If you aren’t Jewish you probably haven’t given much thought to it, but what exactly do most people imagine when they think of Birthright? Better yet, how do people describe it? Is it amazing, inspirational, perspective-altering or perhaps just free ‘ free as in an all-expense-paid, no-fine-print, free trip to Israel, to explore the homeland and bond with young strangers from across the country?
There are numerous options when it comes to tailoring a Birthright trip to meet your specific needs. In each session, approximately 20 different trip organizers, who are accredited by and receive funding from Taglit-Birthright Israel, offer programs with their own specific goals and distinctive groups of people.
Though the 10-day trip usually involves a fairly rigid itinerary, designed to help you get the most out of your excursion, you can expect a totally different experience depending on who you take the journey with. Your weekend trip to the bars certainly wouldn’t be the same with mom and dad as it is with your rowdy, can’t-wait-to-get-recklessly-drunk friends. Similarly, Birthright brings its own unique experiences depending on who you’re lucky enough to experience it with.
To get us started, several Binghamton University students give us accounts of their experience with the programs they joined.
The Orthodox Route
BU sophomores Sara Tenenbaum and Michele Rogowicz had a fairly conservative trip with the Aish HaTorah Birthright organization, which focuses more on the religious aspect of the trip, seeking to bring people closer to Judaism. ‘Our group was more religious, and centered in Jerusalem, as opposed to say, Tel Aviv,’ they agreed.
Of course there was still leisure time for smoking hookah and hanging out. However, the group centered around expressing sentiments toward the country and allowing participants to focus on their religious identities, said Tenenbaum, who describes herself as a modern Orthodox Jew.
Some of their best memories from their trip to Israel were ones spent embracing and celebrating their religion. ‘We had an entire Friday night praying at the Western Wall to bring in Shabbat ‘ which was the best experience I ever had,’ said Rogowicz. ‘The girls sang and danced on a rooftop looking over at the people dancing down below.’
The Educational Route
Unlike Tenebaum and Rogowicz, who were more invested in the spiritual side of the experience, there are those who choose to go with groups that are known for, well, partying. Oranim, for example, is one organization which has a reputation for having a wild time in Israel while helping you fall in love with the country.
‘My group was infamous for partying all night, sleeping for two hours, then getting right back into it the next day,’ said Sophomore Jessica Zenou. ‘We were traveling a lot, so we went to almost a different club every night and got to party with the hot Israelis.’ Though the camel rides and trips to the Western Wall and the Dead Sea were no doubt amazing, said Zenou, spending time in a foreign country with a group of college kids was enough to deem the experience a success.
To make it even sweeter, both boys and girls look forward to spending time with the attractive young men and women of the Israeli army, who stop by to play when they are off duty. They are just as happy to have new faces around and many trips often blossom into short romances.
BU Hillel staff member Jackie Farber recalls the joy of being able to hang out with so many available young men. ‘My favorite memory from Birthright was when they rented out a bar for the night just for Birthright students,’ she said. ‘I knew could flirt with any guy in this bar because they were all Jewish.’
The Nondenominational Detour
SUNY Brockport freshman Andrea Macy, who took her trip with the Rochester area Hillel, had a different, more ‘social’ trip. A number of people in her group were from Sarah Lawrence University, which is known for having very liberal, ‘indie’ students, Macy said.
‘We were sitting on the top of the mountain looking over the water that Jesus walked on and had a big argument about whether God had a gender or not,’ she said, laughing. Her trip provided a unique learning environment for her.
‘One of our rabbis was gay and wore his yarmulke around with the gay pride symbol on it,’ Macy said. Being able to see Israel through the perspective of someone from the gay community turned out to be a real learning experience for Macy.
It was nothing short of an adventure from the beginning, she says. And unlike Rogowicz, who had a more spiritual adventure on the Western Wall, Andrea had a slightly more humorous one. ‘I’m at the Western Wall praying, the most holy place in Jerusalem, and a lady walks over and nudges me out of the way with her umbrella so she could pray instead,’ she said. ‘I had to nudge back ‘ we started a nudge war on the Western Wall!’
For Macy and other participants, the trip was one of learning and meeting new people from places like Mexico and Tokyo. One of Macy’s new Sarah Lawrence friends summed up their trip as only a true liberal hippie could. ‘I feel like I’m a graham cracker ‘ and when I came to Israel this giant textbook just came and crushed me into a million little pieces.’ It sure sounds like the best way to describe a Birthright trip.
Despite all the different experiences, there are some things that always make the trip a good idea says Farber. ‘It’s not about pushing you to become a more religious person,’ Farber explained. ‘It’s about experiencing different ways to experience your culture, and having the chance to build lifelong friendships.’
Registration for summer 2007 begins Feb. 15. Visit www.birthrightisrael.org for more details.