Jack Carroll, a recent graduate of Ashland High School and the son of a Chinese, Buddhist mother and Jewish father, will take off on an expenses-paid, 10-day trip to Israel to get a deeper feel for his religion and the land from which it arose.
He joins hundreds of thousands of young people of Jewish ancestry — including many in the Rogue Valley — who have made the life-changing journey as part of a program called Birthright.
"I'm really excited about it," says Carroll, 19, who has chosen a tour that includes the Western Wall, the Dead Sea and kibbutz life, with lots of nature jaunts thrown in.
"My mission is to explore Jewish life, my dad's relatives, my roots, just as I went to China with my mom and explored my roots there," says Carroll. "It's a very rewarding experience for any young, Jewish adult to understand where they came from."
Carroll will stay on another week and work at the kibbutz where his father, Robert Carroll, worked as a teenager, though Robert says the kibbutz is now essentially a gated community.
"I'm happy and excited Jack is taking time to do this, to really explore and expand his horizons in the wider world and to understand his roots in this historical place," says Robert. "It was a real eye-opener for me."
Jack's mother, Jennifer Carroll, confessed to feeling nervous about Jack's first trip without his parents.
"Ashland is quite a different place than reality outside," she says. "Here, everyone takes care of you. He will get a different understanding of the Jewish people. They're rougher than here because of their everyday circumstances."
Jack and his tour group, whose members hail mostly from the northeastern U.S., will travel only in secure areas, accompanied by soldiers of the Israeli Defense Force. They will see a nation where Jews live in a diverse culture and are either "all in or not much into Judaism," Robert says. Many Birthright participants get attached to Israel and decide to live there.
After his Birthright tour last year, Yuval Zonnenschein, 22, of Ashland, worked for eight months in an eco-village in the Negev Desert and formed a strong connection with the country and people of Israel. In a couple of years, he plans to return to the area and open a hostel-cafe on land that was offered to him.
Birthright, says Zonnenschein, has trips that focus on orthodoxy, technology, education, the outdoors and other areas, but also gives a good picture of daily life in Israel. He spent time with a deeply mystical orthodox community and got to experience ritual baths, a wedding and High Holy Days.
"Jews there are very different, have very different views on Judaism and a very different view of Israel than we Americans have," says Zonnenschein. "You get to listen to how they think."
Zonnenschein and Carroll's rabbi, David Zaslow of Havurah Shir Hadash, says the trip "strengthens ties to our homeland of Israel. ... There's a lot of support to get our kids on these trips. It's an incredible way to keep our connection to our heritage. I'd love to see Italian-American kids do it in Italy or African-American kids go to Africa on a similar program."
Because there are dozens of languages spoken in Israel, the Birthright journey gives students a new empathy for other faiths, races and cultures, he adds.
"The sense of an ancestral homeland never leaves a person — and this is what is affirmed on a Birthright trip," says Zaslow. "It gives our older teens and young adults a sense of place; a sense that all the biblical stories are rooted in a particular place. When a young Jewish person goes back to the home of his or her ancestors, then their Judaism becomes three-dimensional; it becomes grounded."
Many Birthright students go on to become rabbis, work for peace or start social justice agencies, says Rabbi Joshua Boettiger of Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland. In addition, he notes, it has brought thousands of young people, 26 and under, to Israel who could never have otherwise afforded it.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.