Carly Rosenberg wasn’t all that interested in going to Israel, even after her older brother came back from a Birthright trip totally enthusiastic about the experience. When she finally decided she did want to go, it turned out to be not so easy.
The Taglit-Birthright Israel groups she wanted to join were already full. Then her luck changed. With the assistance of the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, a spot was found for her on a group — organized by the tour provider, Israel Experts — that was set to depart on New Year’s Eve with 40 students from Penn State University.
She got the news in mid-December and flew into action to get ready.
“I was nervous because I didn’t know anyone else,” Carly told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview a few weeks after her return. “But that might actually have made things easier; I got to meet more people than I might have if I’d been traveling with old friends.”
In all sorts of ways, the trip was a mind-opener for the 19-year-old from Manalapan, a sophomore fashion student at the University of Rhode Island. Her parents, Michael and Helane, have always wanted to go to Israel but hadn’t been yet, and Carly said she didn’t know all that much about the country. Now she’s eager to get back there, and her enthusiasm about Israel has made her parents all the more eager to go, too.
The first surprise came on day one. From Ben-Gurion Airport, they headed off to a kibbutz in the North, where they spent their first Shabbat. Having learned about kibbutz life in the early days of the collective settlement movement, she said, “I didn’t realize how much things have changed.” She saw how the kibbutz system has evolved, from the completely communal model to the situation now where many people use their earnings to build their own houses. The visitors, however, stayed in the old-style one-room bungalows, and ate in the communal dining room.
Carly loved Jerusalem. “It’s such a pretty city, and there was so much to see,” she said. “We went to the Western Wall and the Holocaust museum and Mt. Herzl. It was easier to communicate, too, because so many more people in the city speak English than in the North.”
For the last few days of the 10-day trip, a couple of soldiers around the age of the group members — 18 to mid-20s — traveled with them. They were assigned not to provide security — the group already had an armed guard — but to answer questions. “They regard the trips as a small vacation, so they were really happy to be with us,” Carly said.
The night before their dawn climb up Masada, they stayed in a Bedouin settlement. “It was really cool, getting to see how these other people live,” Carly said, “although we had lights and a heater and they don’t.” Even with those amenities, it was cold in the desert, but their reception was warming. “The people were very hospitable and welcoming,” she said.
One of the most interesting experiences came on their second Shabbat, when they went to the Kotel. Carly was amazed by the number of people there, and by the strictness of the rules and regulations. Even at some distance from the Western Wall, they were scolded for singing, boys and girls together. That triggered a discussion, encouraged by the Israeli group leaders accompanying them. “They told us we were too polite and not pushy enough,” she recalled, still taking in that very Israeli attitude.
Carly said she was fascinated by the range of people they met, and the variety of landscape, but she was aware too of how much they couldn’t fit in. “It’s really like a teaser,” she said. “Now I want to go back when I can have more time, and without 40 other people, so I can go and see whatever I want. But that’s the whole point, I suppose. If I’d gone on my own this first time, I wouldn’t have known where to start.”