Between the ages of 18 and 26, every person with any sort of Jewish heritage gets the opportunity to ask him or herself a simple question – should I go on Birthright? As a young adult who recently went on Birthright, I would argue that the true question to be asked is – when should I go Birthright?
What Exactly is Birthright?
For those of you who don’t know, Birthright is a 10-day educational trip to Israel that is paid-in-full by the Israeli government. That’s right. The flights, hotels, transportation, food, and entry fees are all taken care of. All you need to do is have some portion of Jewish heritage and apply.
The goal of Birthright is to get to get young Jewish people in touch with their heritage, their culture, their peers, and Israel. There are several different types of trips you can apply for including:
- 13-day academic trip worth college credit;
- 7-day condensed trips;
- national trips with people from across the US;
- niche trips with a unique focus in a specific area;
- community trips with local people from your area;
- campus trips with people from your college;
- special needs trips;
- outdoors-focused trips;
- and more!
You can also select a specific age group for your trip and sign up to be with friends or family . The only mistake you can make when deciding what to do is to not go at all.
I love to hike and be active, so I chose to sign up for Israel Outdoors. This program takes groups of 40-50 Birthrighters on various day-trips to the incredible natural and historical places throughout Israel. While Israel Outdoors still retains a deep cultural and educational aspect, it was the perfect balance for somebody with a less religious background like myself.
You can see some pictures from my trip here.
Outdoor Activities & Major Itinerary
Here is a brief snapshot of what my trip itinerary looked like in terms of major activities:
- 3 nights in Tiberias (day trips to Tzfat, the Jordan River, Sea of Galilee, Golan Heights, and Banyos National Park)
- 1 night in Natanya (visit beach on the Mediterranean)
- 1 night in Arad (day trips to Masada, En Gedi, the Dead Sea, and a brief camel ride)
- 1 night in the Negev Desert at the Bedouin Tents (day trips to Ein Avdat Canyon, a goat cheese farm, and Sde Bohar – grave of David Ben-Gurion)
- 3 nights in Jerusalem (trips to Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, Mount Herzl Military Cemetery, Ben Yehuda Street Market, the Old City and Western Wall)
Cultural & Educational Activities
There are also several activities provided by Israel Outdoors that are more cultural and educational. Here is a snapshot of the activities that my specific group had:
- Yad Vashem , Mount Herzl, the Western Wall, other items from the list above
- Mifgash – meeting your Israeli group members
- Performance by Israeli musician Gilad Vital
- Presentation by political writer Neil Lazarus
- Current events workshop in Tzfat
- Two Shabbat ceremonies
- Bedouin culture experience
- Visit a date farm and olive oil company
- and more
You can find a sample itinerary for Israel outdoors here. Please note that due to the intensity of the conflict in the Gaza Strip at the time of my trip, we actually did not go to Tel Aviv. Many people I asked on other trips, and the Israelis on our trip, said Tel Aviv is their favorite place in Israel. I will definitely make it back to Israel to experience Tel Aviv; but, keep in mind I missed that experience AND I still can’t recommend this trip enough.
Highlights of the Trip
When you consider that you are on a free trip (pro tip: don’t call it a vacation) away from work, it is hard to not enjoy every moment of Birthright. Here is an attempt to summarize some highlights:
Although I live in California, I left for my trip from New York because I was already there for a wedding. Out of the 40 people on my trip, nearly all of them were from New York or the surrounding areas. I was a little nervous it would be harder for me to connect with the group, but it was exactly like meeting everyone on your college dorm floor for the first time. I forgot what an amazing experience that was. As a bonus, I got to be the cool out-of-state guy this time (not exactly the experience you get being a Californian at UCSB). I met dozens of interesting people I will never forget.
You will also become friends with many Israeli citizens. For the majority of the trip, we were with our security guard, tour guide, bus driver, and seven young adults from the IDF who joined our group. We also met many other Israeli people during our activities, but these are the ones we really got to know.
And yes – there is drinking involved. How else would you solidify the bonds of new friendships? The Birthright website states, “Drinking alcohol is permitted only under certain conditions. In order to ensure the safety of all participants and staff, we strictly enforce our alcohol policy”. From what I could tell, it is more of a don’t ask, don’t tell situation. If you are going to buy alcohol at stores or drink in the hotels, don’t bring it up to your group leaders. They are most likely fine with it, but if you ask them about it they are legally bound to deter you.
For being one of the younger and smaller countries I have been to (just larger than New Jersey), Israel has a very strong cultural, religious, and historical heritage.
In our 10 days, we witnessed some of the most important religious sites in the world. Here are some to name a few: Jerusalem, Sea of Galilee, Mount Arbel, and River Jordan. We also visited sites with chilling historical value including Mosada and Yad Vashem. If you are Jewish, and especially if you had relatives you lost in the Holocaust, Yad Vashem alone will be one of the most moving experiences in your life.
Last but not least, the food, language, traditions, and other day-to-day aspects of the Israeli culture are also a unique experience.
Before I went on Birthright, I guess I always pictured Israel as small strip of desert in the Middle East. Little did I know that I would see waterfalls, lakes, rivers, mountain tops, deserts, the lowest place on earth, canyons, and a host of other beautiful settings.
Growing up in Marin County and living in Santa Barbara, I am not a stranger to amazing hikes and views; but there is something about coming upon a series of waterfalls and pools in the middle of an otherwise dry desert region that I had never experienced before. The Israel Outdoors program definitely impressed me and exceeded expectations in the nature and outdoors realm.
Isn’t Israel a Dangerous Place to Travel?
From current and past events, you probably have some notion that traveling in Israel is not he safest. Birthright organizers recognize this. You can also take comfort knowing that trip organizers are very aware of any dangers and always put safety first. Here is some information on Birthright safety policy.
Due to the intensity of the conflict in the Gaza strip in the summer of 2014, my group did not travel to Tel Aviv. During the 10 days that I was in Israel, five rockets were fired at Israeli cities and all of them were intercepted and destroyed. Israel’s rocket defense system is pretty amazing. If you have never heard of the Iron Dome, it is an interesting piece of technology to read about.
At arguably the most dangerous time to be there over the past few years, I felt completely safe 99.9% of the time. The only time I was actually nervous about safety was when they were running through the safety regulations and what we need to do if there was some sort of attack. It might scare your parents (mostly those of you with Jewish mothers) – but do not let this the safety factor heavily inlfuence your decision about going on Birthright.
But I Am Not Religious
Do not let your lack of religious interest stop you from going on this trip. The whole experience is geared towards young adults who aren’t very involved with the Jewish faith and culture to begin with.
I dare to say that I was (or at least tied with a few others) the least religious and least knowledgeable person in our entire group when it came to Jewish religious practices or culture. I never went to Hebrew school, I didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah, and I had only been to temple a hand full of times in when I was under 10 years old. I never felt out of place.
There are some members in the group who spoke Hebrew, knew the Shabbat prayers, and were heavily involved in the Jewish faith; however, the overall blend of the group was between myself and these members. It was great having people on the trip who could teach you things and knew more than you, but at no point was it overwhelming or overly religious for me.
Extending Your Trip
My biggest regret from my trip to Israel was not extending my trip.
When you sign up for Birthright, the program pays for your flight to and from Israel. What most people do not take advantage of is the fact that you can use your return flight whenever you want. You can go travel to other countries or stay in Israel for an extended period of time. There are some rules that apply to your return flight you can read about here.
I justified not extending my trip by having already taken 2 weeks off of work to go a wedding and then the Birthright trip. In hindsight, I should have made it work. Other people from my trip went to Jordan, Southeast Asia, and Europe before returning home. That is something I will always regret.
It is a rare occasion that you can travel halfway around the world to experience things you never would have in your life FOR FREE. Don’t let it pass you by.
Here are some pictures from my birthright trip in August, 2014.