Standing at Masada at sunrise, overlooking the Dead Sea and the Jordan highlands. I'm wearing a shirt that I got at the Bedouin camp the night before.
It sounds too good to be true, right? A free trip to Israel for 11 days? Round-trip airfare from JFK to Tel Aviv, guided tours, trained security escorts, meals, hotels, museums, hikes, tours, a camel ride, swimming in the Dead Sea, side trips, discussion groups, concerts, travel assistance, and more...for free?
When I first heard about this Birthright thing, I was very, very skeptical. How could it possibly be free? What does this "Taglit" organization get out of it? What's the catch? Am I obligated to go to some kind of "Jewish re-education" or pledge money or become assimilated into something? What are the hidden fees? Am I even eligible?
I'll tell it straight. My mom isn't Jewish. My dad is Jewish...ish. His family comes from mostly Jewish heritage, though he personally never had a Bar Mitzvah, and neither did I or my brother. Still, we always celebrated Chanukah every year, and most years we would go to my grandmother's house for a Passover seder dinner. However, that was almost the entire extent of Judaism in my life while I was growing up--ask any orthodox Rabbi and I'm simply not Jewish. My mom comes from a Protestant family, and though I went to a synagogue no more than three or four times total in the first eighteen years of my life, I've probably been to church at least a hundred times, not to mention having been inexplicably baptized at age ten. Even so, with all that Lutheranizing and acolyting and communioning, not to mention the continuing Christmas tradition (and yearly Easter baskets of chocolate as a child) in my family's house, I grew up feeling more at home in the company of Jews, even though I was even less Jewish than pretty much any one of my relatively very secular Jewish friends.
So what's the deal here? Did I fool some bizarre organization of questionable motives into giving me a prize package worth thousands of dollars that I didn't deserve, using my own questionable motives? Not at all.
The Taglit organization's stated purpose (they're the money behind Birthright) is simply this: they believe that it is the birth-right of all Jewish people to visit Israel. Therefore, they endeavor to make it possible for young Jews to visit Israel in the best way they can--and tons of them come back with positive experiences to report. In Taglit's words:
Taglit-Birthright Israel provides the gift of first time, peer group, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26. Taglit-Birthright Israel's founders created this program to send thousands of young Jewish adults from all over the world to Israel as a gift in order to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants' personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.
So what does that mean? Basically this:
If you are a young adult who can consider yourself Jewish, and you have a real interest in traveling to Israel, you are eligible. So when I went to the Tufts Hillel to find out whether this program is for real, I met with the Birthright coordinator, and I gave it to him straight. I told him that I'm technically half-Jewish (at best), though I would love to take advantage of this fantastic opportunity to go to Israel. I continued, saying that my Jewish heritage from my father's side of my family had always been an intriguing sort of comfort to me, and I would like to find out more about it and sort of test how well I connect to it. Plus...it's a FREE TRIP TO ISRAEL. So that's basically what I said, and that's also basically what I told Shorashim as well, when they did their phone interview with me (which is really just a get-to-know-you sort of thing, to make sure you're genuine). "Genuine? What does THAT mean?"
From their website:
A. You may apply for the Taglit-Birthright Israel gift regardless of your Jewish background or affiliation. All Taglit-Birthright Israel programs will provide opportunities for participants to celebrate Jewish life together. Some Trip Organizers represent different religious movements, or Zionist ideologies. To learn how to choose among all the Taglit-Birthright Israel-approved trip organizers, please go to 'How to Choose a Trip Organizer'. By asking some key questions like, "How will Shabbat be observed?" will help ensure that the program you are choosing is right for you.
A. There is no catch, no strings attached. Participants are only responsible for a $250 US deposit, fully refundable upon their return home after successfully completing the program. Participants are under no obligation to Taglit-Birthright Israel, which finances the trip, or their Trip Organizer, who implements the trip, for any future activities or financial obligations. Of course, should participants decide to become more involved in the Jewish community, go back to Israel or explore other aspects of Jewish life, we encourage them to regularly check out the rest of the website for resources that may fit their needs.
Simply put, in ten years, this organization has taken over 220,000 (yes, two hundred twenty THOUSAND) young people from over 50 countries on free ten-day trips. What do they mean by "free"? I paid for only the following:
• Plane tickets to and from New York
• About a third of the meals
• A $250 deposit that was refunded about a month after the trip ended
• Return trip extension fees so as to accommodate my trip to Russia after the Israel program was over (not a required expense of course, though they make it VERY easy to extend your trip however you want by up to three months, not to mention MUCH cheaper than what the airline would usually charge)
But what about safety? "Israel is too dangerous--I wouldn't feel comfortable there" or "My dad/mom would never let me go" or "I'm afraid to go to the Middle East" -- let me share the following with you:
• I never once felt unsafe during the trip.
• We had an armed guard with us the whole time. TWO armed guards when in more rural areas.
• The organization carefully plans routes and checks conditions before going anywhere.
• They have taken over 220,000 young people on these trips, and I'm told their safety record is impeccable.
• It's in everyone's best interests to do their absolute utmost to keep everyone safe.
• Taglit lists all of their other safety precautions on their website. So does Shorashim.
• Chances are, you know other people like me who have gone on a Birthright trip and had an amazing time.
I understand that back in January, with the Gaza offensive going on, it was probably not the best time to be there. But during my time there, things were quiet. I would hate to think that anyone would be kept from going to Israel because of fear of attack. Besides that, El Al Airlines (one of the most popular airlines used by the program, and Israel's national airline) has probably the best safety record of any airline operating. I suspect you're in a lot more danger driving on a freeway or visiting many areas of many US cities than you are on a Birthright trip. If there's not a war or anything going on, that's no way to miss out on an incredible opportunity.
So what about my own experience? I will say that my trip to Israel affected me much more than I could have predicted, and I really felt a strong connection to the place that I couldn't have expected. I am more interested in Judaism, and I'm even thinking about having a Bar Mitzvah. "AHA!" you say, "THAT'S WHAT THEY WANTED, ISN'T IT!"
Well, yes, isn't it? I wanted the free trip to Israel, but isn't that sort of because I was curious about it? I was interested, and now that I've been, I've learned a lot. Besides that, it's no secret that Birthright is designed to make everybody happy. Certainly the Israeli government wins, because they get tons of tourism dollars and a lot of great press. Wouldn't you want young people visiting YOUR country and then going back home to tell everyone what a great time they had? The Birthright organization wins, because they are fulfilling their stated goals. And certainly, the young people win, because we get an amazing free trip to Israel. "BUT WHAT ABOUT PALESTINE??" you might ask. That's actually a great question--and I'm glad to say that nothing about my trip felt like being indoctrinated or proselytized. In fact, we had frank and critical political discussions many times, during which we learned a lot of history, got many different perspectives, and learned about the great complexities of the situation. I can't speak for other trip providers (so I highly recommend Shorashim), but I left Israel with greater respect and understanding for both Israeli and Palestinian peoples. I also truly became friends with several soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces, and I have immense respect for them.
So it's legitimate, and it's true. I strongly recommend the Birthright program to anyone who is interested and remotely eligible. What do you have to lose? You just might discover that you have a lot more than you knew about to gain.
Check out the trip provider Shorashim - they're the group I went with, and their whole philosophy on the trip is extremely well-balanced, not to mention packed-full of awesome activities and and very welcoming to everyone.
When you sign up, tell them that I referred you, too. "AHA!!" you say, "SO YOU'RE GETTING SOMETHING OUT OF ALL THIS!!! TREACHERY!!"
Yes, it's true, they will give me a bit of money if I refer people to them that end up signing up for a trip, and there's even a possibility of me getting to go BACK to Israel for free (AGAIN!) if I get enough people to sign up. But why would I help Shorashim out if I didn't believe in what they're doing? I had a truly amazing time, and deciding to go for a Birthright trip was one of the best decisions I've ever made. If you have any questions, please email me or comment on this post.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO APPLY FOR BIRTHRIGHT, READ THIS:
1) REGISTRATION OPENS AT NOON EST ON SEPTEMBER 9. YOU MUST REGISTER (and pay the $250 deposit) AS SOON AS POSSIBLE ON THAT DAY! IT IS FIRST-COME-FIRST-SERVED, AND THEY MEAN THAT.
2) TO REGISTER: Go to ISRAELWITHISRAELIS.COM (website for Shorashim)
3) Mention my name on the registration form! And send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org saying that I recruited you!