The International Jewish Federation, the Hillel Jewish Student Organization, the Israeli government and a few multi-billionaire philanthropists have one common goal: they want young Jewish people to go to Israel. How do they get them there? By sending them for free. Au gratis. Frei.
Through the Birthright Israel Program, thousands of young Jews have gone with their peers to the only official Jewish state in the world. There they experience everything from camping out in the Negev desert to swimming in the Dead Sea to visiting Jerusalem’s Old City Jewish Quarter and partying with students at Hebrew University.
Everything from the plane tickets to the accommodations to every single meal is at no cost to the trip participants.
“The fear is that the last chance to catch people is in college,” said Tamara Lustig, Israel Program director for the Greater Miami Hillel Jewish Student Center. “Once they leave college, they go on and make choices about things like intermarrying, raising their kids Jewish and keeping Shabbat.”
According to organizers, the idea is to allow young Jews to connect with their Jewish heritage by connecting with their homeland. By connecting with their heritage, they become more connected to their religion and culture.
“There is really something special as soon as you get off the plane,” said Aileen Averbuch, senior, who participated in the winter 2000 – 2001 Birthright Israel trip. “It really changes you.”
One issue that warrants concern, however, is safety. Violence in Israel is an almost daily news headline, which can make even the most eager students wary.
Israel has suffered a decline in tourism, and terrorist groups have stepped up their attacks on Israeli civilians. The United States has pulled all of its diplomats out of the country.
But Lustig said students should not let this deter them from traveling to Israel.
“Israel has a bad rep with security,” Lustig said. “But when you look at the statistics, you have a much bigger chance of being hit by a car or suffering from a freak accident than experiencing any problems over there.”
According to organizers, a security guard and a medic travels with each busload of students, along with five bonafide Israeli soldiers. Students are chaperoned at all times and are not allowed out at night unless it is for a group activity.
Lustig also mentioned all the technological communication devices they plan to use during the trip.
“If Mom is worried at home, she can call a hotline and be connected to her child on the bus in two minutes,” Lustig said. “Each bus is wired with GPS and connected to a satellite system so that they can be tracked every moment of the day and night.”
Students who have been on the trip say they were not worried about the risks.
“The security thing just didn’t faze me,” Averbuch said. “People are just so friendly, and there are soldiers everywhere. If you see a hitchhiker in a uniform you should stop and pick them up. That’s just the way it is over there.”
Additionally, Israel is concerned with keeping Birthright participants secure. If anything were to happen, tourism would be affected, and they would potentially lose the support of a young group of Jews that could have an impact on their country in the future.
“They treated us like kings and queens,” Averbuch said. “We stayed at the best hotels, ate the best food and did the neatest activities.”
Program participants come from around the world and can pick from several themed trips that focus on areas like photography, the outdoors or peace and politics. A $250 deposit is required from all participants and is refunded after they return home.
“Something, somehow, some way, each student will get something out if it,” Lustig said. “It has an impact.”
The trip goes twice a year. Applications are available on the internet at www.israel.hillel.org.
Jillian Bandes can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.