Junior Alyssa Rosenfeld went to Israel as part of Taglit-Birthright Israel, a program that arranges free trips to Israel for Jewish young adults. Rosenfeld found the trip to be a meaningful experience.
“Exploring Israel for the first time is an experience that resonated with me on all levels,” Rosenfeld said. “Standing at the sites of Israel gave me a strong sense of history and religion, knowing that my ancestors stood and prayed in those same spots for thousands of years.”
Despite the recent conflict in Israel and Gaza, Taglit continues to organize trips to Israel. Taglit-Birthright Israel is a 15-year-old organization founded by two American philanthropists in unison with the state of Israel. Two student groups on campus, Hillel and Emet Israel, are recruiting University of Miami students for free trips to Israel this winter.
Since early September, when winter registration opened, Hillel at the University of Miami and Emet Israel, an Israel engagement organization, have observed varying levels of interest from the university’s Jewish community about traveling to Israel on Birthright.
The New York Times reported in August that an estimated 3,000 Birthright participants out of an anticipated 31,000 canceled their trips during the summer, owing in part to the conflict between Israel and Hamas.
Students aged 18 to 26 can register for the 10-day heritage trip, and UM Hillel takes students to Israel every winter and summer.
“This is something that grounds them for the rest of their lives and that establishes a relationship with their heritage, with their traditions, with their culture and allows them to experience that in the company of the Jewish community,” said Robyn Fisher, assistant director for Hillel.
Emet Israel is also taking a trip of students to Israel on Birthright this winter. This is its second time facilitating a Birthright trip and its first time doing so in the winter.
Even given the events in the Middle East, students have not been discouraged from registering for Birthright through Hillel. Forty students attend each trip, and Hillel always has a student wait list, according to Fisher.
“So far, our registration numbers are steadily increasing,” Fisher said. “It’s hard to say how many people have already signed up because we’re still inputting them into our system, but it’s a strong number, and it’s very similar to previous years.”
Conversely, Emet Israel has noticed the impact recent events have had on Birthright sign-ups.
“There’s definitely more of a hesitation from people to sign up this winter,” said Rebecca Lebwohl, who is vice president of Emet Israel and is leading the winter Birthright trip.
Lebwohl felt that at least some of this hesitation came from misinformation or a lack of awareness of the true nature of the situations in Israel and the Middle East. While she understands why some people are worried, she is confident in the safety of the program.
No trips have ever been cancelled due to a conflict and, if anything were to occur, re-routing the itinerary is always a possibility, Fisher said.
Hillel has put together an incentive program that will encourage even more students to register. Students signing up will immediately receive a $5 Starbucks gift card, and Birthright alumni who get five people to sign up will be entered into a raffle for the opportunity to win $100.
The idea is to strengthen the bond between students who have already gone and students who are planning to go.
“There’s nothing like going with your campus and establishing a relationship with a staff that can guide you and inspire you,” Fisher said. “You come back to campus with 39 of your best friends and a great sense of Jewish community and belonging.”
Hillel’s trip organizers are also open to having individual conversations with students and parents who are concerned about the trip.
“One of the things about Israel is that there never is a right time to go because things are always happening,” said Janu Mendel, the Jewish student life associate at Hillel.
Mendel said he was there during the summer when the conflict started, and he never felt unsafe.
“I think people who may not know enough about Israel yet may feel put off, but once they have conversations with people who have been there, they realize how much safety is a priority,” he said.
In fact, Birthright has a long-standing reputation of putting the students’ safety first. The state of Israel ensures the students’ security by monitoring their location and providing buses with safety facilities and emergency medics.
Elia Michalevich, who recently joined the UM Hillel staff as an Israel Fellow, participated in Birthright as an Israeli soldier on one of the trips.
“It’s amazing to see Israel from a different perspective,” Michalevich said. “To walk like a tourist in your own country… it’s amazing.”