Following his free Birthright trip to Israel a few years ago, Brian (not his real name) began investigating options for extending his stay in the country.
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“I had just graduated college and was feeling out my next move,” he recounts.
He consulted with a representative of Israel Free Spirit, the company that organized his 10-day Birthright trip, who recommended he stay at the Heritage House, a hostel in the Old City of Jerusalem. The company also made arrangements for his stay there.
Brian had barely gotten himself settled in at the hostel when, as he recalls, “my alarm bells went off.”
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A young backpacker, he recalls, had just walked in and was pulled aside for a private conversation with Ben Packer, the rabbi who runs the hostel. “We were all curious about why he had been singled out and waited around to hear what had happened,” Brian recounts. “He told us he’d been informed by Rabbi Packer that he couldn’t stay at the hostel because he wasn’t Jewish.”
Brian, who lives in California today, was among half-a-dozen former guests at the Heritage House who, in recent days, agreed to speak with Haaretz about their experiences there and share insights on the influence Packer wields on the young men his hostel attracts. They all spoke on condition that their real names not be published. While most of them live today in the United States, a few have since moved to Israel.
Until Monday, Israel Free Spirit, a key Birthright trip provider, had been promoting extension stays at the Heritage House on its website. Birthright participants who extend their stay at the hostel receive free accommodations from Packer and are encouraged by him to volunteer at illegal West Bank outposts. Israel Free Spirit, however, was the only trip provider actively directing participants to the hostel. A day after Haaretz reported on its connection to the Heritage House, the company, which is run by the Orthodox Union, updated its website to remove any mention of the facility
According to sources with extensive knowledge of its operations, hundreds, if not thousands, of Birthright participants have taken advantage of the offer to stay at the hostel for free and participate in activities it promotes. When questioned by Haaretz, Gidi Mark, Birthright’s chief executive, said he was only “vaguely” familiar with the Heritage House, but added: “I’m not responsible to our participants after they finish the 10 days. I really respect their free choice. These activities are not connected to Birthright, so I cannot decide what they do.”
The former guests interviewed by Haaretz all said that until they arrived at the Heritage House, they were unaware of its political agenda and of Packer’s close ties to radical factions in the settlement movement. Neither did they know that as part of the deal, they would be required to take religious classes and encouraged to engage in various volunteer activities in West Bank settlements. What drew them to the Old City hostel, they said, were the free accommodations it offered. Some of them had learned about the Heritage House through their Birthright trip providers, while other had found out via word of mouth.
The Heritage House targets Birthright participants extending their trips in Israel as well as “lone soldiers” – Jews born abroad who volunteer to serve in the Israeli military. The hostel does not accept non-Jews. Almost all of its guests are American, generally young men in their twenties. Another branch of the Heritage House, which caters exclusively to women but is not connected to Packer, is located nearby.
When contacted by this reporter to obtain his response to statements made by his former guests, Packer hung up the phone.
Jake, who lives in Israel today, ended up at the Heritage House a few years ago while interning for the Israel Antiquities Authority. “I needed to do some work in Jerusalem, and they couldn’t provide me with accommodations, so I had to choose between spending money at an expensive hotel or staying at the Heritage House for free,” he says. “A family friend in Jerusalem knew about the place and made all the arrangements for me.”
Like other former guests interviewed, Jake recalls receiving a warm welcome from Packer when he arrived, only to be shocked soon thereafter when taking a closer look at his surroundings. “The first thing that struck were all the photos of Meir Kahane on the walls,” he recounts, referring to the late, American-born racist rabbi whose party was outlawed in Israel in 1988.
“I had innocently thought then that Kahane was illegal, but he obviously was not. Needless to say, the whole experience left me feeling very creeped out, and I remember myself saying to one of the other guests there, ‘I guess you get what you pay for.’”
Most of the other guests at the hostel, he recalls, were completely taken with Packer and felt very indebted to him for his hospitality. “They would say things like ‘Ben is the greatest’ and ‘Without him, we’d have nowhere to go,’” recalls Jake, who grew up in the southeastern United States. “He was clearly very good at winning over impressionable young men.”
(The Heritage House gets overwhelmingly positive reviews on TripAdvisor as well.)
In exchange for free accommodations at the hostel (along with laundry service, Wi-Fi and Shabbat meals), guests are expected to attend religious classes in the morning at yeshivas in the Old City, among them Aish Hatorah and Ohr Sameach. Both these yeshivas engage in Orthodox outreach, or kiruv, work. Packer, who served as a rabbi at the University of North Carolina and at Duke University before moving to Israel, is not officially affiliated with the Aish Hatorah yeshiva in Jerusalem. He does, however, give regular classes there on current events.
Among the recent projects showcased on the Heritage House website are picking grapes at the illegal outposts of Pnei Kedem and Kida, planting olive groves in the illegal outpost of Esh Kodesh, digging drainage trenches and building foundations for homes in a new neighborhood of Kfar Tapuah – one of the most radical West Bank settlements – and helping Jewish families move into properties in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Participating in such projects is not required, former guests say, though it is encouraged. Guests are also encouraged to join tours offered by the hostel to West Bank settlements.
'Books about Meir Kahane'
Former guests attest that Packer makes no effort to hide his views or his agenda, which in Israel would be considered on the far right of the political spectrum.
Jonathan, originally from England, has stayed at the hostel twice, the first time when it was still being run by its original founder, the late Rabbi Meir Schuster. “I was in college then,” he says, “visiting Israel for a week, and the place I was meant to stay at fell through, so I ended up spending a week there.”
But even then, he says, it wasn’t free for everyone. “I was asked if I was religious, and when I said that I was, they told me it would cost me 100 shekels a night,” he says. “Clearly, they had much less interest in people like me who were already in the fold.”
While Schuster was in charge, the Heritage House focused mainly on kiruv work. Only when Packer came on board did it become engaged in promoting settlement activities.
Jonathan says he noticed the change immediately on his second visit. “When I came back about three years ago, there was a box on a table filled with books about Meir Kahane’s life, which Packer was giving away to the people staying there,” he recounts. “After I saw that, it was the last time I ever stepped foot in that place.”
Jonathan recalls hearing Packer make statements indicating clearly that he is “Islamaphobic, virulently anti-Arab and massively homophobic.”
“But unless you’re sensitive to such things, which many of the people who stay there are not,” Jonathan adds, “his remarks will simply go over your head. At the end of the day, if you’re an 18- or 19-year-old in need of a bed, a towel and a warm meal, it’s hard to turn down what he has to offer.”
Mickey, who stayed at the Heritage House twice, five and six years ago, likens it to a fraternity house. “Packer would hold court in his office, and I would hear him make racist comments about black Americans as well as Palestinians,” he reports. “But the guys who stuck around there seemed really lost and in search of the kind of brotherhood that a guy like Packer could offer them.”
Many of the guests he encountered there, says Mickey, were Birthright participants extending their stays in Israel.
“I particularly remember being struck by what an obsession Packer had with Hebron,” he recalls. “He’d bring lots of tours there but obviously presented a very one-sided narrative about the place.”
Indeed, many of the projects promoted on the Heritage House’s website fall under the category of “strengthening the Jewish presence in Hebron.” A few hundred Jewish families live in Hebron among roughly 200,000 Palestinians, and the city has long been a flash point for violence.
Mickey recalls that many of the people he encountered during his stay at the Heritage House were taking classes in the morning at Aish Hatorah yeshiva. “I remember them coming back with these wild stories about the science of Torah,” he recounts.
Nate, a former yeshiva student who was a guest at the Heritage House numerous times, also describes its fraternity-like atmosphere. “It’s pretty much a bunch of 'bros hanging out, fooling around like guys do,” he says.
The hostel, according to Nate, attracts a mix of guests – some whom come just to take advantage of the free accommodations and others who are ideologically driven. “Some are extremely knowledgeable about the Middle East, while others are completely clueless,” he adds.
Nate describes Packer as an “Archie Bunker type of character,” who is very up-front about his views and agenda. “He doesn’t hide what he’s about, and you can’t help but admire him for that,” Nate explains.
Jason, originally from Maryland, stayed at the hostel on several occasions before Packer assumed his role as “supreme commander” – a title he often uses when introducing himself to his guests.
“What struck me most was the type of people you met there,” says Jason. “These were people recovering from various traumas, wanderers and lost souls – the type who would gravitate to a free hostel.”