Enlightening Galina

“Growing up in a Modern Orthodox community, I was constantly exposed to Judaism, religion, and Israel – maybe a little too much. As I grew up, I fled from my roots and decided I wanted to be a part of a more secular world; I lost faith in what I had always known. I had the opportunity to attend a gap year seminary program in Israel before college. I refused to go, thinking that Israel would make me flip out religiously. That was surely not something I was looking for. If I was ever going to Israel, I wanted to experience it in a different light.

Coming to Rutgers and joining Hillel was the most positive religious thing I have done in quite some time. The entire Hillel community at Rutgers is very diverse, from Orthodox to Reform to completely non-observant. Everyone feels at home and welcome regardless of their background.

When I found out that Birthright registration was open, I jumped at the chance to apply. I was anxious for weeks until I found out I would be heading to Israel soon. I envisioned meeting new people, exploring Israel, and learning new things. Little did I know…

We started off on the Salad Trail seeing the high-tech greenhouses and sampling the best fruit I ever tasted, and then headed to the Negev Desert. I am not an outdoorsy person, but the night we slept in the desert in tents was the moment I automatically fell in love with Israel’s culture, the nature, the way of life; it all appealed to me.

Next we met up with the Israeli soldiers who would be traveling with us. Again, my expectations of that experience were the opposite of what actually happened. Each of them impacted me in a different way. We bonded so fast, and by the time they had to depart, I felt an emptiness inside. One in particular, Emanuel, changed my entire outlook on Israel, the people, and the culture. To this day, we remain close.

Our trip included many hikes and outdoor experiences. Before this, I would never have agreed to hike up a giant mountain or sleep in the desert. From kayaking to climbing Masada, we experienced the nature of Israel. It convinced me that I belonged outside. That was huge for me.

Visiting Yad Vashem and the other historical and memorial sites impacted me in a way all those years of learning about Israel from afar never had. I realized that Israel is a place that wants peace and gives back to those who give to her. The country and its people have such respect for those who fought in the army or lost their lives in war. Being surrounded by such respect gave me a feeling of kadushah (holiness).

The most powerful experience I had in Israel was at the Kotel (Western Wall). I had learned about the Kotel growing up, I had seen and drawn pictures, I had known about its beauty, but I didn’t know how it would impact me. Our group was walking through security, getting closer to the place where it is said Hashem (God) used to grace the Jews with His Holy presence. I felt something warm inside me and I knew tears were on their way. I walked up to the wall and stuck my notes and tzedakah (charity) in the crevices. It was not until I touched the wall that I experienced a life changing moment. My hands shaking, I grazed the wall and my heart and soul poured out. From that moment I knew Israel was my home.

This Birthright trip was the most enlightening experience of my life. The very place I had shied away from a couple years earlier became the spiritual home I fell in love with more each day of the 10-day trip – all the places we went, the things we did, and the sites we saw. But the people I shared this experience with have also changed my life. Experiencing Israel together, we all bonded and united. I made so many special friends.

This experience will forever stay with me. In fact, it moved me so much that I am currently planning a trip back this winter and I have decided to register for a short volunteer program in the IDF. My love for Israel is not something I can fully explain, beyond saying my Birthright experience was beautiful. I want to thank everyone involved in the trip for changing my life. And to Israel, you will forever be my home.