Spring break in Israel is eye-opening, uplifting adventure

A trip to Israel normally is not what comes to mind when thinking about spring break, the tradition when many American students travel to sunny locales for some fun in the sun. But this past spring, I decided Israel was exactly where I wanted to spend the week, and I’m so glad I did.

A friend had just returned from a winter break trip with Jewish National Fund and couldn’t say enough amazing things about it. I also was motivated to visit my 16-year-old sister, who was on a study-abroad program in Israel at the time. So I went online and signed myself up, though I didn’t know anyone else doing the JNF program.

I’m happy that I went alone. I had set out to meet as many people as possible while I was there — and I did, including a girl from Brooklyn whom I will visit later this summer. Although our group of about 40 Americans was together for less than a week, we became so bonded that by the time we headed home to our respective cities, many close relationships had developed.

I had been to Israel three times before, but going on Alternative Spring Break with JNF was unlike any other. My previous trips were touristy and full of sightseeing. Aside from one venture to the Western Wall, this trip was about volunteering, and it was what I wanted — I had already climbed Masada, floated in the Dead Sea and slept in Bedouin tents. The purpose of this trip was to spend a week giving back to the land that has given me so much.

As soon as we arrived in Israel, we got to work. We volunteered at a different site each day, intense manual labor I had never before done. The first day, we painted the interiors of low-income, government-subsidized apartment buildings. We all worked really hard from morning until night with only one break, to eat schnitzel sandwiches for lunch. Although we felt proud of our work, I think most of us left feeling a little discouraged because some of the residents were unhappy with the noise we were making and we couldn’t see the improvements in the residents’ lives that would result from our efforts.

The JNF group helps restore Bat Galim Community Garden in Haifa. photo/bobby weitzner

However, as the week progressed, we pruned trees, weeded gardens, painted, planted flowers at schools and much more. By the end of the week, I can say with confidence that any doubts we may have had about our ability to make a difference in the lives of Israelis vanished. Everywhere we went, we received praise and gratitude from people we met — even at the mall — who asked what we were doing in Israel. When we explained that we were here for just the week to volunteer, everyone was blown away and many encouraged us to make aliyah.

The JNF trip also allowed for a lot of reflection. We would have a group discussion at the end of each day about our work. We would think about questions such as, is any volunteering considered “good” in Judaism, or does your motivation have a role in determining the work’s worth?

For example, is it wrong to volunteer just because it’s mandatory for school? If you volunteer reluctantly, does it carry the same weight as giving willingly? These discussions allowed our group to get closer to each other and ponder important questions about Judaism and life.

The trip ended on Shabbat in Jerusalem, and after a long week of physically draining work, a day of rest was much needed. This gave us time to more deeply reflect on our work and on everything in our lives that we feel grateful for.

Jerusalem was where I really felt I was in Israel. It was amazing to spend Shabbat there with everyone to end our experience. Even though I don’t normally observe Shabbat, I decided it was appropriate to do so in Jerusalem after this week. I wanted to be truly present and not on my phone or Facebook. Having two people on the trip who are Modern Orthodox and who observe Shabbat at home definitely motivated me to keep Shabbat, as well.

All in all, I am so grateful to JNF for giving me this opportunity to experience Israel in a different way. I returned to school at Cal Poly hearing about numerous friends’ fun and crazy spring breaks in Mexico. Although I’m sure they had great experiences, I know for a fact that their breaks were not nearly as meaningful, eye-opening and uplifting as my six days in Israel.

Brianna Lerman, 21, is entering her senior year at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. Her hometown is San Rafael.