Let’s Go! Go To Israel – For Free

March 9, 2012
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By Linda McK. Stewart

Who would say no?

A Taglit-Birthright Israel trip is a ten-day holiday in Israel with all expenses paid, airfare included. Trips depart from Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Newark and JFK. Ten days of hiking, surfing, mountain-climbing, kayaking, water fall frolics with just enough cultural, religious and historical instruction tossed in to provide the essential gravitas that separates a Birthright trip from ordinary merry-making excursions.

Sounds too good to be true? But true it is as some 11,000 young (18 -27 years old) Americans, selected from 40,000 applicants discovered this past summer.  They came from more than 700 American university and college campuses, including the University of Florida, University of Michigan, NYU and Princeton.

The tomb of Theodor Herzl, founder of the modern Zionist movement./Courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

Qualification for a Taglit (it means Welcome in Hebrew) Birthright trip seems as simple as A-B-C: an applicant has only to be Jewish or of Jewish descent, a loosely defined term: just a Jewish grandparent, or even a great-grandparent will suffice. The applicant must not be inscribed in any non-Jewish religious organization although atheism is no exclusion. She/he must be a first-time visitor to Israel and must espouse no “hidden agendas,” another loosely defined stipulation.

Application can be made on line or through any of many Jewish organizations. No one should feel discriminated against if their application is turned down. If adequate funding were available…and it soon may well be…all 40,000 applicants would be accommodated. By 2014 it is hoped that the U.S. Birthright’s annual acceptance level will rise to 53,000, which would mean that one out of every two young Jewish adults will have taken a Birthright trip.

In 2012 trips are scheduled for May, June, July and August. Additional trips are planned for the winter months. While all the 10-day trips may vary slightly in itinerary, all include certain hard and fast features: a visit to the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, the Dead Sea, the Galilee and usually a visit to the tomb of Theodor Herzl, founder of Modern Zionism. Firmly excluded are the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Exhibit Uses History To Fight Against Hate

Every trip embraces a feature called Mifgash (meaning Encounter, in Hebrew). Mifgash is the program whereby young member of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) board the Birthright buses and travel with the visitors for the whole 10 days. They wear their uniforms for the first day and then change into civilian dress until the final day when they reappear in full uniform. The IDF is not there to provide security. Their assignment is to answer questions, to familiarize the young visitors with the details, needs, worries and responsibilities of daily life in present-day Israel where two years in the military is mandatory for all upon finishing high school.

A Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall./Credit: Robin Miller

Every trip is led by a licensed Israeli Tour Guide and accompanied by an armed security guard. Birthrighters are instructed to stay together at all times. No one is ever permitted to take public transportation or to venture off on any solitary expeditions. Evenings are given over to sing-alongs, jazz festivals, concerts and discussion groups. Efforts by visitors to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict are nipped in the bud. As one tour leader put it, “We’re not here to dwell on political issues.”

The Taglit-Birthright program originated as a result of a 1990 National Jewish Population Survey which showed that 52 percent of Jews in the U.S. were marrying outside the Jewish faith. In the innermost circles of America’s Jewish communities, that survey unleashed what was termed a “crisis of continuity”

In response to such dismal findings, the first Birthright trips were conceived.  Success was not instantaneous.

Surf's Up, Tel Aviv/Courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism

It was philanthropist Charles Bronfman, deeply committed to many Israeli causes, who asserted that the Birthright program would only succeed if the trips were totally free of charge…air fare, transport within Israel, room and board, even tips. Bronfman pledged to underwrite all such expenses. Set aside all costs to the traveler, as Bronfman put it, “Israel’s magic will do the rest.”

Ronnie Spector and the Ronettes Return to Red Bank

Overnight, applications poured in – and they continue to pour in. With almost a single voice, returning Birthrighters, the State of Israel and all pro-Israel organizations pronounce the entire Taglit-Birthright project, nothing but a Win-Win program.

Ati Waldman of Fair Haven, now a senior at Tufts, recently returned from a ten-day Taglit- Birthright trip. Ati, an astute and well-informed traveler, was happy to answer my questions about her adventure.

Ati Waldman of Fair Haven, now a senior at Tufts, recently returned from a ten-day Taglit- Birthright trip. Ati, an astute and well-informed traveler, was happy to answer my questions about her adventure.

“I think everyone…appreciated all the amazing things they were seeing,” she said. “There was still a lot of discussion and thought surrounding it all, rather than passively taking in everything. That’s part of the reason I personally see the program as a success, because… it did get (us) to think about Israel and the situation in the region critically.”

What was her favorite part of the trip? No hesitation there: “Meeting and spending time with the people in the Israeli Defense Force. They were really great. We learned so much from them about daily life in Israel.”

Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. sums it up nicely:  “The opportunity to experience first hand the energy, beauty and spirit of Israel is one which will stay forever with all the participants.”

And all for free! Would you say no?

IF YOU GO: For details about Taglit-Birthright call, toll free 1-(888) 281-1265. www.birthrightisrael.com


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