By Joyce Coronel
Tempe resident Erika Jacobs and Corona del Sol graduate Jason Soronson don’t know each other but share an uncommon insight.
Both Jacobs and Soronson were selected to travel to Israel and get in touch with their Jewish roots as part of Birthright Israel, an innovative partnership between Israel’s government and donors. Young adults ages 18-26 who are selected have the opportunity to travel to the Jewish nation for 10 days.
It’s a trip that many believers long to make but often cannot. As Hanukah and Christmas approach, faithful followers of Judaism and Christianity the world over turn their hearts toward Jerusalem, a focal point for both religions.
Jacobs, who volunteers with the Make a Wish Foundation, said her mother is Catholic and her father is Jewish.
“I thought it was really great to experience some of the oldest history in the world, just to be able to see all the sights and be able to finally understand what everyone had been talking about in terms of Passover,” Jacobs said. “I think it definitely helped me connect more with my cultural roots.”
I caught up with Jacobs recently as she stood in front of the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. The wall is the last vestige of the Second Temple and stands on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City. People travel from all over the world to pray at the site, often leaving their prayer intentions written on a slip of paper they insert between cracks in the ancient wall.
After paying my respects — and leaving a few prayer intentions of my own — I politely asked those assembled a short distance away if any of them would want to comment on what it meant for them to be there.
Imagine my surprise when Jacobs stepped forward and told me she was from Tempe. After a week in Israel, I hadn’t had a taste of home in a while. What were the chances of us meeting? We exchanged phone numbers and reconnected after we’d both returned.
I was curious as to what Jacobs thought the highlight of her experience was. It’s a small country, but packed with a rich history. Each time I travel there, I learn something new.
For Jacobs, the best part was a visit to the Dead Sea.
At 1400 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest place on earth and also the saltiest. The water is 37 percent saline and as you walk along the beach, you find large chunks of the stuff. There’s also the dark mud tourists spread all over their bodies that’s supposed to have a healing quality to it.
“It’ll make you look younger,” our tour guide, Ziv Cohen, told us. “Be careful with that. We don’t want you to disappear,” he told a fellow journalist, the 27-year-old Matt Hadro of Washington, D.C.
“I know there’s a lot more impressive things to be your favorite but I really loved going to the Dead Sea,” Jacobs told me.
She also enjoyed getting to know some of her fellow travelers.
“My favorite part of the trip overall was the camaraderie and the bonding with all the other people who were on Birthright as well. I made some pretty good friendships out of the trip,” Jacobs said.
Soronson offered a similar take, touched by the warmth of the Israelis who welcomed him when he made his Birthright trip. There’s usually a sense of unease when traveling to a foreign land, he said, but he saw something different in Israel.
“It was a really unique feeling being so welcomed and at home while being so far away from your own country,” Soronson said. “Every Israeli I encountered was so warm and welcoming and would not hesitate to invite you to stay at their house or come over for dinner.”
Did I mention the food in Israel is amazing? It was a little hard to face my lonely bowl of oatmeal back in Chandler after a tour of Tel Aviv, Haifa, Nazareth and Jerusalem. The Israeli hotels offer a buffet each morning and this isn’t like anything you’ve seen elsewhere. From the freshly chopped cucumber and tomato salad to delicate pastries, smoked fish and pomegranate-seeded fresh fruit salad, breakfast is something for the tourist to dream about.
Then it’s off to see the incredibly lush Bahai hanging gardens in Haifa or a sail on the Sea of Galilee. Near the shore is a museum that houses an ancient fishing boat discovered some 30 years ago. Archeologists say it is 2,000 years old and is typical of the boats of the era. Standing inside the museum, not far from the gentle waves of Galilee, you can picture St. Peter and his companions fishing.
In Bethlehem, visitors enter the Basilica of the Nativity where they can kneel on the silver star that marks the spot where Jesus Christ was born. As the neighborhoods around South Tempe and West Chandler begin to glow with Christmas lights, it’s a good time to remember that long ago moment when a young Jewish maiden gave birth to the one many throughout the world revere as Savior.