Cantor’s Notes

Posted on August 25, 2023

Dear Friends,

Birthright Israel has become so well-known and common in Jewish communities that we take it for granted – that is until someone close to you experiences it. My nephew Noah and his girlfriend just returned from a Birthright trip. Noah has been to Israel a number of times, but this was his girlfriend’s first trip there. Both had amazing experiences. So what is Birthright – just a free trip to Israel or a whole lot more?
Birthright Israel was founded in 1999 in response to diminishing travel to Israel by young Jews. The idea was to stimulate interest in Judaism and Israel and to bring Diaspora Jews and Israelis closer. During its first year, Birthright sponsored 9000 participants, thanks to the generosity of a core group of philanthropists. The tremendous interest in the program made it clear that a major fundraising campaign was needed so that the program could be expanded. Birthright Israel Foundation was formed, and over the last 24 years have sent more than 800,000 young Jews from all over the world to Israel.
Birthright is a 10 day, all-expense paid trip to Israel for young Jews ages 18-32. There are a variety of trip possibilities, from college groups to outdoor adventurers. All trips bring the participants to sites of major importance such as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Massada and Yad Vashem. Groups of Israeli soldiers travel with the Birthright groups, not for security (although there is security with every group) but for the purpose of interacting with and getting to know each other, their interests and passions. This is possibly one of the most valuable aspects of the trip, making it possible for Israelis and Diaspora Jews to better understand each other. Guided discussion sessions explore topics such as Jewish tradition in the modern world, how Jewish life in Israel differs from Jewish life abroad, and how mandatory military service impacts young Israelis’ perceptions of service and commitment to their country. There are also well-balanced sessions discussing the history and politics of the region. Yes, Birthright trips are very educational, but they’re also a lot of fun! From mud baths at the Dead Sea to camel rides and camping overnight in a Bedouin camp, Birthright participants have the time of their lives!
Perhaps the best evidence I’ve seen for the value of Birthright was the reaction of my two children when they went on their trips a few years ago. I expected Liz to have a very positive experience – she was in college and went with a Hillel group from school. She did in fact rate the trip a 10 out of 10. But it was my son Jonathan’s reaction that really impressed me. He was 27 at the time, on his own and working in Philadelphia. Although he certainly identifies as Jewish, it was not a major part of his life. He decided to go on the trip mostly to not pass up the opportunity. He (and we) did not expect the impact the trip would have on him. We received several messages from him during the trip saying he was not coming back! Jonathan’s perspective on Israel, world politics and being Jewish were molded very positively by Birthright – exactly as the trip is designed to do.
So, if you, your child or grandchild is considering Birthright – don’t hesitate. It’s a fantastic opportunity that should not be passed up. I also encourage you to contribute to the Birthright Foundation. This organization and its programs are perhaps the most effective and important means we have to build a new generation of energized, involved Jewish leaders. If you would like more information about Birthright or know a young person who might be interested, contact me and I’ll be glad to help you learn more.