Birthright Israel is back

June 24, 2021

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Taglit-Birthright Israel is proving it can survive a bout of logistics hiccups such as those presented when tourist travel in and out of Israel is prohibited. Trips may get canceled or re-scheduled, but what’s immune to change is the program’s Why. Existing to connect young Jewish adults to Israel in hopes of fueling self-discovery and a life-changing perspective, this gift from donors and the state of Israel to young adults is untouchable.

Birthright Israel 10-day trips are open to Jewish young adults, ages 18 to 26, who have not traveled to Israel on a peer educational trip (since turning 18) or lived in Israel past the age of 12. United Jewish Federation of Tidewater provides funds to Hillel at Virginia Tech, William & Mary, JMU, and UVA, and contributes to Birthright Israel through Jewish Federations of North America.

During past winter breaks, up to two buses have been filled with Jewish VT students. The 2020 winter trips were canceled due to COVID, but hopes are back up for an immersive summer Israeli experience. As vaccination distributions advance in Israel, so do the chances that borders for tourists will open and more Jewish young adults will experience Israeli culture and community.

As of late June, the wait is not over.

“I might be leading a trip in August, but I won’t know until July,” says Rabbi Gershon Litt. In 15 years, the ODU, CNU, and William & Mary Hillel director has led more than 30 trips, witnessed countless epiphanies, and inspired many return visits that resulted in permanent stays. His mission to bring young Jews home to Israel is as clear as the Mediterranean Sea.

“Birthright Israel just started back, and their trips are very limited right now.

With that said, the trip organizer that I work with, Israel Free Spirit, is one of the first to offer trips, and I’m hopeful—and proud to be part of it,” says Litt.

Matthew Kramer-Morning, UJFT’s Young Leadership campaign manager, has led trips for a number of trip providers and is available to help guide parents and individuals interested in Birthright through the application process. Most of the people who contact him have heard of the program but don’t know much more.

“I’m a good starting place for people who need guidance,” says Kramer-Morning. “90% of all trips are basically the same. It’s that 10% sweet spot where I can use my knowledge and experience to coach them on ways to work with trip providers and find the trip that’s right for them. Let’s say a 19-year-old wants to travel with their 24-year-old sibling, I can give them an idea of which trips would be best to explore.”

Trip types are diverse, such as: community trips; college trips; special niche trips like LGBTQ+, culinary workers, and medical professionals; as well as the national trips.

“I always encourage doing a local trip, whether with a Hillel or with a community if those are available,” says Kramer-Morning. “You’ll experience Israel with peers that you’ll go back home with. National trips offer great experiences as well, but there is something to be said for coming back to your local community or college with the friends you just experienced Israel with.”

Due to security concerns stemming from May and June events in Israel, students are weary.

“These situations come and go in Israel all the time,” says Litt. “So, we are encouraging students to go as soon as they can. I do believe that we will see all of the planned trips take place. The buses are smaller than usual. This year we will have 19 students with two American staff, three to five Israeli soldiers for the entire trip, and other COVID mitigations in place. Compared to a typical year, when the bus holds 40 students with eight soldiers on five days of a ten-day trip.”

In the past, the cutoff for Birthright Israel was 26. Today there are seven-day trips to accommodate working Jewish young adults ages 27 to 32. Despite age qualifications being extended, Kramer-Morning doesn’t recommend waiting.

“I’ve seen it too many times working at Hillels and Federations where people decide to wait and then life happens. My recommendation to everyone is, if you can sign up now, do so! You don’t know what you’ll be doing in years to come, and as you age past college, it becomes harder and harder to find flexibility to take time off and go. Don’t wait! Trust me.”

For more info about upcoming trips, contact Rabbi Gershon Litt rabbilitt@wmhillel.org.

For application process assistance and general information, contact mkmorning@ujft.org.

This is part of a series of articles spotlighting local and overseas partner agencies that are beneficiaries of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s annual Community Campaign.

- Lisa Richmon

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