‘birthright Israel’ trips are valuable but should educate more about modern Israel. The streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and many smaller communities, as well as highways and two-lane roads, will be filled in the coming weeks with bus after bus of bright-eyed, open-mouthed and eager American and Diaspora young adults, as the semi-annual onslaught of Birthright Israel visitors sweeps through the country.
The program has brought 85,000 18- to 26-year-olds from more than 40 countries on whirlwind 10-day trips through the country, in an effort to awaken their Jewish souls and build a connection with Israel.
The catch? None, really. The trips are free – that’s right, absolutely free – and are open to anyone who has not been to Israel on an organized or group tour.
The project’s organizers and founders are the “venture philanthropists” Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman , billionaire businessmen who circumvented the turgid bureaucracies of the organized Jewish community in North America to create the program.
The hard-driving financiers successfully browbeat the Israeli government, Jewish Agency and US Jewish organizations into sharing the cost of subsidizing the free trips, although each of the outside groups has tried at times to back out of its financial commitments, offering one excuse or another.
The program has been a financial boon and even lifeline to numerous organizations and private businesses who run the trips as subcontractors to the parent organization, including groups such as Hillel , World Zionist Organization , and Mayanot , among others. The sponsors range from the secular to the religious.
Birthright’s slick PR operation can tell you numerous “success” stories and cite extensive data on the program’s successes in creating Jewish feeling among the trips’ participants and alumni.
I know of several personal odysseys that back that up, such as the friend of a friend whose visit spurred an interest in Judaism and is now here studying to be a Conservative rabbi.
Even closer to me is a young cousin who came on Birthright, stayed the summer afterward as a volunteer for Magen David Adom , Israel’s national ambulance service, and then spent nearly 18 months as an IDF soldier before returning to the U.S.
He plans on returning to university here, and likely will make aliyah – especially if he meets a nice Israeli girl.
The program is not specifically about encouraging aliyah, as that is a touchy subject with North American Jewish parents: They certainly want their kids to have more Jewish feeling and to find Jewish spouses – as long as it is not in Israel.
I had a nephew in the country this week (Yes, he called and we saw him.), and I was jealous when I saw his itinerary – he will be visiting spots we haven’t gotten to yet in our nearly six years here.
The trips’ itineraries include all the spots designed to get a Jewish heart pounding, to misquote the Israeli national anthem, Hatikva: Jerusalem’s Old City and Western Wall, modern Tel Aviv, Holocaust memorial and museum Yad Vashem, spiritual Safed, lovely Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), kibbutzim and Massada.
Newer itineraries now include pairing the visitors with Israelis (my nephew’s group traveled with eight young soldiers) of their same age, and one night in a hip nightspot.
For all of the inspiring sites offered, the trips miss an important aspect of modern life in Israel, and I don’t mean controversial communities or sites in Gaza or the West Bank, such as the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The trips studiously avoid crossing the so-called Green Line and any disputed areas, and attempt to be non-political.
What they don’t show is modern, high tech Israel. There are no visits to the Intel plant in Kiryat Gat, Weizmann Institute laboratories in Rehovot or state-of-the-art medical facilities such as Hadassah-University Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem.
Maybe taking these kids to places that might offer them professional or educational opportunities would make them think too much about moving here. Maybe clean rooms and ER’s aren’t as inspiring as mountaintops and desert vistas.
But the picture isn’t complete without them. The birthright view, for all of its 21st century “venture philanthropy” and state-of-the-art marketing, is essentially the old exotic, distant, biblical Israel, one night in a disco notwithstanding.
The reality of Israel is far closer to North American and Western European reality than it is to the biblical Holy Land. Bringing birthright kids to modern Israel would offer them a better way to connect with the country – and provide them with a more realistic way of connecting to the country personally or professional in the future. We’re not riding around on camels anymore.