Jewish young adults taking part in a free tour of the Holy Land concluded their whirlwind itinerary last week with mass bar and bit mitzvah ceremonies for those who had never before celebrated their connection as adults to the Torah and Jewish tradition.

According to participants, the ceremonies for 15 college students at the men’s and women’s sections at the Western Wall in Jerusalem – where several men donned tefillin for the first time – capped off a spiritually-rich and fun tour. Provided by Mayanot, a Chabad-Lubavitch run organization, and underwritten by Taglit-birthright israel, the trip’s highlights included walking through the famed artists’ quarter in the mystical city of Safed and a visit to the Dead Sea.

All told, an estimated 1,200 Jewish men and women aged 18 to 35 took part in Mayanot’s birthright program this year.

Echoing the sentiments of her colleagues, a leader of one of the touring groups reported that visiting students couldn’t help but return from Israel energized in terms of their Jewish identity.

“It’s an amazing program,” said Sara Korn, co-director of the Chabad House serving New York University, who returned to the United States with students and alumni on Jan. 15. “The variety and number of sites they manage to pack into 10 days is incredible.

“No one who takes part in these trips will ever look at Israel or at being Jewish the same way again,” she continued.

Unique Touches

While dozens of organizations are licensed by birthright israel to provide free trips to Jewish men and women who have never before visited the Holy Land as part of a group tour, Mayanot’s program incorporates some unique touches. The trips are typically book-ended by stays in Jewishly-significant regions, beginning with a Shabbat overlooking the Sea of Galilee, followed a week later with an overnight in Jerusalem’s Old City, each replete with traditional meals and spiritually-uplifting songs.

“The feeling of being here is just incredible,” said Rabbi Dov Oliver, a Lubavitch-trained rabbi and the Hillel director at the Rockland Community College in New York. “This trip has far exceeded our expectations.

“There is just so much Jewish pride, such a strong sense of Jewish identity among these students,” he added. "People of every type of background are bonding through the experience of being here.”

One visitor shared that just hours before his group was scheduled to visit the Western Wall – part of the retaining wall supporting the Temple Mount where the Holy Temple once stood – he found out that his grandfather back in the States was very sick. At the Wall, he derived some comfort from the opportunity to pray at such a holy site.

Later, when he told his grandfather what he had done, the grandfather excitedly said: “I knew you must have done something, because my mood lifted today. You’ve restored my spirits!

“Through just being here, each person is getting what he or she needs spiritually,” stated Korn. “Each one of us has been moved in a really personal way, and grown through being here.”

Erika Harris, a senior at NYU majoring in linguistics, agreed.

“It is nothing like I expected,” she said. The trip has “opened me up to learn more about Israel and about my heritage. I’ve never really been excited about being a Jew before. This has been an awakening.”

After a pause, she added: “I am definitely coming back!”