Wyoming grad honored by Birthright Israel

Posted at 7:00 AM, Oct 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-20 07:00:27-04

A Cincinnati resident has been honored by Birthright Israel, a not-for-profit that sponsors free trips to Israel, as one of its ambassadors.

Birthright Israel offers free trips to Israel for Jewish individuals ages 18 to 26 who haven’t visited the country before. Cincinnati resident Julia Stern took one of those 10-day trips late last year and found it was an eye-opener.

“You learn about aspects of Israel that you don’t get the opportunity to learn that much about here,” the 26-year-old said. “From America, what we know is what we see (in the media), and it’s all very politically oriented.”

In honor of its 15th anniversary, Birthright Israel chose 15 trip participants from across the country as its ambassadors, based on their inspirational stories and their commitment to educate their peers about Birthright and Israel in general.

As an ambassador, Stern’s duties are pretty simple: to be available to tell anyone and everyone about Israel and her trip. One of the things it helped her do, she said, is reconnect with her Jewish roots.

Raised in the Wyoming neighborhood, she attended Isaac M. Wise Temple in Amberley and graduated from Wyoming High School in 2007. She heard about Birthright Israel when she was studying speech and hearing science at Indiana University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in 2011.

After obtaining her master’s degree, she returned to Cincinnati and took a job with St. Elizabeth Homecare in Florence. She found that during her six years away from home, her focus on Judaism had dwindled as other aspects of campus life took up her time. She felt a bit detached from the local Jewish community until some friends suggested she join them on the Cincinnati Birthright trip.

The trip began on Christmas Eve 2014 and lasted for 10 days. The visit began in the north, then to the desert in the middle of the country, and finally to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the south. There were 40 Americans and 10 Israelis in the tour group, Stern said.

Julia Stern poses in the ancient city of Masada during her recent trip to Israel. Photo provided

The group benefited from having a knowledgeable Birthright tour guide, Stern said, who provided lots of facts about the local culture and subcultures. She was especially impressed with the northern city of Tzfat (Safed), which she described as a beautiful, peaceful city with lots of artists and art on the street. It’s also a center for the study of Kabbalah, a strain of Jewish mystical thought, she said.

“Everyone we ran into was very friendly and open to us being there,” she said.

Some Americans have the idea that Israelis spend all their time dodging rockets or bombs, and Stern said she thought that to some extent herself. But of course, that’s not the case.

She was surprised to find that many of the young people she met in Israel were just like her, she said, with many of the same goals and hobbies.

“People there live normal lives,” she said. “They go to work 9 to 5 and come home. Their lives are very much like ours.”

Before the trip, Stern said, she felt disconnected from the Jewish community because her childhood friends had moved on. But now, she said, sharing the trip with local Jews has helped her make new friendships. And in August, the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati paid for the Israelis who accompanied her trip to come to Cincinnati for a reunion, she said.

Stern added that the trip was an amazing opportunity.

“It was nice to see another side of Israel,” she said.