My Birthright trip: From Mizzou to Masada

I was raised in a suburban, particularly Jewish area of the San Fernando Valley, where everyone knew everyone’s friend. We all studied Hebrew and proceeded with our b’nai mitzvahs, polished for our big day, not fully grasping the concept that this occasion was a rite of passage rather than a passage to every adult’s check book. I saw my bat mitzvah as an opportunity to get dressed up and recite a few Hebrew verses. Nothing more. I halted my Jewish education just weeks after the big event, putting myself into a state of secular identity. 

In the past, people have asked me if I was a Jew. I would say Jewish. Jew-ish? My answer always was heavy with insecurity, rather than pride. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I started to feel as though an existential crisis was present. I realized that I was one of 700 Jewish students in a Midwestern school of 35,000 students, yet the only authentic connection I could link with Judaism was the matzah ball soup that my sorority chef prepared for the house on the second night of Chanukah. Oy vey. Just weeks after this religious epiphany, I registered for a winter Birthright trip and was accepted 20 days later. 

As not only a Jew, but also a photojournalist, I thought of this experience as an opportunity to warm up to a life of National Geographic escapades and adventures, while at the same time cruising around the Holy Land for 10 days, noshing on falafel and shawarma. I had no idea that this trip would be the best gift I could ever receive. 

For 10 days, I opened my eyes to 2,000-plus years of history, culture and traditions. 

Israel remains an enigma to me. Yet, the level of comfort and security I felt there will never be matched anywhere else. It is an indescribable feeling to set foot on foreign land and feel at ease with myself and with 40 Jewish strangers. For me, the Holy Land has become the Happy Land. I caught myself smiling at the endless wonders this country holds. 

Where I was once religiously jaded and lacked appreciation for my biblical past, I have now realized that ignorance is not bliss. I now believe that not wanting to understand Judaism is simply a missed opportunity. The journey I experienced just a few months ago proved to my 13-year-old self that religion is not something you should brush past in conversation, but rather a story waiting to be told, for every resident of and visitor to Israel. These photos tell my story.

A visit to Yad Vashem, Israeli’s Holocaust memorial museum, culminates with a spectacular view of the thriving Ein Kerem Valley in Jersualem. 

A herd of sheep eat their food at Naot Farm, an innovative Israeli desert farm known for producing homemade cheese and milk from 150 goats. The farm was created in 2003 by the Nachimov family and continues to be an active farm, along with providing living accommodations for visitors.

A Bedouin man pours tea for visitors before their night hike into the desert on Jan. 8. Many Bedouin tribes offer visitors the opportunity to spend a night in tents, ride camels and learn about  Bedouin life during their visit to Israel.

Children embrace in the Old City of Jerusalem on Jan. 17. 

Ein Avdat is a canyon located in the Negev. There are many springs in the southernmost part of the canyon with a collection of waterfalls. It was once inhabited by Catholic monks and Nabateans, an ancient Semitic people.

Morgan J. Lieberman is a photojournalism student at the University of Missouri.