Free trips are often advertised as a sweepstakes grand prize or a selling point for a family vacation. For Jewish youth, however, one free trip in particular provides a way to explore and experience an ancient and complicated identity.
Taglit-Birthright is a 10-day, expenses-paid trip to Israel for Jewish 18 to 26 year olds around the world. Charles Bronfman, former co-chairman of Seagrams, and Michael Steinhardt, an American hedge fund manager, founded the program in 1999, in cooperation with the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency of Israel, private philanthropists and international Jewish communities.
The modern-day state of Israel was established in 1948 when local leaders proclaimed the creation of a Jewish state, fueling territorial disputes that have frequently escalated to armed confrontations, and continue today.
The area in which Israel is located has ties to all three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The city of Jerusalem is home to major holy sites for each religion, from the Western Wall to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the Dome of the Rock, and attracts millions of tourists each year.
The Taglit-Birthright program has inspired similar trips, such as Birthright Armenia, Reconnect Hungary and Birthright Greece.
To be eligible for the trip, prospective participants must be able to trace Jewish heritage from at least one parent and have not been in Israel for three consecutive months since the age of 12.
More than 350,000 people from 64 countries have participated in Birthright trips since 1999, with 65,000 of those being from Israel — Israeli citizens join trips for about half of the 10-day period. About 80 percent of participants are from the United States, with most Americans coming from New York, according to Noa Bauer, vice president of international marketing at Birthright Israel.
The word ‘Taglit’ means discovery in Hebrew, and with about 20 different Birthright trip providers, participants are able to discover what it means to be Jewish with an array of trip options. Bauer said trips range from high-tech-focused to LGBTQ-focused to culinary-focused.
“(The trip providers) have different visions,” Bauer said. “But at the end of the day they give a very similar trip.”
Common aspects shared among these trips include visits to Jewish holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem as well as interactions with Jewish Israeli citizens that are the same age as trip participants. For trips consisting of 18 to 22 year olds, this means their Israeli counterparts are members of the Israeli Defense Forces, as two years of military service for women and three years of military service for men are compulsory after graduating from high school.
“(Trip participants) get to be in contact with people their own age that serve the country, which usually has a big impact,” Bauer said. “And they keep in touch, that’s their connection to Israel.”
Bauer said there have been no major safety concerns since the program’s founding, other than a few minor incidents of which she could not provide details.
She added that the program has received some negative attention internationally through social media, though such criticism has not been taken further.
University students have the chance to travel on Birthright through Hillel, a foundation on campus that provides programming for Jewish students. Hillel provides its Birthright trips through IsraelExperts, with a focus on University students forming their own experience and connection to their Jewish identity.
According to Rosen, the University has sent between 100 and 200 students on Birthright trips for the past three years. Trips are led by one Hillel staff member, one student staff member and one tour guide provided by IsraelExperts.
Assistant Director of Hillel, Davey Rosen, said students who participate in trips through Hillel are not steered toward one specific definition of what it is to be Jewish.
“Michigan Hillel is a pluralist organization,” Rosen said. “We want students to experience different ways of being Jewish and to make your own decision of what it means to be Jewish, because we believe there are many ways to be Jewish and Birthright also offers that opportunity.”
LSA junior Natasha Dabrowski, a Birthright representative on campus, is a self-proclaimed Hebrew school dropout, but said her experience on Birthright allowed her to connect with the Jewish faith on a more personalized level.
“While I don’t consider myself the most religious person, I do think that the lessons learned through religion can shape how you live your life and how you perceive others,” Dabrowski said. “I take it through an educational perspective and as a basis for community relations.”
Students must go through an application process in order to travel on a Birthright trip. The first step is a general online application through Taglit-Birthright, followed by another application through the trip provider, then in-person interviews with Hillel staff.
Rosen said the multi-step process is to ensure students fit the Birthright eligibility requirements and that students are genuinely interested and open-minded toward connecting with their Jewish identity.
During the trip, students have the chance to reflect on their personal connection with their faith through spending time in the desert and hikes up Masada, a plateau in Southern Israel that was the site of some of King Herod’s palaces and fortifications.
LSA junior Rachel Rickles said visiting these sites was especially significant during her trip.
“To be there where all this history had taken place, it was a relatively unique experience for me,” Rickles said. “Visiting the city of Old Jerusalem, that was something I had been learning about in Hebrew school and throughout my childhood and to then see it in real life and see things come alive is really special.”
Hillel trips attempt to focus on the diversity of the country of Israel during the 10-day span. Rosen said topics such as environmentalism and what it means to be a part of a national Jewish majority are discussed throughout the trips.
“We don’t shy away from politics,” Rosen said.
While trips stay within the borders of Israel and do not travel to the disputed regions of the West Bank or Gaza Strip, students do have the opportunity to interact with people outside of the Jewish Israeli community.
Business sophomore Sam Klein said he gained greater insight into the variety of political divisions existing within the country during his trip.
“I was able to hear from an alternate perspective, one morning we had a talk with a Palestinian living in Israel and it was interesting to hear what it was like for her,” Klein said.
Rosen said students also have the opportunity to travel to the city of Sderot in the Western region of the country. The city is within a mile of Gaza and is subject to frequent rocket attacks, which have caused 13 deaths since 2001, according to BBC reports. However, there have been no security issues on Hillel-provided trips in its history.
He added that Hillel occasionally receives questions and comments from University students of Palestinian descent when advertising Birthright trips on campus. While Hillel advocates for open discussion on campus, Rosen maintained that Birthright trips are specifically designed for students of Jewish heritage.
Dabrowski said the experiences on Birthright trips can help facilitate a more informed discussion of the problems surrounding the area when students return to the United States.
“These issues are so complicated, you do need a starting point so you have more of a general background, whether that’s through a history class at Michigan or something to understand the nature of the conflict, then you can more understand the modern interactions of people,” she said. “I do think that’s something we can bring back to campus.”
Rosen said Birthright trips aim to highlight these complexities and continue to spark curiosity and conversation about the region.
“Israel is complicated, and beautiful, and sad all at the same time,” he said. “It would be sad if a student thought Israel is perfect. It wouldn’t lead to a lasting, realistic relationship.”