As Israel’s summer tourist season kicks into high gear, the first waves of American young adults arrived in the country as part of the free 10-day trips for first-time visitors sponsored by Taglit-birthright israel.

According to those who just finished their tours, the experience was life-transforming.

“It’s been fantastic,” reported Josh Vittor, who just completed his sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania. “I had no idea how strongly I’d feel connected to Israel.”

Vittor, who took part in a Mayanot-provided birthright israel trip led by Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, executive director of the Lubavitch House at Penn, said that he would be flying home on Thursday with a better understanding of his Jewish heritage and how the Land of Israel fits into that identity.

“I’ve never really been a real religious person,” he explained. “And I don’t know if [the trip] will change that, but I do have a better appreciation of Judaism because of birthright.

“At college, I’ve been trying to decide what Judaism means to me,” continued Vittor, a native of New York City. “This trip has exponentially heightened by pride and connection to Israel.”

In its ninth year of operation, birthright israel expects to send 27,000 Jewish people aged 18-26 on tours of the Holy Land, the largest such figure to date. Many of the visitors will be participating in trips provided by Mayanot and recruited by a network of college-based Chabad Houses.

Joined by Rabbi Ephraim Levin of the Lubavitch House at Penn, Schmidt – who took students to Israel as part of his Jewish Heritage Programs seven years before birthright was founded – led his 14th student trip to Israel this week. He said that the change such tours produce in participants is tangible.

“The possibilities are unbelievable,” he said. “We’re in a unique position as educators to really help these students put together their own individualized connection to their own personal Yiddishkeit. We help them find personal messages and spirituality in everything they see.”

And when the students return, campus-based Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries help them translate those Israel experiences into positive expressions of their Judaism, echoed Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation.

A college student from New York prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
A college student from New York prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

“People were telling me that after their trip, they’re committed to marrying a Jew,” related Gordon, who led a trip last week with Rabbi Mendy Fellig, co-director of the Chabad House serving the University of Miami. “For some of the young men, visiting the Western Wall was the first time that they put on tefillin. For others, the trip was their first time even speaking to a rabbi.

“These trips present a tremendous amount of firsts every where you turn, whether it’s a first Shabbat or the first time learning Torah in an organized fashion,” he added. “And, it’s all taking place in the Holy Land.”

That description dovetailed with research conducted by professors Barry Chazan at Hebrew University and Leonard Saxe at Brandeis University that concluded that the birthright israel experience has a positive effect on one’s Jewish identity.

By looking at groups of trip participants and non-participants, the researchers – who detail their findings in the just released Ten Days of Birthright Israel: A Journey in Young Adult Identity – determined that going on birthright contributes to a greater identification with the Jewish people and a greater desire among participants to raise Jewish children.


Although the Mayanot trips include a brief visit to the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where educators from the men’s and women’s divisions introduce birthright participants to the world of Torah literature and commentary, students emphasized that most of their time is spent hiking and kayaking, and touring the country.

“It has been exhausting,” commented Sara Lenrow, a recent Penn graduate from suburban Philadelphia. “But it’s also been very rewarding. There’s so much to see in such a short amount of time.”

“There are times that I feel like a tourist,” she continued. “But at other times, I felt like I belong with everyone else here. At the Western Wall, I definitely felt” a spiritual connection.

Adam Gilberg, who just finished his freshman year at Bucknell College and convinced 13 of his friends from high school and their friends to join him on birthright, agreed.

“I’m pretty blown away,” he stated. “Every aspect of the trip has been amazing.”

Caitlyn Lewis, a rising sophomore at Penn, said that she came to Israel against the best wishes of her father. He was scared for her safety, given news reports about Palestinian-perpetrated violence.

Lewis said, however, that she called home on Tuesday to tell her parents about her time at the Western Wall.

“I said, ‘Dad, you have got to come to Israel. There is no way I cannot come back.’ He said, ‘You know what, Caitlyn? I’m coming,’ ” said Lewis. “And my mom said she still has dreams about being at the Western Wall 30 years ago and putting her note in a crack between the stones.

“I wouldn’t consider myself very Jewish, but I think the best part of the trip is that you find out what being Jewish really means,” added Lewis. “I’ll go back home now with a sense of how religious I can be.”