By David Gole
Last Friday I arrived at LAX, still stunned from one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had – a sober birthright trip. Around October, my counselor asked me if I had ever been to Israel before on an organized trip to which I replied “Yes I have been there 3 times, but never on an organized trip.” When she asked me if I wanted to go on a sober birthright trip, I had to think about it for a minute. A “sober” birthright trip, is that even Kosher? At first, the thought of a bunch of recovering addicts and alcohols traveling the Promised Land sounded like either a lot of fun or a recipe for disaster. Being the optimist that I am, I willingly took the plunge into the unknown.
When we arrived in Tel Aviv, everything I experienced 7 years before started coming back to me. Many of the things I had seen were just how I remembered and experienced them; only last time I did not lose my luggage. We then drove from Ben Gurion Airport up to the Golan Heights where we stayed for three nights. Though I had my skepticism about being with people in recovery in Israel, it quickly disappeared when everyone seemed to bond almost immediately as we got to look out onto Syria and hiked around Gamla. On the way to Tzfat, 4 Israelis joined our trip and so did my luggage. Like we embraced each other on that first day, we welcomed the Israelis with open arms and open hearts. After spending 3 days in the north, we ventured on our tour bus down to the holy city of Jerusalem.
The memories of Jerusalem before I went consisted of three things – Ice Cream, Candy, and Jewish mumbo jumbo that I was too young to identify with. This time, now that I am older and have a better understanding of what’s going on around me, I was able to appreciate the Jewish side of Jerusalem a lot more. Going to the Western Wall on Friday night with 50,000 Jews singing and dancing followed by dinner over looking the wall was an incredible experience. Saturday night, we went to Ben Yehuda Street for a little sober fun and danced everywhere. On our last day in Jerusalem we went to Yad Vashem where the fellowship of our group really stood out as everyone expressed their compassion for each other. After that we went to the marketplace and bargained with our Israeli friends. Exhausted from an emotional day, we all went to sleep very satisfied with our purchases and the money we saved.
The next day was our last day with the Israelis and we tried to enjoy ourselves as much as possible. We went to Herzliya where we visited a recovery center called Matrix. It was nice to see people with less time because it reminds me of where I was when I started this process and it shows them that it is possible to string time together. Proceeding our time with the residents of Matrix Recovery Center, it was time to say our goodbyes to our Israeli friends, where everyone was sad to see them leave.
New Year’s Eve in Netanya was just not the same without our Israeli friends, but that didn’t keep us down for the duration of the trip. New Year’s Day we hit Tel Aviv and Yafo with full force. Visiting Independence Hall was eventful for me because after seeing learning about what I had seen in Poland, the declaration of Israel’s Independence was very important for Jews everywhere. We did not spend the night in Tel Aviv; instead we drove south to a Bedouin Camp in the Negev Desert and spent the night with everyone in a tent.
The night in the Bedouin Tent was rough. It was cold, sandy and almost everyone woke up with some type of sickness. Early that morning we rode camels around the Negev and then drove to Masada. Even though everyone that was sick was given the option to take the tram, the resilient nature of recovering addicts drove most of us to tough it out and hike the mountain. After hitting the major landmarks in the Negev like the Dead Sea and Ein Gedi, we spent our last night 20 minutes outside of Jerusalem at a kibbutz.
On the final day of the trip, we went back to Jerusalem to celebrate bar and bat mitzvahs and have some quality time in the old city. The final goodbyes were very emotional, but our Israelis friends, dressed in animal costumes, surprised us at the airport. All in all, the experience I had on birthright with people that deal with the daily struggles of addiction was one for the ages. It was amazing how quickly these friendships blossomed and how we were able to show the Israelis on our trip that although we are not a normal birthright trip, we can still have fun without waking up every morning with a hangover. I can honestly say that this was one of the most influential moments in my life and strongly encourage recovering alcoholics and addicts to go on a sober birthright trip.