Birthright beckons UCF Knights to Holy Land
Prayer began as people dressed in yarmulkes and tallits, traditional Orthodox Jew attire, moved to the airplane aisles during the 16-hour flight. Destination: Israel. Cost: priceless.
Taglit-Birthright Israel, also known as Birthright, is an educational organization that sponsors free 10-day heritage trips to Israel for Jewish young adults 18 to 26 years old. Hillel and Chabad, UCF Jewish organizations, take students on this bi-annual trip to the Holy Land for a Taglit, or discovery, unlike any other.
From riding camels, hiking through the Negev desert, soaking in the mud in the Dead Sea and praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Birthright allows students to experience the culture of their ancestors, free of almost any cost.
The travelers are only financially responsible for one meal per day and extra spending on souvenirs in the country that is roughly the size of Lake Michigan.
"It's such an amazing place that you can't really appreciate it until you've seen it yourself," Erica Lanksy, senior event management major, said about her Birthright trip in winter 2014.
Traveling overseas to spend 10 days in a foreign country caused some culture shock for Janice Weiner, junior early education major, who made her trek to Israel with the UCF Hillel in summer 2014. The shock, however, turned out to be a good thing. She was scared coming in but was utterly surprised by how nice and welcoming everyone was.
Weiner's trip took place during Yom HaZikaron, Israel's Memorial Day, which she said enhanced her cultural experience.
Since everyone in Israel has to serve in the military, Weiner said that patriotism is a big part of the nation's pride.
"To remember the fallen soldiers, one minute of the day a siren goes off. Everyone in the whole country freezes. All the cars stop," she said. "It's like if you took a remote control and [froze] them."
Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day, took place the day after with dancing on the streets and joy among the people.
Students also experience Israel during Shabbat, which is the Hebrew word for cease or rest. Shabbat is the seventh day of the Jewish week and takes place from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. It is to be spent remembering the Holy One and appreciating blessings.
"On Saturday, we had the opportunity to go to a local family for Shabbat lunch, which was nice because it was the first opportunity to experience Israel as a local resident," said Brandon Fisher, a junior hospitality management major who experienced Birthright in winter 2013.
Weiner left her cellphone at home to experience the trip without distractions.
"If you don't bring it, you get to experience life with actually seeing your surroundings and actually being aware," she said. "It's so interesting to try to do life without your phone."
Birthright was like going back in time, said Daniela Weisz, a junior marketing major who journeyed to Israel in winter 2014.
Luke Haberman, a freshman engineering major, wants to go on Birthright during summer 2016. While working as a co-Jewish holiday experience coordinator at UCF, Hillel has allowed him to hear more about this unique trip.
"I'll definitely ask people who have gone what I should expect, what I should bring, if there's anything I should learn before I go," he said.
Weisz advised people desiring to go on Birthright to be open minded to experience new things.
"Everyone's welcome no matter how Jewish you are," she added.
The acceptance process for Birthright involves an interview during which an adviser asks the interested students questions, such as their family history, upbringing and why they want to go on the trip.
"It's such an amazing opportunity," Lansky said. "Why not take it?"
Paige Wilson is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @paigeshortstackor email her at PaigeW@CentralFloridaFuture.com.