Much more than a free vacation


The power of birthright israel

By Sari Nossbaum

The word “free” is the best way to attract the attention of any person.

Taglit-Birthright has used this knowledge as an effective tool to reach out to thousands of Jews across the globe. Now in its ninth year, Birthright has provided more than 160,000 young Jewish adults between the ages 18 to 26 an opportunity to experience Israel for the first time on a 10-day trip.

Birthright was established by a handful of private philanthropists who started a fund with the vision that every young Jew should have the opportunity to visit Israel. They formed a partnership with the Israeli government and local federations around the world that now work to coordinate the fully funded trips from major cities all over the world. This “gift” that has been bestowed by the philanthropists is intended to help strengthen the participants’ personal Jewish identity and connection to Israel.

While Birthright is open to Jews all around the world, the majority of participants are coming from the United States. In order to be eligible for the trip, participants need to have (at least) one Jewish parent and should not have previously traveled to Israel on an organized trip. As a result, most of the participants are unaffiliated young Jews.

Since the bulk of the participants are students, summer is undoubtedly the most popular time for Birthright trips, with dozens of buses currently hauling participants all over the country. Itineraries are jam-packed with various educational and fun filled activities including “jeeping” through the peaks of the Golan Heights, floating in the Dead Sea, sleeping in Bedouin tents in the Negev, stopping by Independence Hall in Tel Aviv and praying at the Kotel in Jerusalem, to name a few. Not to forget the food and accommodation at hotels and kibbutzim around the country that is also provided. And yes, it’s all absolutely free.

Even though many of the participants are initially lured to the trip because of its “gratis” appeal, there are other contributing motivations as well.

“Of course my biggest incentive was the wonderful opportunity to go to Israel for free,” explained Kyle Burda, who is a sophomore at Syracuse University in New York. “But I also wanted to meet new people from all over the country.”

Birthright trips are the perfect opportunity to interact with other young Jews whom participants would otherwise not be exposed to. After all, the trip was also designed to encourage intra-marriage, and so there is plenty of time to mingle.

While there is tremendous social appeal, some also embark on the program seeking a deeper religious understanding.

“I wanted to feel a connection with my Jewish heritage and to learn about what it meant to be a modern Jew,” said Lily Hann, 18, from Walnut Creek, California, whose exposure to Judaism was very limited prior to her Birthright experience. “I wanted to figure out its place in my life.”

Regardless of their original impetus, many of the participants find that they are affected just by being submerged in the country. “Being in a nation established upon Judaism is an incredible feeling,” recalled Burda. “You feel connected to the land regardless of your religious background — it is a home away from home.”

The devout nature of the people of Israel is also very apparent to participants.

“Being in Israel automatically means you are confronted with religion,” explained Cara Abrams, 24, a native of Eugene, Oregon, and an alumna of Brandeis University. “Simply being surrounded by people who are living a completely observant lifestyle and so genuinely absorbed in their religion was very powerful,” recalled Abrams after her experience of walking through the streets of Jerusalem on Shabbat afternoon.

Abrams, who went on Birthright seeking a “cultural” experience, found that visiting numerous different places during the trip opened her eyes to many new ideas and “sparked her interest in everything Jewish.”

But what she found most disconcerting was the length of the trip.

“It’s hard to process so much in such a short period of time,” she said.

Although 10 days is brief, it is certainly enough time to generate philosophical ruminations.

“The trip called into question my views on religion and made me seriously reconsider G-d and the practice of religion,” said Hann. “I definitely feel more connected to being a Jew and want to participate in more religious activities.”

Even if the experience doesn’t have such a profound effect, there are many subtle yet powerful seeds that are planted in participants’ minds, and hearts.

“I came back home feeling more proud of who I am and proud of my heritage,” said Burda. “I now think of myself as Jewish, and then I think of myself as an American.”

The trip may be free, but the sentiments are priceless.