I went on Birthright during the winter of 2009-10: the time of Operation Cast Lead, and amid the elections for Prime Minister.
We saw the beauty of Israel, and enjoyed the fun most students did, but there was still something very different about that trip. My mother was anxious, and upset that I had still decided to go.
I gave an interview to the Baltimore Sun right before departure saying, “In Jewish culture, you learn Israel is where you’ve come from and where you’re supposed to be … going there is something you always want to do in your life as a Jew at least once.”
I still remember waking up in the morning in the North, and seeing a newscast of bombs hitting the Lebanon border that we had just visited the previous day. One of our soldier guides said, “Guys, that is in the South, far from here, do not worry.”
Minutes later, they put us in a room, and we were unable to leave for Safed for another two or three hours until things seemed to have calmed down. The stop in Ashkelon, Baltimore’s sister city, did not happen, but the soldiers made sure to give us a vivid picture of the city that had the nicest beaches, and the best of people.
We spoke about the future of the people and how the elections could impact it, which candidate we supported, and which we did not. I remember at Rabin Square, and learning something new. Our soldiers told us that life was not easy when Rabin was in power. They could remember running to bomb shelters way too often as children.
A Birthright trip during a conflict gave us an inspiring picture of Israel, an Israel that is not so simple and happy, an Israel that fights back. Well, it has been three and a half years, and the situation in Israel right now is like it was then, some say even worse.
That once-distant Israel is the family and friends in our backyard; it is the one that worries us; but at the same time we know it has that power to fight back again and again. For now, we can just wish for the well-being of those whom we care about, and wear smiles on our faces when we glimpse hope in photos and comments on the Internet about how life goes on amid war.
Luanna Azulay lives in the Moishe House in Williamsburg and is pursuing a degree in Public Administration at NYU’s Wagner School. Born and raised in Recife, Brazil, she can make some mean mufletas.