Birthright is meant to strengthen your Jewish identity, here’s how it made mine shaky.

Israeli flag blows in the breeze

“Birthright is considered a “gift” to Jews around the world. It is meant to strengthen our Jewish identity while ensuring solidarity with the state of Israel. What they never outright say, but non

Source: Birthright is meant to strengthen your Jewish identity, here’s how it made mine shaky.

“ISRAEL IS FOR THE JEWS. It is a Jewish state,” said Anan, our Birthright group leader. I had liked him a lot before he uttered those words. I wasn’t prepared for this subtle prejudice, but realized then that I had been overlooking comments like these for ten days.

We were nearing the end of our free trip around Israel. Birthright is considered a “gift” to Jews around the world. It is meant to strengthen our Jewish identity while ensuring solidarity with the state of Israel. What they never outright say, but nonetheless drill into your head, is that they want you to “make Aliyah,” to return to the Holy Land and increase Israel’s numbers.

The first few days of our trip had me thinking that I could really move to Israel. The nature of the country alone was startlingly beautiful. Every landscape seemed limitless, despite the fact that Israel is such a small country. Immediately off the plane, our group was boarded onto a coach bus and driven to the tip of the Golan Heights. We stood on the border, looking out at Lebanon to our left, listening to bombs going off in Syria to our right.

For ten restless days, we toured the country on that bus, from the Tel Aviv to the Negev Desert, from the Banias Nature Reserve to Jerusalem. We went from stop to stop, climbing mountains before noon and sleeping somewhere different every night. One night in a hostel in Jerusalem, another night in a kibbutz by the Dead Sea, another in a Bedouin tent in the desert. Almost every time I took my seat on the bus, I’d fall asleep, like everyone else, only to be awoken by sweet Anan saying, “Wakey, wakey, everyone. Kosher food and eggs.”

My days and nights blended together. We moved around so much that I couldn’t keep track of which day we kayaked on the Jordan River and which day we watched the sun rise on the Masada. It didn’t matter. I was making close friends and falling in love with the State of Israel.

Of course, I had been to Israel a few times before with my family, but never as a Jew. My father, a Christian Arab, is an Israeli citizen. He is the youngest of eight siblings, and therefore, the only one who can say that he was born in Israel, and not Palestine. Since my American-born mother is Jewish, I am a Jew, and was thus eligible to go on Birthright. When my group arrived at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, jet lagged and awkward around each other, Israelis all over the airport called out to us. “Hey, Taglit! Welcome home,” they said. And I knew they meant it.

I’ve never been religious, or even a believer in God. However, there’s something about being raised Jewish that sticks with you. It’s cultural, and unless you’re in the tribe, you don’t get it. For years I had been the token Jew among my friends, enduring jokes about my curly hair or being cheap with a smirk and an equally racist remark. Now, in Israel, I loved how Jewish everything was. After being raised in a Puritan-based society where citizens question President Obama’s Christianity as a condition of his presidency, it was refreshing to suddenly be somewhere where the norm is to party on Thursday night because Friday night is the start of the Shabbat, and Saturday is the day of rest. It was easier to eat kosher than not, and I didn’t feel like I was teaching people about my heritage if I referred to anything I learned in Hebrew school.

We all shared an identity, a system of values that is old and traditional and ours. Who knew I was just an online application and an intense airport interrogation away from being stuck on a bus with 40 other Jews, all of us kvetching about the heat and sharing medicines from our personal pharmacies? I felt like I belonged, like I was with family. Who cares that there were packs of young soldiers with machine guns wandering about everywhere we went? There was a war going on, after all, and they were only protecting their country, right?

I was so caught up in enjoying this opportunity to be among “my people” that I almost forgot about my other people, my Arab side. An experience in Jerusalem provided me with a small reminder of just how unacceptable it is to be Arab in a Jewish state.

When our group arrived in the Holy City, an American man who had made Aliyah greeted us. He had a long beard and wore a kippah and was married to a conservative Jewish woman. Her hair and skin were covered and her hands rested on a stroller that carried their little Israeli citizen. I wasn’t listening to whatever lesson the man was trying to impart on us anyway, so I strolled to a nearby shop for an iced coffee. Every other time I had been to Israel, I always spoke in Arabic. So when I began to greet the woman behind the counter, who couldn’t have been much older than I, in the same tongue, she looked at me with hostility, like I was a terrorist.

Ma?” She asked. “What?”

“An iced coffee, please?” I tried in English.

Her face broke out into a relieved smile. “Of course,” she responded in English. “5 shekel, please.”

I walked away feeling uneasy. It was odd to me that this woman would speak English over Arabic, considering that every Arab in Israel most likely speaks Hebrew, and that until 1948, possibly later, the primary language spoken in this region was Arabic. It was also odd to me just how many Israelis spoke English very well. I later learned that Jews begin English lessons in elementary school. Arabs in the same country don’t begin their English lessons until middle school.

For the moment, I let that encounter roll off my shoulders. Our Israeli soldiers had arrived to join us for the rest of our trip, a part of the trip called Mifgash, and I was eager to meet them.

I got close to one in particular; he reminded me of family. His name was Noam, he was from Be’er Sheva, and he looked like an Arab — dark skin, black facial hair, hazel eyes. He said his family had lived in Be’er Sheva for centuries, hence his Middle Eastern features. Noam and I became fast friends as he took it upon himself to be my personal translator and haggler at the colorful and humming Machane Yehuda Market. Noam introduced me to a Jerusalem mixed grill, made of chicken hearts, liver and spleen and stuffed lovingly in a pita with salad and other fixings. He led the way into the caves of the archeological site, the City of David, and sang Destiny’s Child in the dark to make me laugh. My mother would have nudged me in his direction and told me he was “a nice Jewish boy.”

Noam spoke perfect English, but only a little Arabic. He knew enough to say, “Step out of the car, please.” “Lift your shirt.” And, “Close the door.” Things a soldier would say to the enemy. He was also fairly religious for a young, Friends-watching Israeli. On Friday night, we held a Havdalah service, a ceremony that marks the end of the Shabbat and the beginning of the new week. Noam piously explained to me that the ceremony is meant to stimulate all five senses. We light a special havdalah candle to see the flame and feel its heat, we pass a cup of wine around to taste, we smell a bag of spices, and we hear the prayers.

On the day we went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, Noam and I cried like babies while we watched videos from survivors. We held hands and walked through the museum a little ways back from the rest of the group.

“I am happy to live in a world where Jews finally have a home,” he said.

I pretended to tie my shoe so that I could dislodge my hand from his grasp. I was thinking about my father, my grandmother, my family who call Israel home, yet are not Jewish. This was my first trip to Israel where I noticed a distinguished absence of Arabs, Muslim or Christian, from my prevailing Israeli landscape.

“Right, I’m grateful for that too,” I said. “Especially after World War II. But what about the Arabs who lived here peacefully with Jews and Christians for centuries before Great Britain carved up the land with little regard for cultural territories?”

He smiled at me like I was a child who had asked an adorable question with an obvious answer.

“The Arabs have their land,” said Noam. “God blessed Ishmael and his sons and promised them that their descendants would have a great nation. But Israel is for the Jews, the chosen people.”

“You’re quoting the Bible now?” I asked, incredulous.

“Of course,” he replied with a furrowed brow. “God has given us the State of Israel. It was prophesied that we would lose Israel for our sins, which we have, but we would have to fight for our land, which would one day be restored to us, which it has. Didn’t they teach you anything in Hebrew school?”

“Do you know what we call people who use the Bible as a basis for a social and political argument in my country?” I asked.

He looked at me, waiting.

“Idiots!” I exclaimed. “Don’t you have separation of church and state, or whatever?”

“No, we are a Jewish state.”

“And my family? All those who remain here, degraded to near second-class citizens?”

“They are not second class,” he said, defensively. “Arabs can practice whatever religion they want and live among us. But they will live under our law.”

I didn’t respond. I didn’t know quite how I felt about this conflict inside me. Noam seemed brain washed. Now that I thought about it, many of the Israelis we met seemed ignorantly one-sided. Not necessarily outright hateful, but definitely nationalistic, which history tells us is never a good quality for a population to have. I suppose you might need to feel that way if you were risking your life for your country and there was no way out of it. We had had many group discussions about the importance of the Israeli draft, something Arab citizens are exempt from, and the general consensus among our young Israelis was that they were proud to serve their country and protect their borders.

Noam and I walked silently back to the group, hands at our sides.

After Yad Vashem, our group leaders drove us to Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery, named after Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. We paid our respects to the thousands of neat, gardened plots and rock-anointed graves that covered military casualties, some very recent. Anan led us over to a large patch of grass among the gravestones.

“Does anyone know why there is so much open space here?” he asked, arms stretched wide.

One of the girls in the group raised her hand and said, “To make room for more bodies.”

“Exactly,” said Anan. “Our war is far from over.”

That day, the Israelis left our group for their respective homes. Noam promised to keep in touch and try to visit me, which to his credit, he did, but I wasn’t as interested in being his friend. His views felt like an attack on a large part of me. I was proud to be a Jew, but I was also proud to be an Arab.

On the bus, Anan was on one of his spiels, so I was somewhere between staring out the window and dozing off. I perked up when he said, “Israel is for the Jews. It is a Jewish state.”

Again with this? I thought. Anan was sitting on his knees facing the seat behind him across the aisle from me. I don’t remember whom he was trying to brainwash.

“Anan,” I called. He looked at me from under his cowboy hat. “I’ve told you about my father before, haven’t I? He is a Christian Arab and he and his family have lived here in Israel, well, it was Palestine before, for generations. How do you fit Christians who call this land home into your Jewish state?”

“The Arabs don’t want to be a part of the State of Israel,” he said, throwing his hands into the air. “They cannot assimilate.”

“Why should they have to assimilate? They’ve lived here longer than all of the European Jews who immigrated here after the War.”

He started wagging his forefinger at me, smirked, and said, “Arabs are loyal to Arabs over the State of Israel. You ask your father where he lives, and he will say, ‘Israel.’ You ask him what he is, what his identity is, and he will say ‘I am an Arab.’”

A few days later, Birthright was over, and I had extended my stay in the country to visit my family in Kafr Kanna, an Arab town in lower Galilee, where you’re just as likely to be woken up by church bells as by the mosque’s call to prayer. My dad moved back home a few years ago, so this would be the first time I saw him. After a tearful reunion, we set off towards the Israel that I was used to.

Kafr Kanna was a lot smaller than I remembered it, and a lot uglier than the beautiful Jewish towns and cities we had visited during our tour. The streets were tight with sand-colored buildings and old cars. Everything from the shops and restaurants to the clothes people in the streets wore seemed like hand-me-downs. After spending time among the snow-white stone temples in Tzfat and the metropolitan haven of Tel Aviv, Kanna felt like kind of a dump. But this dump was home, and I was happy to be back with my family.

Later that night, over a meal of jaaj maashi, stuffed chicken, I asked my father, “Where do you live?”

“I live in Israel,” he said, with an indulgent smile.

“And what are you? What is your identity?”

“I am an Israeli citizen, habibti.” 

8 reasons a work exchange is the best way to travel

notched bow, archery, ITH big bear mountain adventure lodge

“#3. You’ll learn something new: You are guaranteed to pick up a new skill with each new place you volunteer.”

Source: 8 reasons a work exchange is the best way to travel


1. Accommodation is going to be cheaper for you.

Now, I’ve only used Workaway and HelpX as a source for my work exchanges. (Something about the different website layouts for each country’s WWOOF page is displeasing to my eye, and I don’t really care for children.) But each host only expected me to work an average of five hours a day, five days a week. In exchange, I’d get a bed to sleep in and at least breakfast, sometimes lunch or dinner. Not a bad deal, right?

I can’t imagine the amount of money I saved by working for my bed. Last year, I worked for two weeks at a bed and breakfast on Santa Marianita beach outside of Manta in Ecuador, a location I already wanted to visit for its sick kite surfing culture. If I had stayed in the dorm rooms for $15 per night, I’d have spent $210, not to mention the cost of ordering off their delicious breakfast menu every morning. Instead, I saved an average of $300, which I spent on kite surfing lessons, and got to feast on breakfast burritos and stuffed french toast every morning, prepared by the hotel’s charming Ecuadorean cook, Martiza.

2. It’s the easiest way to immerse yourself in the local culture.

Most hosts ask their volunteers to stay and work for an average of one month, sometimes more and sometimes less. In this time, you’re not merely stopping in a city for a weekend, seeing the touristy sites, and going on your merry way. You can truly embrace “slow travel” because you have the time and the resources to really get to know the place and the people who live in it full time.

I did my first work exchange at a hostel in Catania, Sicily. I stayed for two months, which was a little more than I needed at the time, but there were other volunteers who had been there for nearly a year. One British girl, George, in particular was practically Sicilian by the time she left, complete with big hand gestures, homemade pasta and recommending horse meat as a delicacy.

By staying in Catania for an extended period of time and not just passing through, I felt that I was able to assimilate a little more into the Sicilian culture, and therefore, adopt a little of that culture into myself. In general, I learned to slow my roll a little bit. I’d wake up in the morning and stroll to the bakery for some fresh bread to put on the table for the guests. The baker would help me practice my Italian by asking me if I’d like a little something sweet for myself, to which I’d demurely refuse until she asked if I was sure, and then I’d say, forse solo uno.

After the bakery, I’d stop at the fruit stand on the street, buy whatever the young man working there recommended, refuse his marriage proposals and head back up to the kitchen to lay out my purchases and make espressos for the guests.

I even spent enough time there that the manager, Rosario, had his mother come in and teach me how to make pasta a la Norma and a traditional tomato sauce, with just a touch of heat. I’d spend my days buying the freshest tomatoes and seafood from the outdoor market, stirring a simmering pot of sauce or soup that I’d serve to the guests for dinner, and putting laundry out on the line to dry, all the while staring off into the sea and listening to the hostel’s neighbor practice his cello for the Catania orchestra.

3. You’ll learn something new.

You are guaranteed to pick up a new skill with each new place you volunteer. Whether it’s learning everything there is about horse maintenance on a Midwestern ranch or excavating an archaeological monument in Siberia, you will walk away with more than what you arrived with.

If you’re like me, and basically the entire American millennial population, you’re not quite sure what career path you should be on. And that’s fine, work exchanges are a great way to try out different jobs and explore your interests.

It’s always been a far off dream of mine to open my own hostel, so that’s why I gravitate toward hostel work. As I write this, I’m volunteering at my third hostel, ITH Mountain Adventure Lodge in Big Bear, California. Due to my past experience working in hostels coupled with my general hospitality expertise, the managers here trust me to basically run the place while they’re away. I understand the flow of this industry, and now I’m learning how to use different booking software. Not to mention they have me splitting wood and teaching guests archery. I had no idea how to do either of those things until I got here. And I got to learn all these rugged and useful skills for free.

Last year, I volunteered with a family in the jungle in Peru. The other volunteers and I tended to their land, planting crops, feeding chickens and contributing to the compost pile. But mainly, we spent a ton of time digging an irrigation ditch that would hopefully redirect the heavy rainfall that completely flooded their house the year before. I learned a lot about the struggles of the residents of the Peruvian Amazon and got to contribute to the family’s well being. Not to mention how cool it was to have monkeys for neighbors, the Tambopata River as my personal bath, and fresh papaya to pick off the trees for breakfast.

4. Even though it is work, you can really just take a break.

If you’ve been moving non-stop around the world, living out of your backpack and in a new hostel every third night, you’ll definitely enjoy a chance to stop and rest for a while. It will feel good to have a purpose again other than just going and going, not to mention the wonderful feeling of being able to unpack without knowing that you’ll immediately have to roll and stuff everything into your bag again and hoist it on your shoulders within a few days.

As I travel, I always know that work exchanges are an option for when I’m just too tired to go on. Here at my current Workaway, a nice Swiss boy has just arrived. He’s been traveling around the States for a little over two months and hasn’t stayed in one city for more than five days. For the first two days of his arrival here, he couldn’t stop exclaiming how happy he is to get back to a routine that includes a normal work, exercise and eating schedule. He now has the responsibility of splitting wood and he says he couldn’t be happier.

And guess what, you can leave again whenever you want.

5. Work exchanges are also a really good way to start your trip.

Maybe you’ve never traveled solo before, or maybe you haven’t been to this particular part of the world before. Doing a quick work exchange will help you acclimate to being in a new environment.

When I graduated university two years ago and decided that I wanted to travel, I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. So I checked out Workaway’s website to see what opportunities different countries had to offer. I had been to Italy before, but only for ten days. If you’ve been to Italy, you’ll know that ten days isn’t nearly enough time. I could spend my life in that gorgeous country getting fat off pasta. So when I saw a post about a unique hostel where volunteers live with the guests and contribute to the running of the place, I thought it would be a great way to start my travels. I would know exactly where I was going and have a support system while away from home.

6. There’s going to be people from all over the world working alongside you.

Even if you’re the only volunteer at a farm in Nowheresville, Albania, you’ll still meet new people who will contribute to your sense of self. At hostels, obviously, the amount of people you meet is much more varied. I have so enjoyed comparing small traditions with people I’ve met from other countries, sharing stories about our different holiday experiences or hearing about what they eat for meals in their own countries. It never gets old when my German friend, Lara, complains about the amount of meat we eat in America and that we don’t know how to make bread.

Also, the people you meet can provide unique and valuable information for your future travels. They can recommend a great hostel or restaurant where they just were in Vietnam, or give you detailed notes about what you must see while you’re traveling the Rhine Valley, photos and all.

7. You can learn a new language, or practice a second or third language.

Many work exchange programs are specific to language exchange. If you search the Au Pair websites, you’ll see that many European families want to host native English speakers to speak to their children in English. At the same time, you’ll definitely get a chance to practice your French.

I loved volunteering in South America because I am passionate about becoming fluent in Spanish. The language is so beautiful and so useful to know. Speaking Spanish has helped me both abroad and back home. In fact, one of the reasons my work exchange in Ecuador hired me was because they desperately needed a translator. I’m not fluent, but dealing with vendors and guests forced me to practice my Spanish and even learn some new words, rather than just getting by on smiles and hand gestures.

8. You can use your host as a home base while you work on other important things.

Every morning, one of my fellow volunteers in California, Kaja, from Poland, wakes up to Skype with clients from home. She has her own marketing business which funds her travels, and she can keep up with her workload online.

That’s the great thing about these work exchanges, or at least the ones I have engaged in. Your free time is your free time. After my shift is up, or when I have a day off, I take time to write or edit photos and videos. I am currently enrolled in a few online classes that I feel I can dedicate more time to here than if I were back home, chasing money and keeping up with my social life. I feel as though I am living in some world that is separate from the real world, a world where I have the time and the freedom to explore any interest and dedicate time to it.