When 19-year-old Paul Kotler, a college student from Dr. Phillips, set off on his birthright trip to Israel this past summer, the experience became more than just an opportunity learn about the Jewish faith. On his spiritual journey, he discovered a lot about Jewish history and culture but, more importantly, he learned about himself.
The 10-day birthright trip is offered to students between the ages of 18 and 26 who want to visit Israel to gain knowledge about their faith. “I chose to go because I wanted to make a full commitment to see the people and culture,” Kotler says. “I wanted to discover why I’m here and how the Jewish people got to where they are now.”
There are companies who fund these trips for young adults who have already finished high school. Since 1999, over 400,000 young people have participated in this type of program.
Growing in the Jewish Faith
For Kotler, seeking the Jewish faith began with his family. His stepfather, who is Jewish, adopted him last year. His mother has also converted. “After everything he’s done for me, I thought it was something I could do,” Kotler says. “So, I started the conversion process.”
His conversion began over a year ago. “I went to the Rabbi’s office regularly,” he says. “We went over several things.” The learning process continued as Kotler became engrossed in the Jewish culture, learning some Hebrew and the meaning of some specific words.
Rabbi Hillel Skolnik from the Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation has been a mentor throughout Kotler’s conversion process. They met through his mother. “Paul started attending after his mother converted,” Rabbi Skolnik says. “They are a beautiful family. I knew his conversion would be successful and believed he would be committed.”
After the yearlong process was complete, Kotler was immersed into the Mikveh (a holy bath or body of water). “You say a prayer to Israel,” Kotler says. “You choose a Jewish name and the three Rabbis present ask you if this is what you wanted. You sign papers and you are officially converted.”
The Birthright Journey
To top off his spiritual experience, he ventured on his birthright experience. Kotler, along with 39 other students, began their trip at Tel Aviv. “It was a long plane ride,” he says.
The group drove to Jerusalem and stayed there for three days. “We saw the city shut down because all the lights went out to celebrate the Sabbath,” Kotler says. “We learned a lot of history.”
The students then went to the city of Jaffa before traveling to Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where they learned how Israel officially became a state. Another life changing experience was swimming in the Mediterranean and Dead Seas, but the highlight of the trip was visiting the Western Wall. “The biggest surprise before going to the Western Wall was they made us close our eyes and led us to it,” Kotler says. “Then, when you open your eyes, it is the most holy site in Israel. When I stood in front of the Western Wall, it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done.”
Other highlights of the trip were going to an Ethiopian Jewish camp where they culled the land and helped with the labor. “It was to establish the area – a community service,” Kotler says.
Personal and Spiritual Growth
The group also rode a camel and stayed overnight in the desert. “That night was the most spiritual night for all of us,” Kotler says. “We walked out to the desert. We were told to split up and to think about what is our place in this world? Why did God put us here? We reflected on everything that happened so far.”
Then they got up early and climbed Masada. “It is a tradition to catch the sunrise on Masada,” Kotler says. “It is a beautiful view. We could see the sunrise over the Dead Sea.”
After that, the students said goodbye to the soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who accompanied them throughout the trip. The last day was spent in Tel Aviv, and it all ended with an Israeli dance.
“When Paul went on the birthright, he was ready to find an even more Jewish community in line with the direction of his life; to realize just how much Israel will play in his future,” Rabbi Skolnik says. “He was thinking about joining the Israeli army, but the trip enhanced a strong feeling of what he wanted to do.”
The most important thing Kotler realized from his spiritual journey were the strong feelings he had toward his faith and the people he shared it with. “I fell in love with my faith,” he says. “I fell in love with the people, the culture. It’s a beautiful religion. I went to synagogue and they accepted me. It is a family wherever you go, and you are going to stick together no matter what.”
One of the things Kotler wants to do is to go back to the IDF then come back and finish school. “This trip made me stronger in my Jewish faith,” he says. “I learned to never forget where you came from.”