Thousands of young Jewish adults from North America are in the Holy Land this week taking advantage of an opportunity never afforded them when they were younger.

And with more scheduled to arrive very few days between now and August 2 – due in large part to vigorous recruitment efforts on the part of campus-based Chabad-Lubavitch centers – the free 10-day trips provided by Mayanot remain among the most popular trips underwritten by Taglit-Birthright Israel.

“This is my eighth time bringing over a group,” said Rabbi Dov Yonah Korn, co-director of the Chabad House serving New York University. “The students are always just blown away, and for me, each time it is an incredible experience to watch them. They’re reconnecting with their people, with their history, with the Land of Israel: Each trip is amazing.”

Open to any Jewish person aged 18 to 26 who has never before travelled to Israel as part of a group, a hallmark of the trips is a combination of touring and cultural activities, including interactions with Israeli soldiers and well-known public figures. In the nine years since the program’s inception, Taglit-Birthright Israel has brought more than 200,000 people from 52 different countries to Israel.

Matthew Bachmann, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, still recalls the impact his Birthright trip had on him four years ago.

“It gave me a much better understanding of Israel and of Israelis, especially meeting the Israeli soldiers. They hang out with the students and discuss things, and they really become a part of the group.”

Bachmann was back in Israel this week as a group leader on a Birthright tour. He said that bonds are formed between participants and Israelis as a result of each trip.

“The connections made are not superficial in any way, shape, or form,” said Bachmann. “They are very real.”

Amanda Schwartz, a recent graduate who joined the group from NYU, also cited the opportunity to get to know Israel as the most significant part of her trip.

“I’m somewhat political, but I didn’t really know what life is like here or understand what it is like for Israelis,” she explained. “Meeting people who live here and spending time with Israeli families has given me a new perspective.”

Chana Novak, center, co-director of the Rohr Center for Jewish Life serving Washington University in S. Louis, is leading a birthright tour this week.
Chana Novak, center, co-director of the Rohr Center for Jewish Life serving Washington University in S. Louis, is leading a birthright tour this week.

Sense of Community

Itineraries frequently include volunteer-based components that allow visitors to step out of the mode of tourist, at least for a day.

Led by Chana Novack, co-director of the campus-based Rohr Center for Jewish Life, students from Washington University in S. Louis arranged to spend their volunteer day in the central Galilee town of Yokne’am, which has had a “sister-city” relationship with S. Louis since 1995. The group spent Sunday morning at a school entertaining kids aged 10 to 12.

“It had a huge impact on both the Americans and the Israelis,” observed Novack. “I was amazed at how quickly they bonded. Within minutes, some of the college students were carrying kids on their shoulders and they were all laughing and joking together. At the end, they exchanged e-mail addresses to keep in touch.”

“I love being here,” said David Messenger, a Washington undergraduate, attributing his attachment to the Israeli lifestyle. “People here are serious when they need to be serious, but have fun when it is time to have fun. And it is a very caring society.”

He also said that experiencing Shabbat in Israel was particularly powerful.

“Shabbat has also had a huge impact on me,” said Messenger, “because we don’t really have a day in the U.S. where everything just stops.”

The NYU group spent Shabbat in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Bayit Vagan, where arrangements were made in advance for eight of them to celebrate their bar and bat mitzvahs, celebrations typically reserved for 12-year-old girls and 13-year-old boys upon their reaching Judaism’s age of maturity.

Cindy Wasserman, an NYU graduate student, was surprised at how much it meant to her to celebrate with people she had just met.

“I didn’t expect the people to bond so quickly, but we have really become a community,” she said.

“Being in an environment where they are immersed in Jewish identity and a Jewish spirit stimulates their commitment to the Jewish people and to the Land of Israel,” echoed Rabbi Alter Goldstein, co-director of the Chabad House serving the University of Michigan and leaders of his 24th birthright tour.

“Everyone grows from it,” continued Goldstein. “Many come back to study at Mayanot or at Hebrew University. Others become activists on campus. In their own way, everyone grows.”