My Two Birthrights: Israel and Asperger’s (and Travel Tips)
Making pilgrimage to Israel is an important part of the education and fostering of Jewish identity of Jews in the Diaspora. Since 1999, Birthright Israel, a partnership between American entrepreneurs and the Israeli government, has sent 500,000 Jewish young adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six on a ten-day journey throughout Israel, designed to give them a sense of Israeli culture and life.
The organization now offers trips out of other countries with significant Jewish populations, including the United Kingdom, Brazil and Russia, just to name a few. Trips are offered for split age groups; 18-22 and 22-26.
Friends and family can travel in the same group, and Birthright also offers single-gender trips and trips designed for individuals with physical and mental disabilities. For most trips, six to nine IDF soldiers will accompany your trip in a program known as Mifgash, where soldiers complete their service tour with Birthright groups as a sort of vacation.
No one in my immediate family had ever been to Israel. My dad’s grandparents had been, as had my great-aunt, but my parents nor my own grandparents had ever had the chance to see it. I applied for a trip through Israel Outdoors, one of the many trip organizers contracted through Birthright.
In February, I received an email that I had been placed on a trip leaving July 3 out of New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. The trip is essentially free… participants are only responsible for paying a $250 deposit, and covering one meal a day while in Israel, as well as domestic travel to the designated departure city (usually New York).
After numerous snafus and some minor setbacks, on the day before my birthday, I got the email confirming my spot on the trip.
“Are You Ready to Begin?”
July 3 came, and at 8:45 AM, my mom pulled into the parking garage at Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport. I said my goodbyes to her and my grandmother, and began the lengthy journey to Israel. As a result of the negative experiences I had with my fellow travelers on my trip to Europe the previous summer, most of which, in all honesty, stemmed from my having Asperger’s, I was nervous that a similar issue would arise.
After a 75-minute flight to New York, and a nine-hour layover, I made my way to the Delta terminal at JFK. I had met some people in my tour group during my self-guided excursion around the airport.
They had seemed pretty cool, and I hoped that the other thirty-six people, as well as our three female madrichim (counselors) would be just as welcoming. For the most part, they were. At exactly midnight, aboard a full Delta Airlines plane of just under three hundred people, our group, along with about three other Birthright groups, sped down the south-facing runway at JFK, bound for Tel Aviv.
Soft Place to Land
When I say you could feel the gravity of the situation, the sheer force of spirit that overtakes the entire plane from the minute we entered Israeli airspace, I am not exaggerating. When the pilot welcomed us to Israel, people began to clap. But it had not yet hit me that I was actually there.
The process of clearing customs, infamous for being arduous, only took about twenty-five minutes. The modern design of the terminal gave no indication that we were in the Holy Land. Once we had met up with our tour guide, a former Special Ops agent, Maxi; our bus driver, a tough-as-nails former Mossad operative named Lazar, and our 22-year-old IDF medic Ofir, and we began the drive to Kinneret on the Sea of Galilee, the landscape gradually changed from city to country and I could tell I was actually in the Holy Land.
Over my ten days in Israel, I faced some challenges, both physical and mental. Each day, we rose with the sun at 6:30, and traversed the land, hiked, white water rafted, toured ancient cities, and were given exposure to the bounty that Israeli ingenuity has borne until 9:30 at night.
By the end of the day, I was far too exhausted to join my fellow participants in the imbibing of spirits, or the programming put on by our madrichim. On the religious aspect of the trip, many of us were not very religious, and some primarily practiced religions other than Judaism.
I often felt uncomfortable due to the nature of the trip. It was not the fault of anyone traveling with me, just the by-product of an intensive itinerary that has you constantly moving around all day. The goal of Birthright is to show you as much of Israel as possible in those ten days.
At some points of the trip, such as the Western Wall, the spirituality of it is sort of shoved into you, and it’s hard to derive any individual meaning. At numerous instances, I was so overtaken by emotion that I found myself sobbing. Masada, the Holocaust museum (Yad Vashem) and the national cemetery (Har Herzl).
Masada… there are no words to describe it. Waking up at 3:30 in the morning, beginning the ascent at around 5:30, before the sun could break over the horizon. I was tired, it was physically draining, and, due to a fear of heights when not enclosed in a space (such as an aircraft), scared out of my mind.
But when I reached the top… the whole world seemed to be below me. The desert and hills stretched on seemingly into oblivion, with the Dead Sea to the east. The old fortress lay in ruins, and the forces of time have not robbed it of its ability to make people aware of the events that took place there so long ago.
Holding to the Ground
Having Asperger’s tends to have an impact on how you perceive, react to, and view things. It was no different for me in Israel. I was overwhelmed by the large clusters of Birthright participants at each site we visited (many groups leave on the same departure date from different tour organizers).
And as a result of having Asperger’s combined with anxiety, in all honesty, I was often agitated, and would take this out on my fellow travelers. Thankfully, unlike in Europe, they understood that I was not doing so in an attempt to purposely insult them.
They could see past the facade I put out and understand I was nervous, anxious, however you wish to phrase it. I did not get along with everyone, of course. There is always one in every tour group. Or in my case, three. They were not as understanding. I didn’t let them get to me, though. I continued to carry on and made it to the end of the trip, even making several connections I hope to maintain.
Moments came when I felt as if I would have to give up and return home early.
Such times did come to pass when I was barely holding on. When there was tension- checkpoints, seeing IDF soldiers, the constant monitoring of the news by our tour guide and medic- it was very overwhelming, and would have been for anyone, but especially for someone with both Asperger’s and anxiety. On one occasion, we had to wait to travel to a site… it may have been Mt. Bental… until we had been given the clear from Birthright. You can feel it in the air, it permeates the country.
But hey, I got through it. And I made it home safely.
Words Are Not Enough
I got through the ten days, without deeply offending anyone in my group, notwithstanding the support and kindness of my madrichim, Becca, Lilia and Hannah (Chana), as well as Maxi, who I can say is the best tour guide I’ve ever had. Unlike my tour guide in Europe, he was always attentive, incredibly selfless, and did everything he could to make sure every single participant felt welcomed and as if they could accomplish every challenge the trip threw at them.
I won’t lie… the trip is a challenge. It will test your limits. You will have to deal with a lot of political discussions which not everyone likes to sit through. The itinerary is ridiculous, and everyone is very different from you. But the rewards, spiritual or otherwise, are worth every minute of it.
And when you return to the States, you will ask yourself, “Did that really just happen, or did I imagine it all?”
Trust me… it is very real.
Tips for Traveling
If you intend to travel on Birthright at any point, apply as soon as the primary application opens for the season you intend to travel in, summer (May-August), or winter (December-March). Then jump right into the secondary application right when you get the email.
Consider any possible commitments you may have during the period you intend to travel when choosing trip dates. And keep in mind there are countless trip providers, community trips, and special interest trips. Do your research before you apply.
When you are actually in Israel, don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone. Don’t just eat falafel or shawarma for every meal. Push yourself, within reason, physically and mentally. The trip kind of does that for you, as mentioned above.
Try to get to know your fellow travelers. You won’t get along with all of them, but you will find at least a few people you will want to be around. And when you get home, try to maintain contact with them. You never know when you’ll be on vacation and want to revisit the memories you made in Israel.
Pack more than you think you might need, but don’t overload yourself. You won’t have the chance to do laundry, and you’ll want to change partway through the day, but you are always responsible for carrying your own luggage… often up numerous stairs, and through the airport.
And finally… remember that everyone is coming from different backgrounds, religious or otherwise. Some are very secular, some are more observant. The majority are somewhere in the middle. They come from all over the country, converging on your trip’s departure city to make the six thousand-mile journey to Israel. Remember that when you introduce yourself.
Have YOU ever traveled to Israel?
Do you have additional traveling tips?
We’d love to hear your feedback in the comment section below!
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