For Birthright Israel, 2018 was a year that organizers could only have dreamed of back in 1999, when a few philanthropists joined the government of Israel and North American Jewish federations to dispatch a busload of college students on the very first Birthright tour of Israel.
Nearly two decades later, a record 48,000-plus young Jews from 67 countries (and 8,300 Israelis who travel with them) spent 10 days connecting with Israel, Israelis, their Jewish selves and each other, bringing the Birthright total to a whopping 650,000, representing roughly half of all young Jewish Americans.
And this all takes places despite mounting Israel-bashing on campuses across North America.
Contributing to Birthright’s success are new trip options, including one with an age limit of 32 (previously, eligibility started at 18 and was capped at 26). Now in its pilot phase, the trip invites young adults ages 27 to 32 on trips of just seven days, owing to their busy schedules.
“I hadn’t been in years,” says Tova Ross, a New Jersey mom. “The trip changed the way I felt about Israel by giving me a new perspective on the country. I got to appreciate the diversity of the Jewish people by meeting so many different types of young Jews. It gave me as a deeper appreciation of the vital role a Jewish education plays in fostering a strong love for Israel.”
“We’ve opened up lots of new spots, so we’ve been able to pretty much do away with the waitlist,” says Noa Bauer, Birthright Israel’s vice president of Global Marketing. And now they also have so many choices, she adds. “They can go with students from their school or on special-interest trips with kids from all over.”
Specialty trips range from archaeology, the culinary arts, hiking, professional development, the LGBTQ community and artists, as well as those for young adults with disabilities. “We offer whatever it takes to make sure every young Jew can experience Israel,” adds Bauer. (To qualify, you need to have at least one Jewish parent.)
Six to eight young Israelis, including Israel Defense Forces soldiers, come along on every trip. It’s a rare opportunity for participants to relate to each other in an intimate setting that melts away differences, explains Bauer. “The visitors begin to understand what it’s like to defend both Israel and the Jewish people, and the soldiers get so much positive reinforcement from the Diaspora kids. Overnight, they build powerful bonds with each other.”
Tom Shaked was finishing her last month of IDF service in 2016 when she took 10 days off to accompany a Birthright trip.
“I was pretty skeptical and went into it expecting 10 days of shallow conversation,” she says. “At first, I did get questions like, ‘Do you know how to shoot a gun?’” But sitting in a circle on Shabbat, “the Americans spoke so openly about what they hoped to get from their Birthright trip. Yes, they wanted to see Israel and how Israelis live, but inside they were hoping to learn what it means to be a Jew. Helping them explore their Jewish identity forced me to examine my own.”
Touring her new American friends around her base, “it made me prouder than ever to be a soldier for Israel, to feel this responsibility for something bigger than myself.”
Equally impactful was their trip to the military cemetery at Mount Hertzl. “They told us that Memorial Day in the U.S. is mostly for shopping, and we told them that on Memorial Day here we get up, dress in black and go to the cemetery because every Israeli family has lost someone.”
But this kind of aha moment doesn’t happen magically. It takes $150 million to send nearly 50,000 young Jews a year on a free trip to Israel. Two-thirds of the funding comes from philanthropists and donors with the Adelson Family Foundation, which picks up 23 percent of the Birthright tab. The government of Israel funds 28 percent, and the rest is made up of Jewish federations and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
The investment pays off, one Jew at a time.
“It brought me to a spiritual, emotional place, on our own journey to this place that’s very important to us all,” says recent traveler Yana Kozukhin, a sophomore at New York University. Sea changes can result from even this short exposure. After returning from Birthright, Kozukhin switched her course of study; she is now carrying a double major of education and Judaic studies.
There are anti-Israel forces on campus working to discourage students from these trips, and Birthright travelers often return to campuses where Israel is demonized.
Still, such influences do not appear to be slaking students’ enthusiasm. “Birthright doesn’t hide the fact that Israel is a politically complicated place,” says Len Saxe, a professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Brandeis University who has written extensively on Birthright. “The numbers are clear evidence that political issues and controversies are not preventing people from going to see it for themselves.”
According to Jonah Kurman-Faber, who went on Birthright this winter, “the Israeli journalist who briefed the group on the situation laid it out in a fair and neutral way. I was really impressed how even the Israelis who discussed it with each other were having less an argument and more a sense of dialogue.”
In fact, adds Birthright’s Bauer, “we see the anti-Israel pressures as representing a loud but small extremist position.”
But one thing that’s not in question is the powerful impact of a Birthright experience, crucial in today’s often hostile campus environment.
“Birthright is a potent weapon against those who are pitted against Israel and the Jewish people,” says Tammi Rossman-Benjamin of AMCHA Initiative, a watchdog organization that monitors anti-Israel and anti-Semitic pressures on campus. “Knowing the toxic campus environments many of these young Jews are returning to, organizers have to be even more strategic than in years past and aware that they’re fighting against forces demonizing Israel, the Birthright program and anyone who goes on it.”
Bauer acknowledges that mass aliyah is not the goal. “We also need a strong Diaspora Jewish community for the future, and for that the new generation needs to feel close to their people and their land. Now when they see Israel on the news or hear the country criticized,” she says, “they’ll know the real Israel as they experienced it.
“For thousands of young Jews, Birthright is a powerful transformative experience,” she adds. “It’s one of the few things in life that’s a gift with absolutely no strings attached.”
Over two years after her trip, Shaked, 24, remains close with her American friends. Several have been back to Israel, and one lives there now.
“It’s pretty amazing,” she says. “In just 10 days, we went from strangers to family.”