A Birthright Hit - the 'Niche Trip'

Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft
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Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft

For the foodies on Taglit-Birthright's popular "niche tours," there is time to wade through spice markets and meet and dine with top Israeli chefs. For the high-tech crowd, pitches to venture-capital funders mix in with hikes up Masada and explorations of the Galilee and Jerusalem's Old City.

And don't forget the fashionistas who sample Tel Aviv's boutiques and even get to forge new creations with Israeli designers; environmentalists who hike and study Israel's deserts; and a range of other groups, from medical professionals and architects, who meet and learn more about the country from their professional counterparts.

Among the most popular niche trips, which Birthright launched five years ago, have been those catering to specific communities, including an LGBT trip in which participants explore the country with peers who, like themselves, are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender.

Another trip that has found success is one that caters to those with Asperger syndrome, a neurobiological disorder that is considered the highest-functioning type of autism. Another, called "No Limits," brings those in wheelchairs to Israel and allows participants to bring a companion on the trip. There is even a trip for those who have battled addiction.

"The success here is that there is something shared between the groups," said Doron Karni, vice president of marketing for Taglit-Birthright. "We discovered people really like this 'niche' idea as something that connects them to each other and to Israel."

"In the groups I have led I see that these trips really take things to another level," said Stav Lefler, an Israeli tour leader and educator who has led both niche and non-niche trips for the organization.

Like other Taglit-Birthright trips, these are also free 10-day tours of Israel for young Jews from the Diaspora between the ages of 18 and 26 who have never been on an organized trip to the country with their peers. The program is now in its 13th "bar/bat mitzvah year," and to date nearly 300,000 young people have come on the trip. Approximately 3,000 of them have been on the niche tours.

Taglit-Birthright has its share of critics who say it offers a simplified, air-brushed vision of Israel, with little attention paid, for example, to the conflict with the Palestinians. Furthermore, its critics charge, all the considerable funding and focus on Taglit-Birthright takes away from investment in longer, more in-depth Diaspora encounters with the Jewish state.

Program officials say the trip is meant to be an introduction to Israel and that a decision was made to focus more on Israel as a place and people than on its politics.

As for the niche tours, their central educational curriculum remains the same, with prescribed stops including Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial; the Western Wall in Jerusalem; and the grave of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, in the Negev desert.

Covering some of the same ground as other tour groups but as much as possible with their preferred mode of transportation are also specialized groups of runners and cyclists.

In total, about 20 groups a year are part of these niche tours.

The high-tech tour which caters to young Americans with a background in marketing or technology is called the "Start-Up Nation" tour, borrowed from the recent book by the same title. As part of the trip, participants meet with high-tech and start-up companies and pair up with the Israelis in their groups usually officers in the army's technology units or technology students.

Together, they learn how to take an idea for a product or concept to the pitch stage, aimed at securing investment, and then get the chance to try out their ideas in meetings with leading venture capital figures.

"I see the concept working," said Lefler, the tour guide. "A participant of mine is now working for an Israeli company at its U.S. office after meeting with the company here in Israel on the trip."

"For someone who works in high-tech or start-ups in the United States or Canada, these connections they are making are not just as Jews or as Diaspora Jews connecting to Israel, but also as people they might work with together one day," he said.

For Lauren Bloom, 21, the LGBT trip she went on this past summer was "a double-whammy" meeting of her sexual orientation and her Jewish identity. "I have never felt so bonded and connected with a group of people within 24 hours of knowing them," said Bloom, who is studying spiritual psychology at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

"Throughout the trip, everyone kept saying how surreal it felt, like we were one family, one organism with the primary purpose of moving around Israel and experiencing Israel together for what it is and through our connection as LGBT Jews," she said.

Among the highlights, Bloom said, was visiting LGBT "Open House" outreach centers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and going to gay bars in both cities. She described feeling very comfortable in Tel Aviv, which is known for its acceptance of the gay community. But in Jerusalem, she recalls the discomfort of knowing that walking hand in hand with someone of the same sex could be dangerous.

During the trip, the group members shared stories such as how their families had dealt with them coming out as LGBT. One member of the group said his parents still did not know, but most families were described as accepting. The gift of the trip keeps on giving, Bloom said. Her group is in close touch and is hoping for a reunion in Israel.

"I came back feeling more responsible, more aware, with a strong sense of who I am," she said, "and seeing an inner-connection between myself, the world and Judaism, other Jews and other LGBT Jews."

For groups with special needs, the trip can also feel transformative, participants say. The group for people with Asperger's, for example, has to take extra logistical measures and travels with extra staffers. Most counselors have a background in special education, and have to be on the ready to help with tasks that can seem daunting for participants, such as getting to the bus on time or packing a suitcase.

Because individuals with Asperger syndrone tend to find comfort in routine, outings are arranged to begin at the same time each day and daily schedules are provided.

Parents of adult children who are on these and other special-needs niche trips have been impressed.

"I am so grateful to Birthright Israel for allowing us to come here," said a parent who accompanied their daughter on a No Limits trip for the physically disabled. "The staff is wonderful. ... This is our first truly international experience. It feels so much like home here. We're welcome everywhere. It is wonderful to be around so many with similar disabilities including Israelis."

Foodie tourists have what to explore in Israel.Credit: Haaretz
Bloom, back row, 5th from left, on an LGBT Birthright tour.Credit: Couresty Lauren Bloom