I thought that I had learned a lot about JNF, or Jewish National Fund, while interning for their New England branch this past summer. But it wasn’t until I went to Israel as part of Shorashim (the Birthright organization partnered with JNF) that I truly experienced, witnessed, and understood the impact JNF had on Israel and on me as an American Jew. I was skeptical when others told me that I would bond instantly with the other members of my birthright group. Yet ten days later, when I found myself flying back to America, filled with sadness at leaving my new friends all too quickly, I could not doubt the veracity of their statements.
During the days leading up to my trip I was filled with trepidation at the thought of visiting Yad Vashem. My grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, had died a few months prior during Yom Kippur and I was scared of being emotional and feeling vulnerable in front of strangers. In the end I realized I shouldn’t have been concerned. Instead of strangers, I found myself crying and being comforted by friends, friends who not only shared and understood my pain but also my burden of being a granddaughter of survivors.
Hands, from both Americans and Israelis, reached out to help me along every path and step in Israel. As we hiked around a waterfall in the Golan, many of us slipped on rocks and almost fell in; yet someone else from our group was always there to catch us. Ascending Masada at sunrise was a group effort; we clutched both the handrails leading up to the mountain as well as our friends, for stability, mental reassurance, and awe. We held each other as we stood silently in front of the Western Wall, and we comforted each other and passed along our email addresses and phone numbers when we finally found ourselves in the Ben Gurion airport saying goodbye.
Because of my past internship I knew that JNF planted a lot of trees in Israel. But, I didn’t realize the magnitude of that until I was in Neot Kedumin, where I dug through the land’s roots and rocky soil, I got dirt under my fingernails, and I planted a seed with my own hands. I knew that JNF created a playground, but, in Sderot, I found myself on my hands and knees, playing ‘house’ with children inside a former bomb shelter built to protect families along the Gaza Strip. I knew that JNF was constantly working on bringing water to Israel, but in the Negev desert, as I rode a camel, my throat felt dry and full of the sand and heat which emanated constantly from the ground.
Before I went, I was cynical about how much of a connection I would truly feel with Israel and with Israel’s people. Yet afterwards, as I felt the plane taxing off of Israel’s soil and headed back to the west, I understood why JNF had decided to partner with a Birthright program named Shorashim, or ‘roots’. The trip had not only allowed me to discover mine, but had also helped my Jewish ‘roots’ begin their journey into becoming a sapling.
*Michelle Ronay was an intern in the New England Regional Office and recently returned from a JNF-Shorashim Birthright trip.