When I first heard of Birthright I wanted to go. I had many friends and cousins who had gone, too, and were all so excited after the trip. So finally this winter I was able to go. I wanted to see my history and see where Judaism came from because it is me.
The experience was a blast. Being there with some old friends and making new friends was great and getting to understand the culture of the Jewish people made me feel more like one of them. Sometimes at home I feel like a part of a separate group when I am not with friends who also have special needs. It is easier to communicate with my peers who have similar challenges and I was able to do that with the other participants. In Israel, we were all one group no matter where we came from or what our background was.
I learned many things about Israel from my tour guides; Hebrew words that people use while talking seem much different from the prayers I learned growing up. I learned about the different neighborhoods, types of food, the different culture, the art. For example, at the Bedouin village in the Negev desert they do not use forks or spoons or knives. We all had a terrific dinner eating a very large pita sandwich with our hands and sharing it and laughing together. It was fun!
Another highlight was swimming in the Dead Sea. That was really incredible. The water supported me so I felt like I was floating on air. I felt very free and very happy. I never thought that what they told me about the water was actually true. Being in the Dead Sea with my new friends made that time extra special.
I learned that I know more about Judaism and being Jewish than I thought I did. When we did Shabbat and I helped do the blessings it was the first time I did this on my own and I was very moved – I did the blessing for the wine, and even though I was given the words to read, when I actually started to say it I knew it by heart! I truly felt that I am Jewish, this is my prayer and I am getting to say it in Israel in front of all my friends. It was incredible knowing that I was doing something that was part of a tradition that goes back thousands of years. I have seen my family light Shabbat candles, and bless the wine all my life – now I did it too! Now I know that I am able to be like all of the people I've seen practice Jewish customs because I was part of it in Israel. It made me feel more connected to the Jewish people
Since I got home, I realize that the trip has inspired me. I may go back to synagogue more often and I am thinking about doing more Jewish studies. I am also in touch with many of my new friends via Facebook and email. I hope to go back to Israel someday.
Before the trip I knew I was Jewish, because I was told I was and I went to Hebrew school. But this trip has made me see where our people come from. The land and the history of Israel makes me feel that I am part of them, even when I am back in NY. I even feel connected to Jews around the globe. We are one. I know that Israel can also be my second home.
Lindsey Cohen has been in the Compass Project of Jewish Child Care Association for 6 years. Compass helps Jewish high school and college-age teens who have learning difficulties, Autism spectrum challenges and related disabilities learn important social skills, transition to work and live productive, independent lives. Diagnosed with learning, speech and language disabilities and attention deficit disorder, Lindsey has participated in the Compass Leadership Program, Monday Night Eats program, day trip outings, and summer weekend getaway trips. Compass services include: internships, independent living programs, job counseling and job placement.