Devin is perched on a hilltop overlooking an organic farm outside of Mount Modi’in. Trim and fit, in shorts and work sneakers, he squints in the bright sunlight. The setting is idyllic: rolling hilltops covered in flowers and grazing animals, valleys interspersed with diverse crops and canvas yurts. Some of the residents here are young Israelis who have come to do a year of service before beginning their army duties; others, like Devin, are recent college graduates from North America, exploring their connection to the land of Israel.
The farm is an educational center where local school children come to learn about ecology and agriculture, and cutting-edge permaculture farming techniques are developed and tested. The residents here live “off the grid” in a model sustainable community, growing everything they eat and producing no waste.
“I’m already more excited about rainwater catchment and compost than I have been almost about any other subject,” Devin exclaims.
The son of two doctors, Devin describes his upbringing as areligious. “My family had been in the U.S. for six generations. I was about as American as I could really consider myself.” He did not explore his Jewish heritage until he left home for college, where he started meeting other Jews. After his junior year, he went on a Birthright trip with other students. “It was the first chance I’d really had to look at what Israel was, to look at what being Jewish was, and be ready and willing to say, I want to promise to be a child of the Commandments,” he recalls. He even got bar mitzvahed on the trip.
However, the experience left him unsure of where to head next. “It brought up the question, what does this mean? What is your relationship to Israel? And so I went home with this feeling of non-resolution. And I knew I had to come back.”
Devin first returned to Israel the following April, with an Alternative Spring Break program. He spent eight days volunteering in Be’er Sheva, and he felt that he fit in there. After graduating from university, he signed up for EcoIsrael, a program that brings young people to Israel for five months to work on a sustainable farm. His visit is funded by MASA, a Federation-supported program that enables Jewish young adults from all over the world to spend a semester or a year studying, working or volunteering in Israel.
Although his mother had not practiced Judaism for 30 years, she supported his decision to return to Israel and embrace his Jewish identity. “One of the things that she said after I came back from Birthright was, ‘Devin, I didn’t really notice it, but I miss feeling Jewish.’ I wanted to explore this both for myself and for my mother. When I go back, I’m going to try to help reconnect her with the community.”
Devin will begin medical school when he returns to the United States. In his professional life, he hopes to educate people who have not had the chance to visit Israel. “Birthright gave me a new perspective,” he says. “You hear all these negative things, and it’s really hard for people to come at it from the other perspective. Hopefully what I’m going to be able to do as a doctor, as a person in the community who can gain this kind of respect, is say, ‘You know, I’ve been there and I’ve seen it, and I’m an ambassador for this place that a lot of people don’t understand.’”
His work on the farm has clearly had a huge impact on the way he views his relationship to Israel. “We are physically putting of ourselves into the land, and we are taking from it what we grow, eating it and making it part of ourselves.” The work is part of a trade Devin makes with the land: he gives to Israel and Israel gives to him. “I want to give enough of myself that I feel I have permission to take some back with me.”