Growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Laura Atkins was the only Jewish student in her high school graduating class. She never had any connection to Israel and barely had ties with other Jews until she enrolled at Penn State. When a friend told her Birthright trips were free, Atkins, 23, was unenthused.
But her friend persisted, Atkins relented, and when she arrived in Israel a year ago for the trip, she fell for the country, and hard. Eight Israelis six of them soldiers joined the Penn State Hillel group about halfway through. It was the mifgash (encounter) part. More than 80 percent of participants cite this encounter as the most important part of their journey, according to the organization.
These Israelis, like their Jewish peers from the Diaspora, seek to gain a deeper understanding of Israel, Judaism and Jewish identity. One of those is Netanel Roseman, who joined a trip in May, just three months shy of his discharge from the Israel Defense Forces.
Roseman, nearly the same age as Atkins, was born and raised in Netanya by a family that keeps Shabbat. He traveled a bit in the United States before enlisting in the army, where he wrote for the IDF magazine.
During his last year in the army, he tutored a child with learning disabilities, and today he’s an instructor at a premilitary gap-year program. He teaches Israeli high-school graduates “Zionism, values and leadership to give them tools both for the army and for life.”
In a sense, Roseman did the same thing on Birthright by giving 40 Boston University students greater insight into Israel. “Their knowledge of Israel was extremely limited,” he says. “They didn’t really understand what the army is.”
Roseman says he sees the link between Israel and American Jews slowly dissipating; “especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was very new to them.”
Studies have shown that participants from abroad were likely to feel more connected to Israel than their peers who applied but didn’t go, though some 59 percent of Israelis say Birthright is a “unique Jewish experience” for them too.
Roseman agrees. “One guy was a producer at Sony, one was starting a career in finance; it gave me a different perspective,” he says.
Roseman liked hearing the Americans’ personal stories; about their families and histories. “Even if they’re not living in Israel, their roots run very deep and we have a shared history, both in terms of the Holocaust and in general,” he says.
Atkins also felt that meeting Israeli peers helped bolster her Jewish identity. Atkins’ mother is Jewish and her father is Christian. Growing up, she says, “All the religious tradition was kind of muddled. At Christmastime we used to exchange gifts with the Star of David on them, my grandma gave my mom a mezuzah and we used to get Hanukkah gelt in our stockings.”
While in school, Atkins juggled several extracurricular activities, but her Jewish identity was elusive. Some classmates told her she’d go to hell because she was Jewish, while on Birthright a peer from the United States told her she wasn’t Jewish because her family had a Christmas tree at home.
During the parts where participants discussed topics related to Judaism and Israel, “The harder stuff for me to talk about was the Judaism part because of the way I was raised, but the Israelis didn’t care.”
After Birthright, Atkins says she got a bit more involved with Penn State Hillel. “I went to events and Shabbat dinners,” she says. “I also joined the Penn State Israel Alliance.”
She also began restoring her family’s connection to Judaism. “I taught my mom the blessings for Hanukkah so that last year and this year she could light the candles while I was away,” she says. She was in Israel both times.
Atkins says the soldiers’ greatest impact on her was cultural. They forced her to question the path that most Americans her age take after college: a job and a career.
Now, she says, she won’t “follow this little plan that’s set out for you at birth in the U.S.” Atkins has already veered away from that plan by returning to Israel in September for a five-month internship at a high-tech firm’s marketing department.
“If I hadn’t gone on Birthright, if I hadn’t met them, I might not be back here now,” Atkins says. “Not because I didn’t want to come back, but because I would have been more in the mentality of ‘No, I can’t, I have to get a job, I have to go into this career and be as successful as possible.’ I honestly think in the long run I’m going to be happier because I met them and because of the advice that they gave me.”
Roseman, meanwhile, hopes to return to the United States sometime; he says that, thanks to Birthright, he wants to get involved in Jewish summer camps there.
“Israel invests so much in hasbara,” he says, referring to the country’s PR efforts abroad. “If you’re looking for good hasbara, this is it.”