the Middle East. Israel’s beauty encompasses but is not limited to these observational facts. Israel’s beauty is more accurately portrayed as the tied soccer game between two teams who, both having dominated different aspects of play, could have a claim for a win. Israel’s beauty is the gray area of an argument, the blurred line that recursively blurs itself. You cannot find Israel’s beauty in discrete packets, but rather one must work to fill the spaces in between to understand the complete continuous spectrum. 

This January 2017 I found myself for the first time in Israel, a nation lying in the middle of the Middle East, the one state of said region governed by democracy, and the birthplace of religions that have shaped Western Civilization. Picture an intellectual arena that inherently creates its own battles: religion verse religion, religion verse secularity, struggles from left to right across a continuous (non-discrete and non-binary) political spectrum, inhabitants verse ex-inhabitants, technology and modernism verse tradition and the old ways. Then remember to fix the arena’s size to that of New Jersey and surround it by a much larger New York state, with no peace between them. 

It is even more important to remember that while the world struggles with the Israeli conflicts abroad, these battles occur rather peacefully every day within Israel’s borders among the 8 million citizens. Of the eight million, six million are Jews and two million non-Jews, of which over one and a half million are Arab. Conflict is not only restricted to one ethnicity or one religion versus another, but is also found on the same side of the metaphorical “religious” or “ethnic” aisle. To navigate such an intellectual arena requires aid from well-versed guides. Luckily, KU Hillel Staff Tori Luecking and Neal Schuster teamed up with Barak, an experienced tour guide. This unique partnership took me to places on my first trip to Israel that the most experienced Israel tourists, with three or more trips under their belt, have probably never seen. 

Evidently, on day one the group experienced Rosh Hanikra, the water-mountain border between Israel and Lebanon, who share no peace but rather a fragile ceasefire. On the first day, for our first stop of the day, we visited a shared border where only the tide trades Israeli and Lebanese water across a line of distant buoys, a border that is only separated by a collapsed train tunnel through mountains that Alexander the Great chiseled a (now blocked off) stone step passage. Clearly this “Big Three” of a Birthright staffing team had more in mind than simply hitting a basic tourist spot and passing quickly to the next. 

Throughout our journey of the Holy Land, Barak emphasized his lectures and the conversations in between stops. Without imparting his personal opinion on our thought processes, he would often culminate his informative talks with a tough question for us to ponder individually. After questioning the status quo or asking us if things should be done a certain way, he would repeat his mantra: “I leave it to you.” Repeatedly he would emphasize how the trip was not focused on his opinions but rather focused on us, the participants, forming our own. It was this combination of conversation and exploration that truly developed the realism of the intellectual arena that is Israel. It allowed us to physically become a part of the conflict, rather than just be bystanders in a mental battle. In this effect my Birthright trip stimulated my Judaism and allowed me to gain perspective by understanding the perspective of others. 

A consensus favorite piece of our itinerary was when seven Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers joined our tour group not for protection, but to tour Israel with us. I think the experience of having Israeli soldiers join our group infinitely increased our learning and understanding of daily Israeli life. Despite Barak’s seemingly unwavering stance on objectivity, a faint whisper in your ear from an Israeli soldier could illuminate a subjective twist on Barak’s lectures. “Israelis don’t get Hanukkah presents!” Barak proclaimed, and immediately Ohad, one of our IDF companions, leans over to quietly dispel Barak’s absolutism with a simple “that’s not true.” But Barak welcomed these interventions, as they improve his future tours and because a multi-sided story is more educational than a one-sided narrative. 

The constant stimulation of different viewpoints culminated in a visit to a modern Bedouin city, where we were able to participate in an educational program with three residents from three different generations of Bedouin life. 

Generally, the Bedouin people located in Israeli territory are historically a nomadic people often governed by Muslim religious laws. To better account for various tax and population concerns, among other issues, the Israeli government today has laboriously tried to set up “modern” and designated Bedouin villages, to the dismay of the Bedouins. Relatively, only a few recognized villages exist compared to undocumented Bedouin people. The educational program in which we participated, led by the three Bedouins of various generations and genders, explained to us the current state of the Bedouin people in the Negev desert, and then asked for questions from the participants for further understanding. Before arrival, Barak encouraged us to ask the tough questions and emphasized that nothing was off limits. Never did I once think before my Birthright trip that I would be in the middle of the Middle East, in a room with Jews and Muslims, while questions fly freely overhead regarding religion, modernism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.   

My Israel trip cannot be completely summarized in any one emotion or any one experience. It is difficult to pick out one or two favorite things when in reality it was the little moments, the spaces in between that summed to form my current feelings toward Israel. Not all the spaces are filled yet, but I am working toward building a continuum. Before I left Israel, I promised myself I would continue to work on my relationship with Israel and its people, and further to always challenge and question my thoughts and feelings on this relationship. I feel every Jew, religious, cultural, or secular, should experience Israel for better self-understanding and further illumination of the continuous spectrum that is Judaism. If a Jew chooses to go or not, I leave it to them. 

In the end, I cannot overstate the hand my Birthright trip has played in increasing my Jewishness, my worldliness, and my continued appreciation for empathy and the importance of understanding others’ points of view. This is something that I will not “leave to me.” This is something that takes the effort of not just myself but also a collaborating, world community in which I can simultaneously learn and contribute. I will never leave this alone, and I look forward to future Israel trips and my own Jewish growth. 

Jonathan Bush is a junior at the University of Kansas. The son of Erica and David Bush, he became a Bar Mitzvah at The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah and is a graduate of Blue Valley North High School.