“Taglit.” It is the Hebrew word for “discovery.” Therefore, it is no coincidence that the name of the program that has sent nearly 300,000 Jewish young adults to Israel since 2000 is called “Taglit-Birthright Israel.” This program encourages its participants, many visiting Israel for the first time, to discover new things about their Jewish identity and explore connections with their religion.
The Birthright Israel program was founded in 1994 by Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, along with the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Young adults ages 18-26 who have at least one parent of recognized Jewish descent and have not traveled to Israel before on another peer education trip are eligible for this truly life changing experience. The ten day Taglit-Birthright Israel trip is free, including the cost of airfare, hotels, and food. Participants travel through the country to many religious sites, including the Western Wall, and tourists sites such as the Dead Sea. The tour also includes a 5-10 day mifgash (meeting) with Israeli soldiers who join the tour. This portion of the trip allows the participants and the soldiers to better understand each other’s Jewish identity and to bond over a common religion. Every young adult who experiences this trip comes out of it with a deeper connection to Judaism and personal memories that they will never forget. Ashley Reicher, 19, a Sophomore at Pennsylvania State University, had one particularly eye opening experience on her trip this past May, when she was Bat-Mitzvahed at Masada, a milestone that she didn’t have the opportunity to experience until then.
Ashley became involved in the Taglit Birthright Israel Program through several friends in her sorority who had heard wonderful things about the trip. In addition, her cousins who live in Israel had urged her to apply for years, and when she got to college there were many resources that helped her to get involved, such as Chabad. Ashley was on Taglit-Mayanot Bus 264 with some friends from her sorority, but also many other people whom she did not know. She admits that she became a lot closer with many of the Jewish peers that were on her trip. Being able to bond over a common religion was a great way for Ashley and her peers to learn more about each other and their unique identities. The highlight of Ashley’s trip was going into the open desert late at night and looking at the stars. She also loved “...camel riding, floating in the Dead Sea, and visiting the Western Wall on Shabbat.”
For most of Ashley’s childhood, her family never belonged to a temple. Although both of her parents were Bar/Bat Mitzvahed at 13, her parents didn’t feel that it was necessary for her to have one at an age where she might have been more concerned with the lavish party or cool theme than the actual relevance of the milestone. At the time, Ashley did get irritated attending all of her friends’ Bat Mitzvahs and not having one of her own. However, in hindsight, Ashley said, “I am glad I was Bat Mitzvahed six years later than most of my friends. Being Bat Mitzvahed at 18 years old, especially at the top of Masada in Israel, allowed me to really appreciate the significance of a Bat Mitzvah ceremony.” The Birthright Israel program acted as a catalyst in helping her to get in touch with the State of Israel and her religion. Visiting Israel for the first time marked her personal beginning as a “Jewish adult” in many ways. Acording to Gail Hyman, Vice President of marketing for the Birthright Israel Fund, getting Bar/Bat Mitzvahed in Israel is “...entirely their choice. It comes out of conversations on the bus with tour guides and staff. The tour leaders are happy to support their choices.”
Ashley was Bat-Mitzvahed by Rabbi Nosson, who runs the Chabad Program at Pennsylvania State University. “He was funny, quirky, and walked me through the entire ceremony,” she recalled. “He also announced that my Hebrew name, Ahava Leya, means Love and Peace. I was glad that the new friends I had met on the trip were all able to be there and witness this milestone in my life. After I was done, everyone threw candy at me and two boys from my trip tossed me up in the air like I was in a chair.” Being Bat-Mitzvahed at an older age in the homeland, in Israel, allowed Ashley to truly understand the significance of what it meant to become a Jewish adult.
Ashley left Israel with a much stronger feeling of Zionism than when she had arrived. “I’ve definitely begun to pay more attention to the news regarding the Middle East and truly care about the well being of my home country. When we landed at Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel, our trip organizer welcomed us “home” and nobody was sure exactly what she meant. After going on Birthright, I can certainly say everyone on the trip now understands exactly what her point was. Since Israel is a place where all Jewish people can enjoy freedom and feel safe, after visiting, you want to make sure it stays that way forever.”
Ashley has become quite the advocate of experiencing this Birthright trip and recommends it to all who have the opportunity to go. In only 10 days, she was able to go from knowing little about her Jewish background and identity, to starting her journey as a Jewish adult by being Bat-Mitzvahed and experiencing the very best that Israel and the Jewish religion has to offer. Discovery, or “taglit” is definitely what happened to Ashley and many of her peers on this trip to Israel. Taglit of a religion, taglit of a country, and taglit of a new identity.
To get involved in Taglit Birthright Israel, call the trip information hotline (1-888-99-ISRAEL; 1-888-994-7723) or visit the website http://www.birthrightisrael.com/site/PageServer. Many universities also offer services to get involved in Birthright through Chabad or other Jewish organizations within the school.