Three weeks ago, 20 Jewish college students and young adults from Tidewater left for an opportunity that they may never have again; one that simply was too good to turn down. They were treated to a 10-day, (almost) all-expenses paid, laidback, virtually pressure-free trip to Israel.
When they returned, if a recent study is accurate, many of the youthful travelers will have a more positive and lasting sense of their Jewish identity, their relationship to Israel, and their connection to the Jewish people. The students’ trip, in part, receives funding from the Simon Family Passport to Israel Fund and gifts made to the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s Annual Campaign.
The study appears to validate what the founders of Taglit-Birthright Israel had imagined when they sent their first students abroad 13 years ago—that a free trip to Israel, even a short one, could foster Jewish identity among a young generation that seemed to be complacent both about the importance of Jewish community and support for Israel.
The 2012 Brandeis University report examined the impact of Taglit-Birthright Israel on its alumni six to 11 years after their free trip to Israel. Key findings show that participants feel more connected to Israel compared to their peers who didn’t go on the trip, that they feel better equipped to talk about the current situation in Israel, and that they are 45 percent more likely to marry someone Jewish than nonparticipants.
Surveys can be skewed. Definitive proof of the program’s success comes from the number of past Birthright participants (330,000 since 2000), the number of 2012 participants (42,000) and the number of people who are waitlisted each year (50,000).
From 2000 through the summer of 2012, more than 450 young Tidewater residents traveled to Israel as part of a Birthright trip. Chaperones also come from the area. Norfolk Rabbi Gershon Litt frequently accompanies students, and traveled with the group of 20 that recently took advantage of a December Birthright. Past participants have also returned to Israel, again free of charge, as group leaders.
Israel’s economy, tour companies, airlines and young Israelis of the same age as the travelers have also seen positive impacts from Birthright trips. Since its inception, Birthright has contributed $735 million in revenue to the Israeli economy and more than 60,000 Israelis have joined Birthright trips as part of the Mifgash (encounter) aspect of the program.
A few basic Taglit-Birthright facts (a bevy of information is available at www.birthrightisrael.com):
The Taglit-Birthright Israel gift covers round trip airfare from designated cities, accommodations, transportation, at least two meals per day, and admission to sites.
The program is open to all Jewish young adults, ages 18-26, post high school, who have neither traveled to Israel before on a peer educational trip or study program, nor have lived in Israel past the age of 12.
Eligible individuals are those recognized as Jewish by the Jewish community or by one of the recognized denominations of Judaism.
The organization’s goal is to have 51,000 participants travel to Israel in 2013. At this rate, within a decade, one in every two Jewish young adults worldwide would participate in a Taglit- Birthright Israel trip.
More than 16 different approved tour companies take groups on the Birthright trips. Options for travelers are diverse and include trips designed for avid cyclists, members of the LGBT or Recovery communities, adrenalin seekers who like to rappel and spelunk, Orthodox Jews, law students and photographers.
Places and activities included in most trips: Visits to Jerusalem, Masada, and Tel Aviv, an overnight stay in a Bedouin tent in the desert, a camel ride, a muddy photo-op on the shores of the Dead Sea, and a huge, concert-like, multimedia pro-Israel celebration event.
Visit www.jewishva.org to learn more about the UJFT and to watch a video about Birthright. A gift to the UJFT 2013 Annual Campaign helps fund Taglit-Birthright Israel trips and makes a real difference to real people in Tidewater, in the U.S., in Israel and around the world.
by Laine M. Rutherford