As I debated whether to participate in a group trip to Israel earlier this summer, I wondered whether a tour bus and an itinerary would feel like shackles.
I had been to Israel twice: first with family, when I was too young to remember much, and then last year for six months, which included a Birthright trip and a five-month program interning at The Jerusalem Post through MASA Israel, a Jewish Agency for Israel organization.
Would a group trip mean once again sitting on a camel and again putting a note in the Kotel, this time with a different message: “I like not having to use floaties in the Dead Sea, but could you do something about that burn?”
In the end, I decided to travel to Israel with the Chevra, a Jewish organization from Philadelphia that connects people in their 20s and 30s, and discovered that I had arrogantly underestimated how different one trip can be from another.
Having seen many of the sites that are included on the average tour, I doubted that I would be able to replicate the buzz you get, for example, when you enter the Old City in Jerusalem for the first time.
I now realize there was something lacking from my time spent in Israel last year. That something was religion. In six months of living in Israel, I think I went to services at a shul twice. While I certainly became more connected to Jewish and Israeli culture and treasured my Friday night Shabbat meals with family, I didn’t come away from Israel giving much thought to ditching cheeseburgers and shrimp or strictly observing Shabbat.
A cynical rabbi whom I had a Shabbat lunch with on my latest trip described Birthright as a “trip to Disneyland” for American Jews. The shallowness of some Taglit trips has been mocked in Israel, as on Eretz Nehederet, a satirical television show, where one of the actors, a Horatio Sanz look-a-like, while on a trip, says everything from Masada to Yad Vashem is “f---ing awesome!” 
After my Birthright trip, I was still on that sort of roller coaster ride and, in deciding where to live, I opted for the beaches, DJs and energy of Tel Aviv rather than what I perceived as the dry air and stifling religious climate of Jerusalem. That decision largely defined my time in Israel.
This trip with the Chevra in June made Jerusalem feel less foreign, more habitable for a non-Orthodox Jew. It also showed me that within Orthodox Judaism, there is more to like than not.
On the first Friday of this trip in Tzfat, we walked to the Beirav Carlebach Center for the start of Shabbat. The temperature was cool and the local people were pacing around outside the synagogue as though Shabbat were a physical force swirling in the city’s hills. The energy reminded me of the feeling when people are gathered, eyes fixed on a stage, eager for a band to start playing.
Inside the shul, Shabbat, not the fire code, was on daveners’ minds since you could barely move around with all the singing and dancing. The joy everyone appeared to be sharing certainly made you want to partake.
The jones to do a “Hava Nagila” sort of two-step stayed with me throughout Shabbat and emerged again the next Friday when we were at the Kotel in Jerusalem. This time, a large group that had begun to chant in anticipation of Shabbat was more like a football team hungry to take the field than fans waiting for Phish. Either way, again here the vibe was infectious.
In between the two Shabbats, there was some of the requisite fare for trips to Israel — Masada, the Dead Sea, a tour of Old City Jerusalem, a stop at Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl — but also visits to Hebron and Gush Etzion in the West Bank, an area that many Israel trip organizers shy away from. We visited a winery in the Gush where we heard residents say they feel safer letting their children walk around at night in the settlement than in parts of the urban America they left behind. Somehow when I hear “settlements” on the news, I think of makeshift buildings with no indoor plumbing, when in fact some of these communities are serene and filled with large, modern homes.
On the bus, our tour guide, author Doron Kornbluth, also did the Hebrew word of the day and some of the usual shtick, but he was not overly cautious in expressing his views on certain Arab-Israeli issues, the pitfalls he sees in modern secular life and his religious beliefs.
More than anything, Kornbluth’s rich knowledge of Israeli and Jewish history taught me that I still have plenty to learn. In addition to showing us some of the more contemporary sites in the Israeli capital, he also led us to classes at institutions such as the Aish Center in Jerusalem and participated in informal question-and-answer sessions with trip staff. A common thread among staff and speakers was: Here is why we think living an observant Jewish lifestyle is special and perhaps you’ll take some ideas from it.
The interaction between the speakers and our group of 50 Americans, the majority of whom were not strictly observant, was mostly congenial but it was not all good at all moments. The biggest sticking point for many people on the trip, myself included, was the treatment of women in some sectors of Orthodox Judaism. At the start of Shabbat in Tzfat, the men were reveling in the front of the synagogue and just outside its doors. Women, meanwhile, were relegated to a smaller space in the back of the shul. I wondered what that meant to them.
At the Shabbat lunch at the cynical rabbi’s house in Jerusalem, his wife quietly brought food and cleared dishes, while the husband held court at the head of the table and shared his ideas about The Matrix, goyim directing Jews to accept gay marriage and a pessimistic take on Israel’s future.
When I spent a Shabbat in a West Bank settlement last year, the meals had a similar old-fashioned feel. After eating, the husband leaned back in his chair and sang songs, while his wife cleared the table and explained that after meals her husband sings songs.
While I know being at the back of the shul or in the kitchen at home isn’t the case in all Orthodox communities, these experiences reinforced two points for me: First, my knowledge of Judaism and experience with those who live a strict, observant life are limited, and second, there are people and practices in Orthodox communities that I appreciate and others that make me uncomfortable.
I enjoyed the brand of Judaism and Israel offered on this trip. Like a spread at a Shabbat meal, if you’ve never tried any of the usual nosh before, you’re probably not going to be sold on both the cholent and the gefilte fish. But I tried some new things on the trip — I think I danced in more men-only circles than I had in my previous 26 years — and delved deeper into others, especially the idea of observing Shabbat regularly. I’ve carried some of that experience back with me and want to learn more.
Eric Berger's trip to Israel was partially sponsored by the Chevra.