Having the opportunity to participate in the Birthright program and travel to Israel was a life-changing experience that will remain ingrained in my memory. I traveled with six fellow UCI students, which eased my nerves knowing I had companions. In New York we met up with the remaining 34 Birthright participants from throughout the country, then flew 10 hours to Israel. There we were greeted by a young, hippie-looking Israeli with long blond hair and a calm and cool personality — our tour guide who would be one of the biggest inspirations of the trip.
A bus became our home for the next 10 days as we toured Tzfat and Golan Heights; stayed at a Kibbutz in Galilee, experienced the holy city of Jerusalem where we met eight Israel Defense Force (IDF) soldiers who traveled with us for five days; visited the Western Wall, Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial); hiked Masada to watch the breathtaking sunrise; camped in Bedouin tents in the desert; rode camels; floated in the Dead Sea; and wrapped up the adventure in Netanya, Tel Aviv and Jaffa.
At each destination we discovered a lesson in history and gained a deeper understanding of our people, our religion and our ancestors. Our tour guide did a phenomenal job of constantly educating us. His passion for Jewish history and significance was contagious. Our entire Birthright group bonded with each other as the days passed, and we developed friendships with and great respect for the IDF soldiers, our tour guide and our staffers.
I returned with an important realization that our Jewish community at UCI is significantly stronger than the public may perceive. Media coverage and controversial tensions on campus and in the local community have affected our Jewish community’s reputation. However on my Birthright trip, I was gratified to discover that UCI had by far the largest representation (six students) of participation in our group of Jewish college students. In Israel, we met two UCI alumni who said they fell in love with Israel through their experiences at UCI – so much so that they chose to live in Israel! On our trip we also met another current UCI student who was traveling there on his own.
It was incredible that this many UCI-related Jews crossed paths in the motherland. It was inspiring to see how the Jewish community at UCI made such a strong impression on all of us. I discussed this with other Birthright participants on our trip, and they said their universities’ Jewish communities do not offer the level of fellowship and resources that we do at UCI Hillel.
As the president of Hillel at UCI, I found that these discoveries will motivate me to continue fueling and growing our Hillel, and thus make Jewish life stronger. I have never felt more proud to be Jewish in my life! From the moment I stepped on the El Al Airlines plane, I felt an instant connection that only grew stronger throughout my travels to all the historical sites in Israel. I felt at home, and I am eager to seek ways to return. I know that with my new knowledge and deeper connection to Israel and my Judaism, along with my personal enlightenments, my life has been changed for good, and I will use my experience to influence every aspect of my quest to fortify Jewish life.
This past winter, the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services provided a partial scholarship to Briana Booth (president of Hillel at UCI), making it possible for her to take part in the Taglit-Birthright experience.