On December 18 Temple Israel Religious School Principal Ariella Lowensohn, along with her fiance Joe Rohr, embarked on that familiar ritual of Jewish 20-somethings – a Birthright trip to Israel.
“It was very cool to go as a Jewish professional, to go as a teacher,” she said. “Instead of taking in everything for myself, all the sights and sounds, I was thinking about what I can bring back to my students.”
Ariella hopes to use her trip as an example for the students of what can be gained from visiting Israel as a Jewish American young adult: a greater understanding of the importance of a Jewish homeland.
“Israel is home for the Jewish people,” Ariella said. “No matter where you’re from, there’s a connection to this land and the people who live there. It seems that being Israeli is not a passive identity; it is a role that many play actively on a daily basis. [Former Omaha Shlicha] Gili [Gutwirth] pointed out to me that the continued existence of Israel is not a given, like many other large, well-established nations. In order for Israel to continue to survive, someone has to live there and fight for it.”
Ariella continued: “One of the things that American kids always seem to have trouble wrapping their minds around is the idea that everyone goes into the military, and spending time with the soldiers who joined our trip and talking to them about what it’s like and hearing the stories at Mt. Herzl makes me better-equipped to answer those questions.”
Ariella most looks forward to sharing with Temple Israel’s Religious School students the people she met while in Israel.
“One of the greatest things I am bringing back for our kids is that I just have more resources to go to now for them,” she said. “If they want to talk a bit with a current Israeli soldier, I have a bunch of new friends I can just call up and have them Skype with our students. I couldn’t really do that before.”
For 10 days Ariella and Joe trekked about the country with their Birthright group, hiking up and down mountains, and visiting ancient synagogues. They visited the Western Wall in the pouring rain and Ariella and another girl in her group went through the prayer service together.
“There was a small group of girls who were praying, but they didn’t really know what they were doing,” Ariella said. “They just seemed lost and confused, and with the rain, I had really given up on having any sort of positive experience. I was having the opposite of a meaningful experience. But then I noticed this other girl trying to read from the prayer book, and I started helping her read some of the passages and we went through the whole service by ourselves. It was freezing and cold, but it turned from a really upsetting experience to a really moving one.”
Joe also found praying at the Western Wall to be “an absolutely incredible experience.”
“One of the hazzans would start singing and everyone would join in and we’d get in a circle and dance all around. It took a long time, but it was a very, very moving experience.”
They also visited the city of David, which has an underground river running through it, because King David had diverted the water from going to Jerusalem. The group walked through a tunnel in which the water came halfway up Ariella’s legs before exiting at a different part of the Western Wall.
The Birthright tour also took Ariella and Joe to Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery, which was especially moving because of the soldiers who were accompanying their group who would stop at seemingly random headstones.
“It’s a small country with a lot of personal connections,” Ariella said. “It seems like everyone in Israel knows someone who is buried there.”
“It was striking to come to understand better how Israelis see their fallen versus how America sees its fallen,” Joe said. “In Israel, everyone fights. Everyone has family members who are currently in the military, who just left the military or who are about to go in.”
This was Ariella’s second visit to Israel. She first went with her family when she was 14, but she wanted to go again for a few reasons.
“I wanted to go with Joey,” Ariella said. “And going as an adult is different. I’m a different person than I was at 14.”
What made visiting Israel with her fiance even more special was purchasing their wedding bands in a shop in Jerusalem.
“When I was younger, my father had told me that, traditionally, Jewish wedding rings are supposed to be a simple, unbroken band of gold,” Ariella said. “And Joey and I both liked the idea of getting simple gold bands.”
Because the rings weren’t going to be fancy, Ariella and Joey decided they would get the rings in a special place instead.
“We wanted there to be something special in their essence and one of the ideas we had, even before we decided to go on Birthright, was to get the rings in Jerusalem,” she said.
Ariella and Joey visited a small shop outside of Jerusalem’s touristy shopping district run by a family named Melzer.
“We went into the shop and asked for Mr. Melzer and the older guy, he pointed to himself and then each of the other employees. ‘I’m a Melzer,’ he said, ‘and he’s a Melzer, and he’s a Melzer.’ There was definitely a different feel in their shop, very warm and cozy,” Ariella said.
Ariella and Joe’s wedding is in May in California.
When the 10 days of Birthright were over, Ariella and Joe stayed in Israel an extra week to see parts of the country they were unable to visit as part of the Birthright group, and to try to experience Israel more as Israelis do instead of as tourists. They stayed with Gili, who showed them around Herzliya, a northern suburb of Tel Aviv.
“After the organized Birthright trip, we got to do stuff on our own, like renting a car and going to the supermarket,” Ariella said. “I was able to make it more my own on this trip. I now have enough Jewish background that I could decide what was important to me.”
Some of the trip highlights for Ariella and Joe was walking the Stations of the Cross and visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, places they wouldn’t have seen on the Birthright tour.
“Birthright does a great job of hitting the highlights, the mandatory Israel sites,” Ariella said. “There were a lot of things I wouldn’t have done if not for Birthright, like riding a camel or hiking down a mountain, so I would definitely recommend it, but it’s not enough. Birthright cannot be your only trip to Israel, or your only experience in Israel.”