On a typical slumpy Tuesday in my quarter-life-crisis year of 26, a business associate came into my office and casually started talking about Birthright Israel. “I’m too old, too busy and by most religious people’s standards, not even considered a real Jew,” I grumbled at him. With an Ashkenazi Jewish father and African-American mother, others often tried to tell me who I was and who I was not. Undeterred, he persisted I just browse the website and give it a try. Reconnect with your Jewish roots…hmmm…two weeks…ok…all expenses paid…fine!
Two months later, I was in a deserted village called Peki’in with 40 strangers. But as the week progressed, the blurry faces of my companions became sharper, the words of our guide clearer and the purpose of this group journey truly apparent. Concluding the trip with my long-past-due Bat Mitzvah, I spoke about family, friends and perseverance—all of which I had gained in those two short weeks. Before Israel, I thought I knew who I was. After Israel, I was sure.
Returning home felt like struggling into an old sweater—life was too binding and not as fluffy and comfortable as it used to be. Friends and family were present as usual, but now there was a sense of Israel, constantly on my shoulder. Amazingly, my Birthright madrichim (trip counselors) nominated me to work as a Kahn Fellow with The Jewish Federation. My task was to organize events for our group and other young Jews; it was like a dream come true, a way to keep that Israel experience alive. The Federation allowed me to create wacky events like “#OopsIMitzvahedAgain,” a 90s throwback party for recent Bar/Bat Mitzvah honorees from various Birthright Israel trips. Through my work as a Kahn Fellow, I was introduced not only to the idea of returning to Israel, but the real possibility of returning to intern with WUJS, one of the long-term programs offered under the MASA umbrella.
The all-inclusive rent, transportation and field trips sounded amazing, but the $8,000 price tag gave me a slight heart attack. Three weeks later, I receive an e-mail from MASA letting me know I would receive a grant to cover 60% of the necessary funds. This fueled me to keep searching and then BOOM, The Jewish Federation granted me a scholarship for an additional 20%! Though I’m not the biggest believer in signs, this one had slapped me in the face. My apartment packed, car subleased and job notified, I boarded the plane headed back to the Middle East.
The WUJS program kicked off with a northern Israel overnight trip that included an intense & beautiful four-hour hike. Back home we got our bus passes, directions to work and a cheerful send-off. Then the real part of my trip began: Hop! TV & Rechov Sumsum. I landed an internship with a children’s television network that films Israeli Sesame Street. In a complete Hebrew-speaking environment, I worked vigorously to prep the puppets, translate directions and stay awake through the long shooting days. Somehow, with everyone’s help, I survived and gained a great respect for the Israeli film/TV work ethic.
Being a part of the WUJS Arts Track, we had a knowledgeable and sweet guide who took us on trips to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Rabin center in Tel Aviv and much more. With him we discovered the Zionist art of Reuven Rubin, the detailed history of Yitzhak Rabin and even the growing prestige of graffiti street art around our Florentine neighborhood.
Besides organized trips, some of my most impactful experiences were those outside of the program. I was approached by a fellow WUJS participant working as a social worker for Save a Child’s Heart (SACH), an Israeli nonprofit that provides free heart surgery to kids around the world. They needed a short video about a group coming from Kenya, and I jumped at the opportunity. For the next two months, I interviewed the moms and kids, filmed their day-to-day experiences and even filmed an open-heart surgery.
Having this new videographer experience, I knew there was one last thing I wanted to do before I left. After a month of organizing with Hop! TV’s marketing head, I managed to bring Elmo to the SACH children’s home in Holon and film their first experience with a Muppet! The sweet smiles and hugs the kids gave Elmo, a new creature they only met an hour prior, revealed the true love and strength they had inside of them, even as they waited to receive, or recover from, life-saving cardiac surgery.
Five months flew by, and as my cab drove toward Ben Gurion airport on my last night in Tel Aviv, I rolled down the window and let the sounds of the busy street fill my ears: A group of young soldiers cracking jokes, an Ethiopian mother comforting her baby, a single roaring scooter zooming past my cab. These were the sounds of Israel I wanted to capture like a snapshot in my memory bank. These sounds, the images and the emotions will stay with me forever.
Angelique Lettich is a 27-year-old writer and production coordinator born and raised in Los Angeles. Following her Fellowship with Hop! TV, she produced videos for the nonprofit organization Save a Child’s Heart in Holon, Israel.
For more information on Birthright Israel, the Kahn Fellowship or MASA, contact Margalit C. Rosenthal at MRosenthal@JewishLA.org.