In its first year, 2000, Birthright-Israel provided almost 9,000 Jews ages 18 to 26 free 10-day tours of Israel’s cultural and religious sites.
Now, with nearly 50,000 young people from 67 countries visiting each year, the organization just sent its 600,000th participant around Israel, and it’s a familiar face — actor Jonathan Lipnicki.
“I feel Birthright is a really positive organization, and knowing that my community backs me like this is a special feeling,” Lipnicki said. “I feel pretty honored with that distinction.”
As a 5-year-old, a bespectacled Lipnicki stoles scenes acting alongside Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger in the 1996 film “Jerry Maguire.” As a preteen, he starred in a pair of “Stuart Little” films, “Like Mike” and “The Little Vampire.” They made him one of the most recognizable child stars on the planet.
Lipnicki, 26, grew up in Westlake Village, attending the Reform congregation Temple Adat Elohim. In synagogue, he remembers hearing about Israel but the words rang hollow. With his Birthright trip still fresh in his mind after returning to the United States in early August, Lipnicki said he now sees what all the fuss was about.
“I think you can’t help but forge a new connection with the country, just seeing the sites and being present,” he said. “It’s this far-off thing they talk about in temple when they say you must visit Israel. It’s not tangible until you visit it and you see why they talk about it so much. I forged a new relationship with my Judaism but also expanded the one I have currently. I’ve always been proud to be Jewish, but that was reaffirmed. I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life.”
For years, Lipnicki knew about the trip. Many of his friends and even his sister had gone before him. They all raved about it to him, so expectations before his July departure from Newark, N.J., were sky-high.
“And they were exceeded by far,” he said. “It’s an amazing place. I loved the country. I had such an amazing time in Tel Aviv, which reminded me of Miami. I loved the beach there. The water there was like bathwater and it was so clear.”
Lipnicki cited floating in the Dead Sea and Israeli food as other highlights. However, there was one stop on the trip that left an indelible impression.
“The Western Wall was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had,” he said. “There was this sense of community I felt there. It felt like I was home. It was pretty incredible.”
As is standard on Birthright trips, a group of eight Israelis, usually a collection of soldiers and college students, accompanied Lipnicki’s group. The actor said he clicked with them instantly.
“There were so many similarities between us, particularly our sense of humor,” he said. “That’s where I really connected with the Israelis, just with having a good time.”
Lipnicki also observed what he deemed a stark difference between young Americans and Israelis.
“Their level of maturity is pretty astounding,” he said. “They have a different perspective on life, growing up in different circumstances. To see their different perspective on life and how they’ve grown up out there is enlightening. They are a product of their circumstances, theirs being more grave than mine. They’re definitely more mature at a younger age.”
Lipnicki, a working actor living in the Studio City area, said he feels inspired to re-engage with his Jewish community now that he has returned home. He hasn’t been a member of a synagogue in a long time but would like to change that, and he also spoke about enrolling in a kabbalah class, thanks to an impactful visit to Safed, a city regarded as mystical for its historical connections to kabbalah.
“We saw an artist there named Avraham from Michigan who moved to Israel,” Lipnicki said. “He made these paintings that were kabbalah-themed. I’m a very spiritual person and it definitely got to me. I would like to read up on it more and maybe take a class.”
Would he go back to Israel?
“Definitely,” he said. “One hundred percent. I hope to go back soon.”