Derek Kwait



Shabbat shalom. This may seem like a rather arbitrary Shabbat for me to give a speech about my Birthright trip to Israel way back in December. But, although it was not planned this way, I don’t think it could have worked out to be on a better week. This, after all, is the Shabbat between our greatest modern sorrow and our greatest modern joy, between Yom HaShoah and Yom HaAtzma’ut, Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel’s Independence Day, as well as, of course, a Shabbat of the Omer, the counting of the weeks between Passover and Shavuot. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but I think that the interplay this presents between the old story of our people’s movement out from oppression and bondage into freedom and independence and our new one, fits in perfectly with ideas presented to us on our trip.

In a speech we had the privilege to hear just after the conclusion of our first Shabbat in Israel, in Jerusalem no less, former president of Hillel International, Avraham Infeld captivated the room by relating these quintessential Jewish themes to our Birthright experience. He did so by telling a group of college-aged, mostly unaffiliated and somewhat apathetic Jews that Jews do not have history and Judaism is not a religion.

Judaism is not a religion-it is a family. And as such, Jews do not have history-we have memory. History is something that happened to some people a long time ago, but memory is constantly being re-experienced, relived. From the moment we got off the plane and first set foot on Jewish soil to the moment we got back on the plane ten days later, there could really be no doubt that for Jews, there really is nothing but family and memory.

Family. Familiar love alone can explain how a group of 40 incredibly diverse college students from all across the country who at first thought themselves to be strangers became a solid family after less than two days together. Besides a healthy mix of students from Pitt, CMU, Point Park, a graduate student from Duquesne, and a twenty-year-old convert from Chatham, my bus, Bus 794, also consisted of students from Georgetown, the University of Southern California, and the entire Jewish population of The Citadel-which is to say, all five guys. Also along for the trip were a Citadel cadet’s sister from the University of Minnesota and a Georgetown girl’s brother, a physics major at Cornell. Add to this our two twenty-something group leaders, or madrikhim: Yoni, a soon-to-be olah from Pittsburgh, and Alex, a professional stand-up comedian from LA by way of Toronto, plus we had Sagi, our IDF vet security guard with a proclivity for wearing obscene t-shirts, and Adele, our South African-born tour guide, whose concern for her son deployed to Gaza was eclipsed only by her love for all things Israel.

And Memory alone can explain how this group of young Jews, the overwhelming majority of whom had never put any thought at all into anything Jewish since their B’nai Mitzvot, if they even had one, could hold hands and dance the hora for joy on a hill overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem as the Friday night sun was just beginning to set on only our second night together. Memory alone, never history, could explain how, walking through that same Old City less than twenty-four hours later on a gorgeous Shabbat morning to pray at the Kotel for the first time ever, felt natural for me as though I had been doing it every week of my life. And Memory alone can explain the 2000 years worth of pent-up awe, joy, fear, humility, shame, and every emotion I’ve ever felt, plus some I never even knew existed before, that came to me in far greater quantities and with far greater intensity than I have ever felt anything, that exploded from somewhere deep within my soul and out into my trembling body, as I pushed my way past a sea of peyes to at last approach the Wall. And when I finally got to it, and actually touched and kissed the glassily-smooth stones than did all those emotions fly out of me and into the cracks, next to the letters, before just as suddenly leaving me, so that I felt felt nothing now but numbness and inadequacy. Oh, and joy beyond words. Memory.

Memory alone explains how, the next day when I laid my tefillin at the Wall for the first time, and I saw the big, hardened soldiers from The Citadel laying them too, trembling and fighting back tears as they did so, just as I had the day before, and was still doing now. Before this trip, they might not have known what tefillin were. Now they were wearing them at the Wall and visibly moved by the experience. Jewish Memory alone can explain this unique phenomenon of the Jewish soul because Japanese and obese American tourists also at the Kotel that day were nowhere close to doing the same.

Family. Also special about that Sunday was that it was the day we got our soldiers. Every Birthright bus gets some Israeli soldiers on leave, who go on the trip with the Americans for a few days. Our group got five women and two men, all our own age. We were unique because no other bus had so many American soldiers on it, and it was so great to see how they interacted and competed with one another. To say we got along great would be understatement. By the end of the week, I think each of the five women had at received at least one not-not serious marriage proposal from each of the five Citadel guys, and a few from civilian guys as well, my one friend in particular, but that’s another story… For those of us who aren’t soldiers, let alone Israeli soldiers, talking to them was a profound experience. Here were people, kids, our age, who looked just like us, and liked the same things we liked, except that while our biggest fear is finishing a paper by Tuesday, theirs is defending the Jewish State from annihilation. Israeli patriotism, for better or for worse, was nothing like American patriotism. In America, college students rarely think about being Americans. In Israel, even the most secular of Jews, as our soldiers all were, tear up if someone says something even so slight as “This is a beautiful country you have.” It didn’t take me long to realize every stereotype I had ever seen and believed about Jews being unathletic or meek was totally inaccurate.

Memory. Every Shabbat since coming back, when we sing Hatikvah at YPS, I always think back to the three times we heard Hatikvah in Israel. The first was in Israel’s Independence Hall in Tel Aviv on the first day of our trip. When David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israeli independence in what was then Tel Aviv’s art gallery 61 years ago this week, someone in the crowd of hundreds started singing the Zionist anthem Hatikvah. He was soon joined by almost everyone there. Sitting listening to a recording of that in the room where it all happened, was moving, to say the least.

The second time we heard it we were singing it. It was Sunday, the same Sunday we laid tefillin at the Wall, and we were visiting Mt. Hertzl, Israel’s national cemetery. Visiting Mt. Herzl with Israeli soldiers and the mother of a soldier and seeing all those Jewish heroes’ beautiful graves, almost all covered in stones, would have been powerful enough for me on its own, but that couldn’t prepare me for what was to come. Alone at the top of his eponymous mountain sits the tomb of Theodore Herzl. We arrived up there just as the sun was perfectly positioned between the two Israeli flags on either side of his tomb. After Adele gave a short speech, reminding us how Herzl never lived to see his dream come true, but, as per his request, his body was relocated to Eretz Yisrael once it was back in Jewish hands, she had the Israeli soldiers come in front of the tomb to lead us in Hatikvah. Uniforms on, and Jerusalem sun and Israeli flags directly behind them, they put their arms over each other’s shoulders and sang. I joined.

The third time came the next day, at Yad Vashem. After going through the museum and witnessing all the horrors, the last thing you see in the permanent exhibition is a video clip of little children of survivors, hands over each other’s shoulders, singing Hatikvah in Israel as the flag waves behind them. That’s when I cried. Especially this week, that is an image we should have in mind when we rise for Hatikvah in a few minutes. I know it’s always on mine.

Memory. A few days later, we rode to a Bedouin village in the Negev. I had never seen a desert before, and it was both beautiful and shocking, to have a desert only a few minutes outside beautiful cities where so many trees were planted. After watching a presentation of Bedouin culture, riding camels, being served probably the best meal we ate our entire trip, there was time for reflection. That night, a few other people and I journeyed off into the desert as far as were willing to hazard from the only source of light, the camp. It was a windy day and you could see the stars, but through a haze. Stretching out as far as the eye could see in every direction was nothing but sand and darkness. The wind was so strong that you could hear it whistling around you everywhere, and it blew so much sand that inside the tent in the camp, it sounded like a heavy rainstorm all night. Besides the wind, the only other sound outside were dogs barking somewhere in the distance. The Negev is such a spiritually charged place that even many atheists describe feeling something transcendent while standing out there. For my part, standing in that vast, cold emptiness, with the only light being a distant one, one I knew I had to go back to eventually and the only sounds being wind and dogs, looking up at the same stars David wrote Psalms praising God for, and where so much of my history, my memories had taken place, it felt like standing inside my own soul, and I won’t try to describe what that feels like because I can’t.

Family. Later that week, we visited Karmiel, Pittsburgh’s Israeli sister city. Specifically, we stopped at the Karmiel Children’s Village. This is a place where Jewish children from abusive families go to be adopted by a family who has chosen to live in the Village. These families consist a working father, a mother who is usually a housewife, their own two or three children, plus the ten or eleven children that they adopt. Besides houses, the village consists of a few complexes for arts and crafts, sports, and computers, and Karmiel’s only zoo. The only reason they can afford all this is Pittsburgh. The Jewish community here has raised tens of thousands of dollars to support this village for our Israeli brethren. Personally, I have had the privilege of meeting a local thirteen-year-old man who gave his Bar-Mitzvah money to buy refurbished computers for the Village, and a fourteen-year-old woman who used her Bat- Mitzvah money to start the Dream Network, which so far has raised thousands of dollars from local Jews and Jewish groups to answer the wishes of children in the village. To put this into perspective, with my Bar-Mitzvah money, I bought a PlayStation2. But maybe as teshuva, my bus brought over suitcases stuffed to bursting with clothing, shoes, Crocs, and toys, all once again generously donated by our own community. From there, we went to Pitchon-Lev, A Caring Heart, or the Israeli equivalent of the Salvation Army, to help them sort clothes, pack vegetables, move boxes, or do what ever else we could do for them. Because that’s what family does.

Family. From there, we went to Tzfat where among many other things, I saw the actual Sefer Torah used by Joseph Karo, then to the Golan the next day for a wine tasting before riding up Mt. Bental on the Israeli-Syrian boarder for the view. Up on Mt. Bental, Adele led us through a review of Israeli history and had us memorize all Israel’s wars and their years. The next day, on Shabbat, the Gaza war broke out. Thankfully, we were safe in Tiberias, but when they broke the news to us, we, and the at least 300 other students we were having Shabbat dinner with, fell completely silent. The soldiers had left us after Karmiel, but both of our guy soldiers were paratroopers and we knew for sure that at least one of them, the one who looked eerily like my cousin Jason before he dyed his hair, was being deployed. Adele’s son was sent in too. So this is what is was like to be Israeli, I thought. Most of us stayed glued to the TV all that night and much of the next day. This was the Shabbat of Hanukkah and Rosh Chodesh, yet, in Israel, even that trifecta of holiness wasn’t enough to bring peace. Thank God, all our friends survived.

Memory. That Shabbat was Bus 794’s last full day together as a family. In the afternoon, there were B’nai Mitzvah and Hebrew naming ceremonies for those who did not have one before. All the speeches were moving, but one in particular stands out in my mind. For his Bar-Mitzvah speech, a cadet from The Citadel named Abraham, talked about all this trip had meant to him, and what he would take from it. He said when he got back he wanted to expand scope of the Jewish club, find some tefillin so guys could have the experience of laying them, and maybe even try to start an exchange program with with the IDF.

Later that day, after Havdallah, we all had the opportunity to share our experiences, and I will never forget some people said. Many talked of how they now wanted to be involved in Jewish activities and Israel advocacy, and many more wanted to come back for longer and volunteer. A soldier from The Citadel, a place wrought with anti-Semitism, said he was wearing his chai necklace outside his shirt from now on, regardless of the consequences; another said he knew he was fighting for two homelands. Our convert loved Israel and Israelis so much that she broke out in tears that night and could talk of nothing but making aliyah for weeks after the trip. A man who was a good friend of mine from even before the trip decided to brake up with his girlfriend of many years almost as soon as he got back. He said he now realized he could never be with a non-Jew.

So between the Israelis and Americans, the people who were only dimly aware that they were Jewish, and the people who knew but didn’t know what it meant; the super-talented computer scientists, actors, and musicians from CMU, and the Israeli soldiers; the TV execs daughters from LA, and the grizzled soldiers from The Citadel,   and the rest like me somewhere in between, Birthright Bus 794 could best be described as an interesting mix. In other words, as a family. And a family needs a home. I, and just about everyone else on my bus discovered first-hand that for a Jew a strange place in Israel feels more like home in a way one cannot adequately describe, than does your own living room anywhere else (by the way, this explains why in today’s Parsha, it says only homes in the Land of Israel can become infected with tza’arat-because only in Israel can a Jew have a true home). But when we went home to Israel, we didn’t go just to remember what we had forgotten; we went to learn why each of us needs to be involved in making new memories that will stir indescribable feelings in future generations of Jews. And this is what we need to do until the day comes when our whole family remembers how badly it needs to come home for good. Shabbat Shalom.