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Five awesome takeaways from the JCC camp staff Birthright trip—and why you should go!

Brent Osborne, the new camp program director at JCC Maccabi Sports Camp in San Francisco attended JCC Camp Birthright in December when he was the youth engagement coordinator at JCC Rockland in West Nyack, New York. He was so taken with the experience that he agreed to share this piece with us that he wrote upon his return. The JCC Israel Center is beginning to recruit for this winter’s trip; stay tuned for more details and keep on the lookout for camp staff who would get so much out of a trip like this and encourage them to apply. JCC Israel Center will be updating their trip information shortly.

It has been almost one week since I returned home from Israel. I have put off writing this reflection for quite some time, mainly because I refuse to admit that my trip is over.

I had the privilege of traveling to Israel on a unique, 14-day journey with camp staff from Jewish Community Centers across the United States. I said farewell to 2015 and welcomed 2016 while exploring all of the sights, sounds, and smells of Israel.

Usually, when we travel outward, we learn inward. And this holds true when the land to which we travel speaks to us about our own history, values, and culture.

Here are my top five takeaways from my time spent in the holy land:

  1. groupshot_ahava_birthrightIt’s Okay to Not Know All the Answers

During one of our first discussions, our tour guide proposed the question: “Are there ‘good Jews’ and ‘bad Jews’?”

It is a question that, three weeks later, is still circulating in my mind—mainly because I am still having trouble coming up with an answer.

I was raised a product of an interfaith marriage. Growing up, I attended my fair share of Friday night services. I had a bar mitzvah (and the coolest neon-themed after party), was the president of my temple’s youth group, and I currently work for a JCC. Yet every December I hang ornaments on a Christmas tree.

Does that make me a “bad Jew?”

To be honest, I’m not quite sure.

I find religion hard to stomach, yet I believe culture is incredibly valuable.

I, like most people of my generation, have a hard time trying to reconcile the realities of a modern life with the realities reflected in an ancient text. And for the most part, I find it quite difficult to make them “fit” together. For me, being Jewish is more than just religion and prayer— it’s a culture, a history, and a feeling.

While I don’t believe this trip has helped me determine if I am a “good Jew” or a “bad Jew,” I do believe that this trip has helped me accept and redefine the Jewish person I already am.

I think the majority of us came on this trip yearning for answers about our Jewish identities. But instead of leaving with resolutions, we returned home with new perspectives.

It is OK to be confused. And it is certainly OK to not have all the answers to life’s greatest questions. After all, the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

  1. Be Where Your Feet Are

Life is all about being present. And I have come to learn that it is so important to be fully engaged in every situation we are in.

If it weren’t for my overbearing and nervous Jewish mother, I would have ventured off to Israel without my cell phone. But, of course, I listened to my mommy and upgraded to an international cell phone plan. At first, it was convenient. But it eventually became an utter distraction.

Halfway through my trip, I decided to turn my phone on airplane mode. During the day, I carried my phone with me in case of an emergency and I only used it to take photos. And at night, when I crawled back into my hotel room, I restored cellular service and sent some texts and photos home.

It is so important to “be where your feet are,” especially when traveling. In every situation, we should truly acknowledge where our feet are: at work, at home with our family, or out to dinner with friends. It is a gentle thought to anchor us to the present place or activity we’re engaged in.

As we swiftly move into 2016, I hope to constantly push myself in the direction of living in the moment; enjoying the little beauties of life that are directly in front of my eyes. And of course, not schvitzing the small stuff.

  1. Your Tribe Affects Your Vibe

This is a topic I have discussed many times before. And over and over again, I continue to validate the same lesson:

The people you surround yourself with will create the environment in which you will either thrive or dive.

With Powerball on my mind, let’s play a numbers game—shall we?

Pre-Trip:

0: The number of people I knew going on the trip.

37: The number of people I met for the first time in the airport, three hours before I boarded an international flight, to spend two weeks with them in a foreign country.

Post-Trip:

1: The enthusiastic, humble and super-star Israeli tour guide we had.

1: The incredibly skilled bus driver who, without a doubt, deserves an award for navigating such mountainous terrain.

2: The number of energetic, passionate, and super-cool chaperones who staffed our trip.

2: The number of kick-ass Israeli medics/security guards who kept us safe (and always made us laugh).

6: The number of awesome Israelis who merged into our group to share their perspectives and enjoy the ride.

37: The number of people who were strangers in the airport departing and friends in the airport upon arrival.

119: Our bus number… and now our family code.

Everyone on my trip is a byproduct of summer camp. And as I have said before, camp people are without a doubt the best people in the world.

People who work in a camp setting understand that in order to be successful at camp, you have to learn not only about your campers, but also about yourselves. And when camp staff are able to translate that understanding into real life, that is when all the magic happens.

I believe our tour guide will vouch for me when I say that all of us on the trip had an “I want to learn more” attitude. And I think that is what made this trip extraordinarily unique.

Although we all came from different Jewish communities across the United States, we were all connected through our passion for camp.

Emotions are contagious and the people who you surround yourself with will greatly influence your values, your attitude, your happiness, and your experiences.

  1. Israel is Real

If you asked me to paint a picture of Israel before I went on this trip, I would have easily drawn a war zone.

Having grown up in America and only told the horrible stories of terror in the Middle East, I honestly did not know what to expect when I arrived in Israel—armed guards all over the place? Intense security checkpoints?

I saw none of those things. Yes, there are police patrolling the streets. But nothing more than the presence one would witness in Manhattan or any other large American city.

I want to make it clear that at no point during my trip did I feel unsafe. And in no way was the Israel I saw, or experienced, a war zone.

To be honest, the scariest thing I encountered in Israel were the Israeli drivers. There are literally no rules to the road in Israel. I promise you, an Israeli will park their car, motorcycle, bus or rocket ship wherever they want.

I feel very comfortable telling others that Israel is an incredibly safe place to be. However, I don’t say any of this to make light of the terrible things that do happen.

During my journey in Israel, there was a shooting in Tel-Aviv where two people were killed and nine people were injured. In fact, one of the victims just so happened to be best friends with one of the participants on my trip. Israel is a small place. And everyone is connected in someway or another.

Israel is a vibrant country, with people living their lives day after day. And unfortunately, incidents like the shooting in Tel-Aviv have become somewhat of a normal occurrence. But what is most inspiring to me is the resilient spirit of the Israeli people.

Israel is not a war zone. Israel is a real country, with real people. And if you have ever felt the urge to experience and explore the holy land—I encourage you to do so.

  1. Create Separation to Build Connection

During my journey, I was lucky enough to welcome Shabbat two separate times.

For those of you who do not know, according to the Torah, Shabbat commemorates the day that God rested after creating the world. From sundown on Friday night to sundown on Saturday night, all Jews are encouraged to take a moment to rest and reflect.

On our first Shabbat, we were staying on a kibbutz in Northern Israel. We had a beautiful Friday night service with campfire songs and group games. When Saturday morning rolled around, we had a chance to just hangout as a group. We basked in the sun, we chatted, and listened to Summer Hits of the Early 2000s on Pandora for a few hours (I was the DJ, of course).

As I sat curled up with a blanket on the lawn, I couldn’t help but think about how amazing it was to be in Israel with such a wonderful group of people. It was only the third day of our trip, yet so many meaningful connections and insightful thoughts had already come to fruition.

It wasn’t until I took a moment to reflect that I came to understand the importance of Shabbat.

We’re all stressed. We all have work to get done. We all have relationships to cultivate, bills to pay, and dreams to pursue. But sometimes we just need to come to a complete stop, take a step away from our lives, and reflect.

It was only through creating separation from my day-to-day woes that I was able to build a connection with the people I was with. Even more so, build a connection to my Jewish identity and Israel.

This realization has led me to institute a personal policy of shutting off my work emails and not checking Facebook on Shabbat. The emails can wait and the status update from the girl who I hated in high school will still be there tomorrow.

Moving forward, I plan on welcoming Shabbat each week eager to disconnect in order to reconnect.

Without a doubt, this journey has helped me better understand the history of the Jewish people and appreciate why Israel, a Jewish state, exists and thrives. And more importantly, this trip has equipped me with the most significant Jewish trait of all: pride.

For the first time in quite a while, I feel proud to say I am Jewish. Even more so, proud to say I support Israel.

P.S. Falafel is delicious. And having the ability to stuff your face with fried balls of chickpeas wrapped in pita for 14 days is something you should never take for granted.

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