As travelers-we’ve all had that one special trip. For some it might be with families while for others it might be on a group trip or even a solo adventure. It almost doesn’t matter where or how as much as the effects of that journey. I knew I wanted to go to Israel. I knew my parents were afraid for my safety. It was on an organized trip after my sophomore year at Brandeis University that I made it to that special land. There I found a love of travel and it was there that I built up the courage to plan the next big adventure with a few friends to Europe. Exactly twenty years later (almost to the day), a former student of mine had a similar experience. She too had traveled before, but an organized trip after her second year at university granted her access to Israel and instilled more confidence than she ever had, more independence than she ever knew and a love of travel that has truly taken flight.
Do you remember the trip that did that for you? Can you pinpoint the moment it happened?
I met Sarah Hecht when she was fourteen years old. She was an exuberant student at the high school at which I spent more than a decade teaching and advising extracurricular clubs. As a freshman, she ran for office in the class of 2012 (I was the advisor) and won the title of Treasurer. An energetic teenager, already active on the swim team and in the process of earning her lifeguarding certification, she was not your typical kid. The youngest of three children in a family that fostered education, community-mindedness, responsibility and volunteerism, she spent the next three years of high school planning every class event with a genuine heart and positive spirit. She often reminisced about a mission trip to Guatemala (early in high school) where the project was to give back to the community and rebuild for a few weeks. That trip may have peaked her interest; but it wasn’t until graduating high school, finding her feet at CW Post University, joining a sorority and booking a ticket on a Birthright adventure to Israel that she found the amazing gifts of travel. Here she shares her reflections of her first trip to Israel and what those ten days of constant smiles meant to her.
1.Why did you want to travel? There is a quote that goes “travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.” I always understood what it meant; yet I never actually experienced it. I wanted to travel because I wanted to learn more than just Long Island, New York and even the 50 states. I wanted to discover new cultures first-hand.
2.When you were young, what type of trips did you take with your family? We traveled all around the states visiting family in Florida, Nevada, Chicago, and Tennessee. To this day my parents still like to plan spontaneous trips to places like Baltimore and Philadelphia. We also took larger family vacations to the Caribbean. I am very fortunate to have a family that is able to and wanted to travel. Our travels often centered on family. I think that is why I love traveling so much, because it reminds me of family.
3.What did you expect to get out of this trip to Israel? I really didn’t know what to expect, so I tried to have little to no expectations. All I really knew was what I had heard from other people and what the trip provider told me. I knew very little about Israel. I’d heard from onlookers that “it wasn’t the safest place to travel”, but even that didn’t change my mind. I knew I was going to get on a plane and travel half way around the world and stay there for ten days. I am so glad that is how I went into this trip, because even if I set expectations for this journey they would have been blown away. I am also glad I didn’t take the media or my parents’ worries too much into consideration. Israel is not “the most dangerous place ever.” It is actually extremely beautiful and I felt safer than I do at night walking around Manhattan. My suggestion for people when they travel is just go!
4.How did you choose Israel? I found out about this Israel adventure from many people. My best friend’s (who joined me on the trip) sister went, my cousins went, and a few people I met in college had all gone on Birthright. The trip is designed to get youth (ages 18 to 26) to take a trip to Israel, mainly so they can fall in love with the country. The trip is free to participants. I could get this amazing experience and it was completely free…Why not!!!
5.How is this trip different from your mission experience in Guatemala? When I traveled to Guatemala the purpose was to volunteer and experience life in an under-developed community while sharing a religion and its effect on lives. It is very ironic that my next big trip abroad was the complete opposite of this, especially in the religious parts. My trip to Israel had no volunteer aspect. Birthright’s main purpose is to showcase the beauty, culture and spirituality of Israel and to allow participants to explore the land. This trip was not very religious. I was older this time, so I was able to participate in evening activities. I was also less anxious about traveling out of the United States without my family, because I did it once before! The two experiences were very different from one another, but I learned something knew from each that I would not trade for anything.
6.What would you suggest to others thinking about adding travel to their lives? DO IT! Traveling is such a beautiful gift, and no matter how much money or experience you have, you can still go! I think the trips that involve the least amount of money are often the most fun! Staying in a resort is always nice; but, living in an actual community, and experiencing how real everyday life is, that is something I highly recommend! I hope everyone gets the opportunity to travel at least once in his/her life. No matter how comfortable you are here in America, leave it. I now believe that travel quote, ‘life begins at the end of your comfort zone!’ You don’t want to look back one day and say, “I wish I traveled more.” Go out and just do it! Get some friends together, do some research, plan a trip, and go! You will never say you regret going, but might regret if you don’t.
7.What did you learn on your trip that you feel you couldn’t have gotten from a book, the Internet or a traditional school setting? I saw first hand how beautiful Israel is. Of course you can hop on the computer and Google search the Dead Sea, but you can’t possibly grasp its full beauty until you are floating in it. I learned about an entire civilization of people, The Bedouins, and actually got to live like them for an entire night. Yes, I could have read a book about them, but experiencing first hand what their life is like, helped to show (if only for a second) the type of people they really are. Knowledge can be gained from reading books, but the best way to learn something and expand your mind is to experience it. That is something I never truly understood until I traveled. I learned so much on my trip, and not only about the country, but about myself. I learned my limits could be pushed much further then I thought. I learned I could go an entire week and a half without the need for Wi-Fi. Travel has helped me to grow into a unique and independent person.
8.Where do you want to go next? EVERYWHERE! I am completely serious. I am only twenty, and hope I have my entire life to travel. I definitely want to visit every single continent. My next world travel goal is to do a 5-week study abroad program in Spain during the summer of 2015. I hope from there I can travel throughout Europe, and maybe even make a stop in Africa! I know it all sounds crazy, but traveling becomes addictive after a while. I learned just from one journey how much of the world there is that I haven’t seen. I need to see the world, well at least as much of it as I can, and I will.
9.What have been travel’s gifts to you? Growth. I’ve grown so much from this one small bit of travel. I grew spiritually, emotionally, and increased my knowledge of the world. I learned more about myself in ten days abroad than I have in the twenty years I have been alive. I learned about the world, and I was able to see it from a different point of view that didn’t involve any biased information from the media. I also learned a lot about Judaism, and because of that I learned about a part of myself I knew very little about. Traveling is a huge gift, but it also provides all these little gifts that you may not pick up on right away, but as you go back to your everyday life you start to realize that travel is the gift that keeps on giving.
More Details on Sarah’s Birthright Adventure
- There was a total of 39 people on the trip
- Airfare, trip/accommodations, breakfasts and dinners were all included
- She only paid an extra $40 for travel health insurance
- She brought her own spending money (for fun, souvenirs and to pay for lunch if necessary)
- The process to go: fill out a form, make a call, have an interview with questions like: who is Jewish in family, what does Judaism mean to you, how observant are you? (her dad is Jewish)
- This ten day experience was more cultural than religious: want to fall in love with Israel
- What Sarah found to be very special: the group kept and observed both Shabbat weekends; she found it to be more spiritual than religious; just one day of the week to share with friends and families and drop all worries
- Visited the Western Wall 2x; once on Shabbat; male side huge, women smaller
- On her plane experience (not on Elal)-during turbulence she held hands with girl just met (I did exactly the same thing twenty years ago)
- She was apprehensive when her dad mentioned to stay off of buses & then learned she would travel mostly by bus
- 1st three days only with her group; then 5 soldiers (4 boys/1 girl) joined the group-incredibly interesting
- Sarah’s boyfriend is a US Marine. She talked with locals about US military vs Israeli military & found there to be much greater pride and honour in serving there and that more people had a greater knowledge of the military
- The trip forced people to ask and answer very difficult philosophical questions
Results and Effects of Her Trip Abroad
- Sarah would now like to study abroad in Spain to learn the culture…’why not?’- she can’t wait to eat new and different foods and experience the cultures in Europe
- She now feels that she is more aware of the Middle East conflict and understands it better than she ever learned
- Others on her trip were extending their stays abroad; she wanted to and changed the way she thinks; instead of seeing restrictions she now believes, ‘why not?’
- Went to Holocaust memorial in Israel which was very moving- she wants to now learn more and share stories with her sorority in university before so many of the victims are no longer available to share their own.
- She’s now more interested in travel and more confident in herself that she can do things on her own and has a greater sense of self that even if she can’t do something on her own, she has the ability and know how to figure it out
- Realized that so many people were searching for WiFi-she looked forward to enjoying the moment and found that she was happy to go for ten days without Twitter feeds or Facebook posts.
- A bit of structure with the organized group gave her the ability to leap with a little bit of a net and now she feels that she’s ready for an even bigger leap
There’s nothing holding us back. Travel is beautiful. Let’s see the world…WHY NOT?!
Favourite Travel Quote: ‘Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.’