"I don't have any bad memories of Israel. Just how bad arrack tastes." Thus recalls one Birthright graduate while reflecting on his ten-day trip to Israel.
Over the last 15 years, Taglit-Birthright Israel has sent half-a-million young, Jewish adults from 66 countries on free or heavily-subsidized visits to the Holy Land. As the program marks this anniversary and ahead of the Jewish Federations of North America's General Assembly, Haaretz spoke to some of Birthright's North American graduates about their experiences on the trip, and how it impacted their lives. Here are six of their stories.
Name: Benjamin Rossi
From: Chicago, Illinois
Resides now: Notre Dame, Indiana
Occupation: PhD Student in Philosophy
Birthright trip: Israel Outdoors, June 2013
Religious affiliation: "Agnostic. Not observant."
Before going to Israel on Birthright, I was reflexively more critical of Israel than I am now. That's probably a function of my upbringing. My mother is a secular Jew – her father was opposed to Israel's creation and she is very anti-Israel. My father is an atheist – there hasn't been much religion on his side for a long time, but they're Italian ethnically, so at some point they were Catholic.
My mother wasn't happy that I was going on Birthright. She thought I'd come back a Zionist. And I did – to some extent. I felt the trip took an extremely anti-intellectual line with us, so I returned home wanting to know more. I read dozens of books about Israel's history and its most pressing political issues.
I would never have done that had I not gone on the trip – I didn't have the interest and motivation to do it before. Having done all this reading, my views are now more sympathetic toward Israel's existence, and so I consider myself a Zionist.
In conversations with people in my environment of American academia – mainly leftist circles where Zionism is a bad word – I find myself, despite my liberal views and criticism of Israeli policies, defending Israel.
In that respect, Birthright seems to have achieved its objectives with me. But when it comes to their goal of stemming the tide of interbreeding – at a rally we went to, Sheldon Adelson yelled into a microphone "Make more [Jewish] babies!" – that effort had no impact on me. In fact, I'm now dating an Irish-American woman.
Name: Elisa Llewellyn
From: Phoenix, Arizona
Resides now: Beer Sheva, Israel
Occupation: Administrative secretary at Ben-Gurion University
Birthright trip: Israel Outdoors, March 2011
Religious affiliation: Religious Orthodox
I grew up in a religious Christian household with a strong sense of God. But by high school I knew I didn't identify with Christianity. In 2011, I finally converted to Judaism via the Reform movement, and went on Birthright straight after that.
I'd always wanted to go to Israel – to experience it, to get to know it in a tactile way, which you can't get through history books or reading the news.
There were many things that really stuck with me from my Birthright trip, but a lot of it was the group I went with. We were really close-knit. In fact, a lot of us are still in touch now.
One of our first excursions was a huge hike in the Negev. I was completely out of shape. I did it, though. And when you overcome a physical constraint like that, you feel as though you can do anything.
I had a great time, but I felt very much like a tourist – getting a taste of different places, but not absorbing them in – and I really wanted to get to know the various communities that live in Israel. So I came back for a 10-month MASA program, to volunteer as an English teacher.
Being here gave me a better understanding of the sides of the conflict. The news can portray things in one way or another, but when you're here, you realize it's like an onion – you peel away the layers and every time you get to a new level you realize there's more to it there as well.
I made aliya in June and, after having started my Orthodox conversion in the U.S., I am now in the process of finalizing that.
Name: Emma Court
From: Queens, New York
Resides now: Washington, D.C.
Occupation: Intern at the Wall Street Journal
Birthright trip: Cornell Hillel, January 2015
Religious affiliation: "Very Reform"
On the first or second day of our trip, they had us sit around and discuss "Why the Jews are the Chosen People." That was a moment that gave me pause. It was an argument I wasn't willing to make. When I voiced my opinion – "Don't you think this is a rationale that justifies doing whatever we want?" – the tour guide gave me a look that said this was not what I was supposed to say, I was not playing along, and this was not allowed.
Throughout the trip, I felt like the tour guide was pushing an ideology about Israel that was in line with right-wing conservative thinking in Israel and the United States. I hadn't signed up to have an ideology pushed on me.
I know a lot of people who lost interest in Israel as a result of this trip. I think we all would have fostered a love of Israel had they just shown us the country and talked to us about some of the problems people experience on a daily basis, rather than forcing an ideology down our throats.
Luckily, I stayed in Israel for a few more days to do some travelling on my own – and with family and friends – and was able to heal that Birthright dogmatic experience. I have a connection to Israel because my mom grew up there, but if I was one of those kids who have a more casual relationship to Israel, I wouldn't feel any need to go back. And that's a problem.
Name: Noah Jaffe
From: Garland, Texas
Resides now: New York, New York
Birthright trip: University of Texas, December 2008
Religious affiliation: Reform, secular
My father is Jewish – Reform – and my mother's not Jewish, but she's very supportive of my three sisters and me identifying as Jewish.
I went on Birthright in my freshman year of college. My father had taught me a lot about Israel's history, and about how important it was that Israel was now an independent state, so I had an interest in going to Israel and seeing for myself. But in my first year in college I was starting to learn about history and politics, so Israel was not only a place that I wanted to visit on a personal level – for religious and sentimental reasons – but to learn about from an academic perspective.
Toward the beginning of the trip, we went up to a kibbutz in the north. It had an intimate, camp-like feeling. I imagined that that's how it would have been for people moving there from Russia or Poland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tel Aviv is a wonderful achievement, but we can't forget this Zionist project of a modern state of Israel began in small, bonding communities like this one.
I thought the narrative that was presented on the trip was a standard Zionist narrative that should be presented on Birthright. I don't think Birthright is the time to talk about other narratives. I also think that people should understand that if they're coming to a place to learn about the country, they should also respect its people's perspective on their past and present challenges. I see it as part of our politically correct culture today – in the U.S., especially on college campuses, and in Europe – that at all moments we have to talk about the other side's grievances while talking about our own successes. Israel doesn't need to apologize for its history; it's leading a valid and just struggle for its existence.
After coming back from Birthright, I became more involved in pro-Israel activism on campus. That led me to becoming a participant in AIPAC, and I've returned to Israel multiple times.
Name: Stephanie Schneider
From: Littleton, Colorado
Resides now: Tel Aviv, Israel
Occupation: Doula; studying natural medicine
Birthright trip: Colorado City University Hillel, December 2009
Religious affiliation: "Somewhere between Orthodox and Reform"
I grew up very, very, very Reform. I quit going to Sunday school and celebrating the holidays by ninth grade. But I started getting back into Judaism while I was at university. It was there that I heard about the Birthright trip.
Being in Jerusalem was amazing. It was crazy to see no cars out on Shabbat. We walked to the park and I couldn't believe how dead it was. I'd never seen anything like it. I'd never really known the rules of Shabbat, so seeing the whole city shut down, you really feel and know that you're in a Jewish country, where people live by Jewish laws. It was also weird that there was no Sunday. It was the first time I'd experienced anything like that: living by the Jewish calendar, by a Jewish week.
I'd never had a bat mitzvah. When you go on the Birthright trip they offer you the opportunity to do it. And I did. I gave a speech about what it means to me to be Jewish and the tour guide gave a blessing. I still have a ring I wear today that I got in Jerusalem on the trip with that blessing on it. It says: "Please may G-d watch over you and protect you."
It's really hard to discover [Israel] in ten days. You get a glimpse of the entire country, but it's like having tapas; you don't really get the full meal.
I came back on a couple of programs and spent some time living here. I made aliyah three years ago.
Name: Matthew Siegel
From: Rockland County, New York
Resides now: San Francisco, California
Occupation: Poet; teaches literature and writing
Birthright trip: Oranim, August 2007
Religious affiliation: Conservative
One of the highlights of the trip was being at the Western Wall. I felt like it was a part of my life that had always been missing. Being in Jerusalem made me connect to a deeper history, to this bigger thing – something that can't quite be named; this sense of gravity.
I was brought up in an environment of two Jews, three opinions. We don’t agree, we argue. There was none of that on Birthright. It was all very much, "We're gonna tell you what it is" – so closed to the spirited, respectful, understanding, nuanced debate that's central to Jewish life and Jewish thinking. We barely spoke about the conflict with the Palestinians. It was like the elephant in the room.
After Birthright, my politics went all across the board. I'd always identified as center-left, but a lot of the stuff they said resonated. When I got home, I read more right-leaning websites, and my politics went more to the center. Then they bounced to the left – not the anti-Zionist far left, but the Meretz left. I read authors like Gideon Levy, Bradley Burston, Amira Hass; writers who recognize the humanity of the other side. Now I constantly ask the question: What is the cost of this dream we have [of a Jewish state in Israel] and is it worth it?
I love Israel. James Baldwin wrote, "The war of an artist with his society is a lover's war." Just because I criticize America doesn't mean I don't love America. The same goes for Israel. Why can't we ask questions about the humanity of the other people?