As winter break approaches, more than 60 students are preparing for a Jewish right of passage, an experience known as Birthright.
Essentially a free 10-day tour of Israel, these heritage trips allow any individual between the ages of 18 and 26, with at least one parent of recognized Jewish descent, to gain a knowledge of Israeli culture and help bridge the gap between Israel and Jewish communities around the world.
While each trip has its own unique components, there are highlights that the majority of trips include, such as touring the Golan Heights, swimming in the Dead Sea, going to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, hiking the great Masada, visiting the lively market — or shook — in Tel Aviv and sleeping in the Bedouin Tents in the Negev desert.
Hillel, Binghamton University’s Jewish student organization, offers its own Explore Israel Trip specifically tailored for students. Each trip includes a member of the Hillel staff, typically either Rabbi Shalom Kantor or Shana Kantor, along with the current Israeli Fellow, an Israeli citizen who comes to BU to teach students about life in Israel. This year the Israeli Fellow is Inbal Kohali. In addition, the group has a bus driver, a medic in charge of first aid and a tour guide who is an Israeli soldier. The participants not only get to talk to the soldier about what it is like to grow up in Israel, but they are also able to teach the soldier about teenage life in America.
Rabbi Kantor believes the trip can expand horizons and change perspectives on Israel, a country on the other side of the world. He also thinks the trip can open doors within, creating a mirror filled with reflective thoughts, that teach students something new about themselves.
“It’s an opportunity to develop a life-long connection with new people and a new place,” Rabbi Kantor said. “It’s a learning opportunity. Students learn from a guide, through their peers and Israeli soldiers themselves. They see that there’s so much more to Israel than what is covered in the media and get to choose their own viewpoint on the beautiful nation they’re a part of.”
Ilana Solomon, a sophomore double-majoring in human development and English, went on Birthright through Hillel last winter break. Her favorite memory is from a day when she was completely taken out of her comfort zone.
“Swimming, or rather floating, in the Dead Sea is one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had,” Solomon said. “It is a moment in my life that I am extremely grateful to be able to have.”
Solomon recalls that after the swim, they hiked Masada, something she had been nervous about during the entire trip.
“But the experience of being able to make it to the top was incredible,” Solomon said.
After that, she spent the night in the desert in a Bedouin tent, the closest she had ever gotten to camping. She remembers it brought her whole bus together and ended the day on an amazing note.
Steven Schwartz, a junior majoring in political science, is set to go on Birthright this winter break, also with Hillel. He is most excited to see Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
“I applied to Birthright because I have never gone to Israel before and heard from my friends that went that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and something that everybody should do,” Schwartz said.
Luckily, Birthright does not end once you step off the plane at the end of the 10 days. BU has a special program called iNext, which helps to maintain the friendships students forge while in Israel.
iNext’s purpose is to create a cushion, or a soft landing, for students when they return home.
“When students get back to Binghamton, it’s so easy to get caught up in the everyday of school, homework and extracurricular activities,” Rabbi Kantor said. “iNext is an organization with the goal of keeping the connection to Israel and ties with each other strong. It’s a resource students can use to create their own programs to follow through and bring that Israel experience back to Binghamton.”