After an intensive ten days on Taglit-Birthright Israel, I was both sad that it was over and excited to begin my next adventure as a participant in the first Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership Birthright Extension. I had been briefed prior to the trip on a major difference between Birthright and the Ashkelon Extension – we would experience Israel beyond a tour bus by getting to know Israelis and the issues impacting Israeli society.
Our first encounter was Shabbat. We were hosted by families in Ashkelon and experienced what Friday night is like in an Israeli home. The hospitality of the families was so warm and welcoming. On Saturday, several of us attended a local masorti (conservative) synagogue in Ashkelon, Netzach Israel. The rabbi at the synagogue was extremely welcoming and helped the group to follow along with services. Other members of the synagogue checked up on us frequently, too!
On our walk back to the hotel we stopped at Baltimore Park. We sat, relaxed and felt the warmth of the sun on our skin! Being at the park really made me feel like I was at home.
After much needed rest, Shabbat finally came to an end. We made havdallah outside of the hotel on the pool deck in a small circle and formed our own special community as participants in this experience.
Sunday and Monday were filled with service-learning and arts and culture experiences that allowed me to connect with Israel in a new way. We volunteered at the Hava Educational Farm, an experiential educational center to teach youth agricultural science, environmental studies, and health. We learned how to make falafel and then enjoyed a delicious lunch. We volunteered at Rambam, a modern orthodox elementary school, which reminded me of my own school from growing up. Since I speak Hebrew fluently, it was easy for me to connect with the kids – at one point, a student asked me for my phone number because she wanted to keep in touch. I was incredibly touched; even though we had only known each other a short time, I felt like I had made a difference in the life of this particular student.
My experience in Ashkelon showed me a different side of Israel, which inspired me to want to come back. I am now looking at opportunities to volunteer in Ashkelon this summer and am excited to remain connected to the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership!