Q&A with Charles Bronfman on Birthright and the Best Prize of All

In the summer of 1998, Charles Bronfman was sitting outside the Israel Museum in Jerusalem with fellow philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, discussing an idea: What if every young Jewish person in the world had a voucher for a free trip to Israel?

The idea struck Bronfman as implausible, but he was willing to give it a try. Two decades later, Steinhardt and Bronfman are best known in the Jewish community as the names behind Birthright.

Since 2001 — the year he parted with Seagram’s, the liquor company that made his fortune — Bronfman, 86, has been more concerned with giving away money than making it. He spoke with the Journal from his New York City office, where he was spending a few days before returning to his winter home in Palm Beach, Fla.

Jewish Journal: From your perspective, what is the greatest challenge to the Jewish people in North America?

Charles Bronfman: Keeping our relationship with Israel on a sound basis. The Israeli government reneged on its commitment regarding the Western Wall and reneged on the conversion deal. That’s the kind of thing that’s going to do onerous things to our relationship over time. What’ll happen will be that youngsters on both sides will say, “Well, they don’t give a damn about us.”

JJ: Nominations recently opened for the 2018 Charles Bronfman Prize, a $100,000 award in your name for humanitarians inspired by Jewish values. Can you tell me about past prize winners?

CB: The amazing thing to me about the prize winners is although they all have to be under 50, they have gone on to achieve greater results than they had before. They’re amazing people. I love them all. When my children gave me that prize, 15 years ago, it was one of the greatest days of my life. I cannot imagine a more loving present and more impactful present that any child could give a father. And I’m tearing up as I say this to you.

JJ: They gave you the prize as a present?

CB: They’re funding it, and it’s in my name. They set it up on my 70th birthday.

JJ: Not a lot of children have the means and connections to give that sort of birthday gift.

CB: It doesn’t have to millions of dollars. They can promise to keep the lawns on the street nice. It just has to be something that the children know that the parent or parents really appreciate, and because of my life and my philanthropic bent, nothing could have pleased me more that I could ever imagine.

JJ: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about Birthright. Did you think it would become as big as it has?

CB: Never in a million years. This was something that Michael Steinhardt and I decided to give a shot. We didn’t know if it was going to work. We had no idea. I call it the quintessential venture philanthropy. It’s the same idea as venture capital: You’re really placing a bet, saying, “Can this thing work?” We’re thrilled, of course, thrilled right through to our bones.

JJ: How did the idea come about in the first place?

CB: It came up when both Michael and I were in Israel in the summer of ’98 and both of us had met Yossi Beilin. He was one of Shimon Peres’ boys. And Yossi had this idea that all 17-year-olds should have a voucher from anywhere in the world for a trip to Israel. Michael was sort of taken with this idea. So later, I was at a party with Michael. We were at the Jewish Museum overlooking the — pardon the expression — the Valley of the Cross, sitting on a wall, because he’d asked to speak with me. And he said, “What do you think of this idea of Yossi’s?” And I said, “That’s a scheme to bankrupt the Jewish world.” I said, “Well, this is an audacious scheme.” And he said, “Well, if it’s audacious, why don’t we try to figure it out?”

JJ: What’s next for Charles Bronfman? You don’t seem to show signs of slowing down.

CB: I am slowing down, thank you very much. I have decided that at my tender age, it’s about time to smell the flowers, son, to play some more golf and read.

Jonathan Lipnicki in “Jerry Maguire” (below) and today. Photo by Bjoern Kommerell

Lipnicki delights as Birthright’s 600,000 participant

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.

Jonathan Lipnicki

“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.”

One of Michael Steinhardt’s more unique possessions is his group of zedonks, the offspring of a zebra and a donkey that he calls “zonkeys.” Photo by Ben Sales

The billionaire who founded Birthright has a private zoo

When Michael Steinhardt strolls around his 55-acre backyard for 90 minutes every morning, one of his favorite animals to see is the scimitar-horned oryx, whose antlers sweep back from its head like the swords for which they are named. But Steinhardt didn’t much like finding out that a (literally) horny oryx had stabbed a zebra to death during a testosterone-fueled mating season three years ago.

The zebra incident is, thankfully, an outlier on his sprawling estate about an hour north of Manhattan, home to at least 30 species of animals as well as more than 100 birds. It’s been called a “private zoo,” but that’s true only in the sense that St. Peter’s Basilica is Pope Francis’ local church.

I rode north for an hour on a train expecting animals in cages, a few serene ponds with exotic fish, maybe some petting opportunities. I didn’t expect to pass a spiral bamboo climbing structure (for humans), to take a walk across a rickety rope bridge in the middle of a forest, or to find owls squawking at me, Harry Potter-style, in the middle of the day, causing me to re-evaluate whether the expression “night owl” is really even accurate.

Soon after, we come across two century-old tortoises humping, the bottom one slowly crescendoing up on her wrinkled legs as her lover cranes his long neck diagonally downward. The “guy on top,” Steinhardt informs me, is named Sexton — for John Sexton, the past president of New York University. The reason?

“Sexton was the boss of NYU and this guy is the boss of the tortoises,” explains Steinhardt, an NYU trustee.

Then Steinhardt tells me I can ride another tortoise, bareback, a few feet away. Usually I try to remove myself from the stories I cover. But I mount the reptile.

“Tortoise equestrian” is generally not the first phrase that comes to mind when discussing Steinhardt, the hedge fund billionaire who helped create Birthright, the free 10-day trips to Israel for young Jews. But Steinhardt’s zoo, at around 15 years old, is only slightly younger than Birthright – and it reveals a totally different side of the man’s personality.


Steinhardt fashions himself as the disruptive Jewish innovator – outspoken about the shortcomings of American Judaism, discussing it in full, extemporaneous paragraphs and ready to put his money where his mouth is. He has embarked on venture after venture – first the free Israel trips, then a network of Hebrew-language charter schools, now a museum of natural history at Tel Aviv University that will open this summer. The museum is a way for Steinhardt to merge his love of fauna with his love of Israel — especially because he says he’s not allowed to import Israeli animals across the ocean.

He is eager to defend all of these programs with statistics proving their worth. And despite his very high profile, Steinhardt says his Jewish initiatives are really about other people – the half-million Jewish young adults who have gone on Birthright, say, or the students who attend the charter schools.

But the zoo is all about Steinhardt himself; he made it solely so he and his family could live among beauty. Steinhardt likes to meander from field to field, introducing visitors to red kangaroos, marmosets or wallabies, an Australian marsupial.

“I decided to do this because I really love animals and I thought that this would create more joy for my family and I than anything else I could do,” he says.

Seconds later, he is back to being a tour guide.

“Directly in front of you is a female ostrich,” he says, pointing. “To the right is a group of guanacos. There are four different varieties of South American cameloids: They are alpacas and llamas and vicunas and guanacos.”

Steinhardt, who takes regular 90-minute strolls around his 55-acre private zoo, enjoys interacting with his tortoises. Photo by Ben Sales


Steinhardt’s love of animals began with the parakeets and fish he had as a child, and as an adult he has built an ecosystem of flora and fauna from across the globe. If Steinhardt is a kind of Moses with Birthright, on a mission to bring the Jews (briefly) to Israel, here he is Noah – animals from all over the world now surround him two by two.

He feels a tranquility on the grounds because they are blissfully free of the kinds of problems his philanthropy is trying to solve. In Israel, the Jews fight with the Palestinians. At his zoo, the swan lies with the capybara.

“What we do differently here is we have a variety of disparate animals together,” Steinhardt says. “Even though I’m used to it, it still feels like a treat.”

Many of the animals on the estate roam on rolling hills enclosed with wooden fences. The swans and capybaras — the world’s largest rodent — lounge on the bank of a pond among scattered landscaped trees and stones. Some of the more carnivorous animals do live in cages – like a group of serval cats – though the enclosures lead out to small, separate fields. The marmosets, a New World monkey species, live in tall, rectangular cages with a complex branch infrastructure tailored for climbing. Birds flit and perch inside an aviary.

Steinhardt’s zoo includes 30 species of animals, including the red kangaroo, front, and ostrich. Photo by Ben Sales


Steinhardt has no method for choosing his animals. Seeing one he likes, he’ll see if he can get it. He has a dealer he trusts, and also will make deals with zoos. The capybaras, for example, were adaptable to the climate, and he liked that they could stay underwater for long stretches. Now he’s negotiating a large donation to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., possibly in exchange for red pandas, though Steinhardt says he has little space to expand.

He is vague about his zoo’s specs – how much it costs to run (Steinhardt ignores the question), how he stays within regulations governing private zoos (it’s all legal, he assures: “The local police are perfectly nice.”) and how many people he employs to tend to the animals (his answer: “1.2 percent of the male population of Nicaragua,” which comes out to roughly 34,000 people. He is kidding.).

At the end of the walk through the zoo, plus a visit to his private strawberry garden, we hop on a golf cart that takes us through much of the rest of the estate – sloping paths through unmanicured forests, water trickling down a rock sculpture, a large, boxy house in a clearing that Steinhardt is building for his daughter’s family.

And then, at the finish of the odyssey, we see the zedonks. Half-zebra, half-donkey – Steinhardt prefers the word “zonkey” – they stand in a trio, brown pack animals covered in black stripes, a puffy black mane and pointy ears sprouting from their necks and heads. Not far away are camels, which we all but ignore. The zedonks approach us warily, intruders in their habitat, and let us observe them.

But by then, Steinhardt is transforming back into the billionaire philanthropist – taking business calls, coordinating logistics for how we would leave. We have been with the animals for more than an hour. Now it is time to return to America, its Jews and their problems.

Reinventing education in Israel

After launching a successful bilingual law degree program geared toward English-speaking Israelis four years ago, the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan wanted to create an undergraduate program that would attract English-speaking students from abroad.

The college, which calls itself “a nonprofit self-supporting institution,” asked Shlomo “Momo” Lifshitz, an Israeli businessman who helped turn the word “Birthright” into a household name, to come up with a unique program and then market it.

“Nobody else in Israel offers these services as well as he does,” explained Moshe Cohen-Eliya, president of the College of Law and Business. “He’s extremely well-connected and knows the Jewish communities abroad
inside out.”

When it comes to recruiting foreign students, “Momo is never patronizing,” Cohen-Eliya said. “He tells students, ‘I know you’re trying to figure out your next steps in life and the world is in your hands. Why not take advantage of it and study in Israel?’ He helps them figure out what’s best for them.”

During his long career, Lifshitz, the founder of Oranim Educational Initiatives (once the largest organizer of Birthright tours), brought more than 50,000 participants on 1,200 Birthright tours before selling the firm to the national Egged Bus company five years ago. 

Unwilling to retire even though he could, Lifshitz, now 59, created Lirom Global Education — Study in Israel LLC, a company that helps create and promote more than 20 Israel-based degree- and non-degree programs (universityinisrael.com) earmarked for English speakers from abroad.

Lifshitz helped launch a one-year master of arts degree program in Jewish education at Hebrew University’s Melton Centre for Jewish Education in March, the first distance-learning program of its kind at the university. Students take about four online courses during each of two semesters, from anywhere in the world, and spend six weeks of intensive summer study on the university’s Jerusalem campus. The total price is $16,250. 

In light of the program’s initial success and because of the flexibility of the distance-learning component, the Melton Centre will offer additional starting dates in October and next March. 

This autumn, the College of Law and Business will launch a three-year business degree program that focuses on globalization and commercial law. During the first two years, students will study in Israel, and in the final year at Long Island University at the Brooklyn campus’ School of Business. Taught entirely in English, the program is intended to offer opportunities for students around the world looking to graduate with two degrees — an American university degree and an Israeli degree — while gaining international perspective and experience. Annual tuition in Israel is $10,000, while the Long Island University portion costs $34,000. 

In October, the College of Law and Business also will launch a four-year, dual-track law program that will provide students with a bachelor’s of law and a bachelor’s in business. The courses take place in Israel, and graduates are eligible to take the New York state and Israeli bar exams. 

The business courses are taught entirely in English, while half of the law courses are taught in Hebrew and half in English. The college promises to provide support for English-speaking students in Hebrew-taught courses, including allowing them to submit assignments and exams in English. During the first year, which is taught in English, students take an intensive legal Hebrew ulpan.

The program provides internships and workshops in such places as Harvard, Oxford and the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris, plus study tours in China to provide professional international experiences and perspectives. The price is $12,000 per year for the dual track, study tours and international internships.

Starting next March, there also will be a “Study & Intern” option (which provides academic credits through Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) to spend nearly five months in Eilat on a program offering an academic internship in hotel management and hospitality. The program consists of six days of activities per week, with two days dedicated to academic studies and four days to professional internships.

A second “Study & Intern” track, also starting next March and also through Ben-Gurion University’s Eilat campus, will offer culinary students and recent graduates the opportunity to learn how to prepare Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine in a kosher environment. The entire cost of the five-month internship programs, including tours of Israel, accommodations, three meals a day and in-country transportation, is $1,500.

Lifshitz, a proud Zionist, views his work as a Zionist enterprise. He also receives a commission when he successfully recruits students.

“I decided I couldn’t allow my passion and drive to be wasted [in retirement] without doing something I feel is so important — to provide students the opportunity to get an education in Israel.

“I understood the cost of higher education in America and some other places and want to tell people loud and clear: There are options other than paying $40,000, $50,000 or $60,000 per year for a bachelor’s degree, especially when we know a bachelor’s isn’t enough in today’s world. You need to go to grad school, and people are carrying debt till the age of 50. Guys, open your eyes.”

Lifshitz’s initial goal is to bring 5,000 foreign students to Israel for long- and short-term programs.

“It can be for a summer course, a semester, a bachelor’s or master’s. We’re a one-stop shop for many study opportunities in Israel.”

The education maven says the Hebrew University Jewish Education master’s will enable busy educators to get a master’s degree at the Melton Centre almost entirely online.

“Let’s say you’re an American educator or working in a Jewish organization or a JCC or a Hillel. You can work while you’re doing it.”

The Hebrew University program, Lifshitz said, “is ‘Israel Inside.’ There’s a lot of focus on how to teach Israel” in the curriculum.

Lifshitz hopes Jewish organizations and institutions in the U.S. will help their employees with the tuition costs. (Some scholarship funds may be available, as well, and Jewish students can explore scholarships through Masa Israel.)

“They’ll get a better employee. Hebrew U. is a top university,” he said.

Marcelo Dorfsman, director of the master’s in Jewish Education program, said the master’s is intended “to help Jewish communities around the world” train top-notch Jewish educators “in an open, pluralistic environment.”

Educators from all streams of Judaism are expected to take the course and spend six weeks in Jerusalem in the same classroom. 

While overseas programs bring much-needed revenue to Israel’s cash-strapped universities, Lifshitz said, they also are an opportunity to share Israel’s innovation and expertise with Jewish and non-Jewish students who might otherwise never get to know Israel and its people. 

“We have the greatest minds, the greatest scientists, the greatest high- tech. They don’t call us the ‘startup nation’ for nothing.” 

Terrorism in Israel: U.S. actions speak louder than words

In late June of this year, I returned from an enlightening journey to Israel after embarking on a trip sponsored by Birthright Israel, a program that sends thousands of Jewish teens and young adults to tour Israel. I traveled with my sister, Lauren, and we were amazed by the Jewish culture and history we were immediately immersed in as soon as we stepped on our El AL flight to Tel Aviv from JFK. As soon as the “fasten seat-belt” sign went off, an orthodox Jewish man went around the flight to bless some of the Birthright participants with Tiffilin (a set of two black boxes containing verses from the Torah) and I was one of the lucky ones. From that point onward, my travels in Israel—ranging from a spiritual stop at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, to a fun visit at the Dead Sea—were incredible experiences that opened up the floodgates to my family’s history and customs. During my travels in Israel, signs of the precarious and ominous state of geopolitical security of the small Jewish state were ever-present. After traveling to Israel and experiencing firsthand the vibrant culture of the only true democracy in the Middle East, I was frustrated and angered more than ever by the media and our current President’s unjust treatment of a nation surrounded by enemies and danger on all borders. Nothing was more enraging to me, however, than to observe the Obama administration’s handling of the barbaric murder of a thirteen-year-old American-Israeli girl in the West Bank only three days after I returned from Israel.

Hallel Ariel was brutally murdered in her sleep by a seventeen-year-old Palestinian terrorist in a West Bank settlement, where her family lived. Photos of the scene released by the Israeli government showed sickening pools of blood in a brightly decorated child’s room. Security forces killed the assailant shortly after the murder and the Israeli government reacted immediately, canceling work visas previously granted to the killer’s family and establishing more security at the settlement. Our government’s response, however, was far less impressive; Jon Kirby, a State Department spokesman, condemned “in the strongest terms” the horrific terrorist attack.

This type of mechanical, unemotional statement from the Obama administration has only become the new norm from our country when responding to Palestinian terrorism. In fact, on June 8th, only a few weeks before I arrived in Israel, Hamas militants killed four Israelis at a Tel Aviv shopping district, an attack which the Obama administration condemned “in the strongest possible terms”. On November 19, 2015, another American-Israeli, Eric Schwartz was killed as he was gunned down by a Palestinian terrorist in the West Bank. President Obama, at a press conference that Sunday, three days later, delivered kind remarks regarding the deaths of two American citizens killed in terrorist attacks in Mali and France earlier that same week. Curiously, Eric Schwartz was never mentioned by President Obama during that press conference in which he mourned two other American citizens also killed abroad. After over 50,000 Americans signed a petition calling for the White House to acknowledge and condemn the murder of Schwartz, the Obama administration yet again condemned the attack “in the strongest possible terms”, a statement that carries less and less weight with every monotonous recitation by members of the Obama administration.

Following the devastating terrorist attacks in Paris in October of 2015, the State Department rightfully declared the act as “evil, heinous, and vile” in a powerful statement calling on the world “to fight back against what can only be considered an assault on our common humanity”. The White House is clearly concerned with the barbarity of terrorism, so I’d like to ask the State Department why this clear display of emotional outrage has consistently been missing when Israeli-Americans are murdered in cold blood. Perhaps the death of half-Israelis—or Jews—is far less concerning to President Obama than the deaths of others. I have been to Israel and I have spoken at length with its people. Our President’s continuously passive and reluctant words of “strong condemnation” do nothing to stop Palestinian terrorism or show solidarity with the Israeli people.

President Obama’s lethargic approach to speaking out against Palestinian terrorism is far less detrimental than his deliberate actions to strengthen Hamas, the terrorist organization governing the Gaza Strip, or diplomatically weaken Israel. In his famous address to the Arab world in Cairo, the President remarked “…Israel must also live up to its obligation to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society…the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security.” The United States has a famous policy never to negotiate with terrorists, yet urges Israel to dutifully complete its “obligation” to ensure the development of Palestinian society in the Gaza Strip, an area governed by a group the United States lists as a terrorist organization. This screaming hypocrisy is seemingly ignored by President Obama’s administration.

Because of security concerns, Israel has maintained an embargo of potentially dangerous goods into the Gaza Strip, including building materials such as cement, from 2007 to the present. The Israeli government loosened the ban on building materials—after being pressured by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—to allow for the reconstruction of Palestinian infrastructure damaged in past wars. Cement flooded into the Gaza strip and the reconstruction was finally set to begin. However, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry Director, roughly 95% of all cement bags that entered the Gaza strip for humanitarian purposes were stolen by Hamas to build the infamous underground tunnel network used to conduct terrorism against innocent Israeli civilians in the Gaza War of 2014. To blame Israel for not attempting to alleviate the concerning humanitarian situation in Gaza is not only factually erroneous but also diplomatically dangerous to Israel; rather than focus on the heinous acts committed by Hamas, a group that calls for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people in its charter, the international community, with President Obama at the helm, instead points to Israel’s settlement expansion in the West Bank as a justification for terrorism originating in Gaza.

Since becoming politically active, I’ve always been a staunch supporter of Israel on cultural, ideological and logical grounds. My trip to Israel only reinforced those beliefs and once again reminded me of the double standard President Obama has practiced when it comes to Israel and the deaths of American Jews in Israel. While I never felt endangered in Israel, a small news story that barely garnered a few minutes on major news channels shocked me deeply: an El AL flight out of JFK to Tel Aviv, the same kind of flight I had taken to Israel, was escorted by French and Swiss jets to Israel following a bomb threat. Luckily there was no bomb and therefore no casualities. I was immediately thankful for my own safe return to my home in America, and then somberly considered for a moment that I could have been on that plane if my trip had been only two weeks later. But then I thought of the people actually on that plane. Surely there were other Jewish kids my age traveling to Israel as part of some Birthright program. I wondered, if that plane had been bombed and the passengers murdered simply because they were Israelis or Jews, how would President Obama have responded? Based on his past actions? Another “strong condemnation” from a monotonous, disinterested state department spokesperson.

Young couples now getting Birthright-style ‘honeymoons’ in Israel

Jay and Mikelle sat next to each other on the bus as it ascended the road to Jerusalem.

Later the same day they accompanied each other on an emotional trip to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. The next day they planned to trek up to the desert fortress at Masada and swim together in the Dead Sea.

During its week-and-a-half journey through Israel, their bus would stop so they could hike up north and relax at the beach in Tel Aviv. Some of the group had been here before; for others it was their first time.

But unlike the hundreds of Taglit-Birthright Israel buses that traverse Israel every year, there were no random hookups on this tour. Its participants were couples, some with children. About a third of the participants weren’t Jewish.

Called Honeymoon Israel, the trip is a “Birthright” for married couples aged 25 to 40. Like Birthright — the free 10-day journeys to Israel for 18- to 26-year-old Jews — the couples’ excursion hopes to foster Jewish identity in its participants as they are settling down and having kids. Acknowledging the growing number of intermarried families, the trip mandates that only one of the two partners be Jewish.

“We plan on raising our household Jewish,” said Jay Belfore, a trip participant who was raised Catholic and whose wife, Mikelle, is Jewish. “In order for me to gain a better understanding of the culture, seeing Israel is important to us.”

On their second date, Mikelle told Jay that she wanted to raise Jewish children. Jay appreciates Judaism’s emphasis on family, and said the trip has given him a frame of reference for Jewish life, teaching him about the origins of holidays and customs. The couple has two children, 3 and 1.

“My hope was that Jay would learn about Judaism on a deeper level and would feel more involved in our children’s upbringing,” Mikelle said. “Honeymoon Israel has created a safe place for couples in similar situations.”

That safe place is the trip’s goal, said Honeymoon Israel co-CEO Avi Rubel, who launched the project with co-CEO Mike Wise. Families and Jewish communities at home can be judgmental of intermarried couples or those without much Jewish background, he said, and coming to Israel together allows them to have an immersive and supportive Jewish experience.

“What if they did feel welcome and not judged, and at home in the Jewish community?” said Rubel, formerly the founding North American director of Masa Israel Journey, which coordinates long-term Israel programs for young people. “Then at this time they’re looking for meaning, and they would find it in the Jewish community.”

Honeymoon Israel’s two pilot trips, from Los Angeles and Phoenix, arrived in late May with 20 couples each. There was an outsize demand — 85 couples applied from Los Angeles and 51 from Phoenix — and interviews were part of the process.

While the trip’s total expenses add up to about $10,000 per couple, the couples pay only $1,800. The Boston-based Jacobson Family Foundation is the primary funder. The trip is not linked to Taglit-Birthright Israel, which is paid for in part by the Israeli government.

Rubel and Wise, the former CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo in New York, hope to run 50 Honeymoon Israel trips a year.

Such initiatives, said Jewish sociologist Steven M. Cohen, are crucial in light of the results of the Pew Research Center’s 2013 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which showed that 71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews were intermarrying. Showing intermarried couples a Jewish society, Cohen said, can give the non-Jewish spouse a larger context to connect personally to Judaism.

“Being Jewish in yourself is connected with being Jewish in your family, in your community and in your people,” said Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “These circles of social identity are layered from top to bottom.”

Honeymoon Israel is one of a few imitation Birthright programs to emerge in recent years. The Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project runs eight-day group trips to Israel for Jewish mothers. An organization called Covenant Journey plans to bring groups of Evangelical Christian youth to Israel for subsidized trips starting this year.

Honeymoon Israel takes its participants across the country, but spends more time in Tel Aviv than most Birthright trips, aiming to show Israel’s modern culture as well as its historical and biblical sites. Participants on the Phoenix trip did Havdalah, the closing ceremony of Shabbat, with Beit Tefillah Israeli, a liberal prayer group that meets on the beach. And the group spent a day in northern Israel learning about coexistence efforts between Arabs and Jews.

“This is not a Disney World trip,” Rubel said. “We want people to see Israel in all its complexity. We want people to have a positive experience in Israel. We think part of doing that is giving people a chance to see the whole picture.”

The trips also aim to maintain connections among the couples after they return to their home city. Couples met at a Shabbat dinner before the trip, and monthly Shabbat dinners are planned for when they return. A trip staff member will also be available to meet with the couples back home.

“In this modern world where we have almost no boundaries, the new face of Jews is definitely an international one,” said Khai Ling Tan, who was born in Malaysia and whose husband, Jonathan Levine, is Jewish.  “You don’t want to be exclusive because when you do that, your world becomes smaller and smaller and smaller.”

Rethinking the ‘Birthright’: A trip to the Israel for adults

Birthright trips to Israel are the ultimate opportunity for young Jewish adults to get face-to-face with the places and history that shape their Jewish identity. But what about more mature adults who never got that chance?

Stacy Wasserman believes she has the answer in her L’Dor V’Dor (From Generation to Generation) program, which provides partially subsidized, 12- to 14-day trips to the Holy Land for people 55 and over, who have either never been to Israel or haven’t been in at least 30 years. The program is financed by a foundation she developed with money willed to her by her father, which she named for him: The Dr. Jesse L. Simon Charitable Foundation.

“We were smart to create the Birthright program for young people, but we haven’t done as good a job with other parts of the community,” said Wasserman, 58, of Thousand Oaks. “As many people realize what they’ve missed by not visiting Israel, going there is definitely on their bucket lists. We’re empowering them to act upon what we all promise ourselves at Passover: ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ ”

The nonprofit sent its first group to Israel in February 2012, followed by others annually, each accommodating a maximum of 40 people. So far, a total of about 200 people have participated on the trips.

This year, there are two trips: a spring sojourn April 23 to May 4 ($2,350 per person, not including airfare), and another in the fall, Oct. 16-28 ($2,650 per person). There is an application and selection process (available online at ldorvdorisrael.com) involved for inclusion, as well as a hard-set rule that people can only take this trip once. Registration for the fall trip opened April 5. 

Wasserman said she is seeking additional charitable donations to the program, because there is only enough money in the foundation to fund three or four more trips. For this year’s spring trip, for example, the foundation is contributing about $900 per person on top of what participants pay.

Itineraries for each trip vary, but they all include sites that capture Israel’s past, present and future: a kibbutz, the Western Wall, Masada, the Dead Sea, wineries, various marketplaces and a visit to the Knesset.

Although Wasserman describes each journey as the “trip of a lifetime” for her travelers — average age is between 68 and 73 — she stresses that they experience the real Israel rather than a luxury jaunt and do lots of walking. Hotels are generally modest, and there are a few days where the lodgings are tents. In other words, similar to the way things are done on a Birthright trip.  

Wasserman made her first trip to Israel in 1980 at age 22 to live on a kibbutz, and ended up exploring the country for a year. Her big moment of discovery was encountering the Western Wall and pondering the number of generations it had been standing.

She went on to build a career as a preschool teacher and Jewish preschool owner in Canoga Park, but always knew deep down that one’s discovering of what makes Israel “Israel”  changes as one gets older, prompting her to start planning a return trip. The genesis of the L’Dor V’Dor program, in turn, stemmed from trying to convince her hesitant husband, Morrey, to join her.

“I had to think of a way to get him to go to Israel so I could return,” she said. “I [also realized] that it is not enough to just send our children or grandchildren to Israel. … If my husband was hesitant about going, there had to be many others afraid to go for a variety of reasons.” 

And there were other important things to think about, like how such trips offer people “an opportunity for them to show their support for Israel by physically going there.”

San Fernando Valley residents who were on last year’s fall trip had distinctly different reasons for going, but they all reported that the shared experience of exploring Israel was life changing.

Harriet Wasserman (no relation to Stacy), 75, of Tarzana, a former ICM agent, traveled the world extensively. However, Israel was a notable exception, as her husband, Ted, had been afraid to go. When they made the trip with L’Dor V’Dor, both found themselves profoundly transformed.

“My husband was never bar mitzvahed, but on the dinner of our last night, he got up with tears coming down his face and told the group, ‘Now I know what it means to be a Jew,’ ” she said. “The first time I touched the Wall, it really was like coming home.”

Although Tarzana resident Linda Hyman, 73, and her husband traveled to Israel in the 1970s, they found this trip to be particularly affirming of their Jewish identities. 

“Although we could not go to the Mount of Olives, we went to the [Haas] Promenade [in Talpiot] for a blessing. Stacy brought a large challah, grape juice and wine, and we all came together in a circle with the blessing,” Hyman said. “We were overlooking Jerusalem, and when we said the blessing, at that moment I knew that I was Jewish.” 

Steven Young, a lawyer from Tarzana born in 1948 — the same year as Israel — said L’Dor V’Dor’s itinerary made the perfect trip to Israel possible on many levels. 

“My religious connection was deepened by seeing the Wailing Wall and touring the base of the outer walls of the city,” he said. “It is incredible to see firsthand the physical and visual perception of how old and how deep our roots are as a religion. 

“When touring Tel Aviv, I saw [an intriguing mix of] the Old City mixed with the new — high-tech companies, a thriving economy and architecture.”

Although never a fan of men’s jewelry, he was moved to purchase an Israeli-made Star of David, which he has not taken off since the trip.

Like Harriet Wasserman, Marlene Miller, 78, of Woodland Hills had long wanted to see Israel, but had not made the journey because of her husband’s concerns. She ended up going on her own with L’Dor V’Dor, and although she went “in the middle of the last Gaza situation,” she swears she felt safer there than here.

“Unless you see these sites in person, you’re not really seeing them,” Miller said. 

Fred Levine of Oak Park said, “Yad Vashem was emotional for me, while The Museum [of the Diaspora] at Tel Aviv University reflected the reality that no matter where we are in the world, our customs, traditions and values are everlasting and we all originate from a common history. Being at Independence Hall and listening to [David] Ben-Gurion announce the independent State of Israel and then the playing of ‘Hatikvah’ was the prefect conclusion to the trip.”

In an affirmation of what Stacy Wasserman hopes to accomplish with L’Dor V’Dor, Levine said he sent his daughter, Rachel, a picture of himself and his wife, Sue, in front of the Israeli flag at Masada. Two seconds later, Rachel sent them back a photo of herself — at the same spot one year earlier.

The true value of Birthright Israel

Sitting in a circle in coastal northern Israel, listening to a group of 46 American and Israeli Jews share their coming-out stories — stories of anxiety and relief, shame and pride, heartbreak and celebration — I realized that this trip was going to be different. 

It was my seventh time staffing a Birthright Israel trip, and this was a group of lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, queer and ally (LGBTQA) young adults, supported and organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ L.A. Way Birthright Israel Experience initiative and in partnership with JQ International, an organization dedicated to creating opportunities and visibility for LGBTQA Jews in Los Angeles.

I had agreed to staff this particular trip because I view myself as an ally to the LGBTQ community. I believed I would learn something new by seeing Israel through an LGBTQ lens, and I wanted to support a group of people who, I imagined, hadn’t always felt they’d had a seat at the proverbial Jewish table.

We started the trip like any other, with the craziness of reviewing Birthright Israel rules and jamming in dozens of site visits per day. Save for the fact that we didn’t divide rooms by gender, and we allowed more flexible and sensitive rooming guidelines, I didn’t initially think there was anything different about this trip. I assumed that just like other trips, at the end of 10 days, the participants would say their tearful goodbyes; some of their lives would be changed and many would resume as normal; and most of them would save a warm place for Israel in their hearts.

But when we visited Yad Vashem, I began to understand how special this group was. As we toured the facility, we became acutely aware that the majority of our group members would have been doubly persecuted during the Holocaust. In fact, as members of the LGBTQ community they would have been marginalized, vilified, brutalized and murdered even before the Jews. In Hitler’s world, and that of the Nazi fascists, they would have been the first to go. Also, this group was all too aware of what murder, suicide and violence look like today. More than any other group I’ve staffed, this group could relate to being hated simply because of who they are.

That evening, we decided to welcome Shabbat at the Western Wall. As we headed to the main pavilion, I began to worry that maybe they wouldn’t like this place. That regardless of the energy around the Western Wall, perhaps the politics surrounding it, the severe gender divides — women right, men left — would be too much of a shock and would jar them out of the utopia of egalitarianism we had created on our trip. I wanted to protect my participants, possibly to help them maintain the generous and inclusive image of the Israel they had experienced thus far. I didn’t want them to think that they might not have a place at every table in the global Jewish community; I wanted this trip to show them something beautiful that they never could have imagined. We had strived to create a haven of inclusion — would it all go to waste once we stood before one of the most significant sites for the Jewish people?

As we approached, I saw a huge group of soldiers singing Shabbat songs together on the plaza — men and women, all in uniform. I wish we could do that, too, I thought to myself. 

At that moment, the ring of soldiers opened up to welcome us. We flooded into the circle, joining hands with dozens of young Israelis, weaving into their group. In an instant, we formed a circle of more than a hundred young people, holding hands, singing songs, dancing and jumping, and shouting for joy in front of the Western Wall. From all corners of the world, all religious backgrounds, all sexual orientations and gender identities, we were living the dream of the Jewish people. It was truly a holy Shabbat experience.

More than any other trip I have staffed, this group understood the dichotomies of victimhood and victory, persecution and celebration, sorrow and joy, shame and pride that have so long shaped and defined the Jewish people. The collective Jewish narrative mirrored so many of their personal narratives, and to experience that realization with them has become one of the great privileges of my life.

Returning from our miraculous 10 days together, I have realized that the true value of Birthright Israel is to help young Jews from around the world and from all different backgrounds connect their stories to the Jewish story. It is an opportunity for them to sit at a Shabbat dinner table and be welcomed for exactly who they are — often for the first time in their lives. It is a moment of discovery — of the self and of community — of joining hands with their brothers and sisters from around the world, and of connecting to the shared pain and joy of our people.

Annie Lascoe is West Coast regional director for Masa Israel Journey, an organization that connects young adults with study, internship and volunteer opportunities in Israel.

Israeli-Americans Get Their Own Birthright Trip

When Eden Bennun — who had to give up on plans to attend a Birthright Israel trip this summer because of a job — heard about a new trip aimed specifically at Israeli-Americans, she thought: “It must be fate.”

Both of her parents were born in Israel, and, although she grew up in Los Angeles, almost every summer she boarded an El Al airliner to visit faraway family.

“I look forward to getting to meet more people like me, who are connected to the culture and language, and are ready to become young Jewish leaders,” said Bennun, a third-year psychology student at American Jewish University.

The new Taglit-Birthright Israel program, offered in conjunction with the Israeli American Council (IAC), will be called “I think it’s important to educate other people so they don’t have to go through what I went [through] and disconnect, and then connect again,” he said.

Blaming Birthright for a Gaza death

Is Birthright Israel to blame for the death of Max Steinberg, one of two American Israeli soldiers killed in the war in Gaza?

That’s the assertion of Allison Benedikt, a senior editor at Slate, who first provoked Israel supporters in 2011 with an angry and rambling essay about how after her nefarious Zionist youth group (she doesn’t name it, but it’s Young Judaea) brainwashed her into liking Israel, she eventually learned better.

In Benedikt’s latest piece, she asserts that Steinberg’s decision to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces “seems like the ultimate fulfillment of Birthright’s mission” and asks in the story’s teaser “what makes an American kid with shaky Hebrew decide he is ready to die for Israel?” Not surprisingly, it has quickly sparked over 300 online comments. Meanwhile, the Times of Israel’s Haviv Rettig Gur has published a heated, point-by-point response.

Benedikt’s article isn’t the only Israel-Gaza conflict-fueled attack on Birthright. A darkly satirical Tumblr feed, “My Birthright Summer in Israel,” features perkily captioned photos of happy, partying Birthright participants superimposed over images of carnage and destruction in Gaza.

Global lacrosse community welcomes a formidable new member–Israel

Israel made a smashing debut at the 2014 World Lacrosse Championship in Denver this month, finishing seventh out of 38 teams, just three years after the first game was ever played in the country. 

Facing much more experienced teams, the Israelis came away with a 6-2 record, outscoring opponents by a cumulative score of 120-47. Both losses were by a single goal. (Canada upset the United States 8-5 to win the championship final.)

Lacrosse came to Israel only three years ago, following a young New Yorker’s 2010 Birthright experience. At the poignant moment of reflection, when the trip leader asked, “What are you going to do for the Israel you have just encountered?” Scott Neiss responded, “I’ll bring lacrosse to Israel.” 

Then a young executive who had worked for several professional lacrosse leagues in the United States, Neiss is now a Tel Aviv resident and Israeli citizen. He recruited coaches with world championship experience, established lacrosse training centers in Israel, combed the country for aliyah-niks who had played the sport in North America and raised more than $700,000 to help players compete at the highest levels.

A year after Neiss’ Birthright experience, I went to Jerusalem to referee the first lacrosse game played there. Larry Turkheimer, a Los Angeles businessman and one-time lacrosse All-American at the University of North Carolina, enlisted Jeff Alpert, then a UCLA student, and me as a l’dor v’dor referee duo. (I was 63, Alpert was 21.) Maybe “draft” is closer to Turkheimer’s approach than “enlist”: 

“Israel has just been admitted to the Federation of International Lacrosse, even though there’s never been a game played there. The first game is next month and they need a ref. You’re a teacher, you’ve got the summer off — use some frequent flier miles and do the game.” 

Fast-forward to this summer. Alpert and I got the same offer, only this time it was to officiate Israel’s pre-tournament games at the world championships. Whereas the 2011 game in Jerusalem had been ragged at its best moments, the 2014 Israel contingent in Denver comprised two teams — championship and development — with coaches, managers, trainers, photographers and an entourage of parents, siblings and other supporters. 

And there was definite promise. As it turns out, the number of accomplished Jewish lacrosse players is disproportionately high, and those veterans rallied to the Israel team. Head coach Bill Beroza was captain of the U.S. team that won the 1982 world championships, and defensive coach Mark Greenberg was his teammate. 

Players Ari Sussman and Casey Cittadino are veterans of Major League Lacrosse, the 14-year-old professional league started by Angeleno Jake Steinfeld. Ben Smith is assistant coach at Harvard, where he played as an undergraduate. Back-up goalie Reuven Dressler is a 41-year-old Tel Aviv physician who starred in an NCAA tournament while at Yale. 

Israel’s first pre-tournament game in Denver pitted the team against the Iroquois Nationals, ESPN’s darlings of the tournament because of their invention of the sport millennia ago and its renaissance due to record-setting accomplishments in the 2014 college season by brothers Lyle and Miles Thompson at the University of Albany. Although the two teams didn’t meet during the tournament — the Iroquois finished third and Israel was seventh — that first scrimmage showed Israel could compete against the teams in the tournament’s power pool.

That first scrimmage was our introduction to the 2014 team. Usually when the refs walk up to the playing field, we get pretty cold looks from the players on both sides. We think we’re there to make certain the game is safe, fair, fun and fast. Most players think we’re there to put them in the penalty box and generally mess up everything. For our work in Denver, Alpert and I wore striped shirts with an Israeli flag patch above the left pocket, instead of the Stars and Stripes patches we usually wear working in the U.S. The Israeli players saw our patches and actually smiled at us, many saying, “Hey, ref, cool.” 

In lacrosse, defenders need to communicate when their opponents create an advantage requiring a defensive response. In the argot of American lacrosse, the player who is ready with that response shouts, “I’m hot!” to his colleagues. The logic of the words is: If there is a breakdown, I’m the individual who will solve it. 

Israeli lacrosse players communicate differently, both in language and logic. On the playing field, they speak Hebrew to each other, even though most of the players learned the sport in the U.S. But instead of shouting, “I’m hot,” they say, “Ani rishon,” literally, “I’m first.” The logic of these words is: If there is a problem, I will be the first to go solve it, and I know others will be coming to support me. Perhaps this linguistic variation arises from the culture learned in Israel Defense Forces (IDF) service, where leaders say “Follow me as we go in!” not “Charge!” Whatever its origins, the Israeli defensive system worked.

The players concentrated on their sport responsibilities during the games, but the tumult at home was never far from their thoughts. Neiss set the tone with a message to his team and supporters on the eve of the tournament, saying in part: “We press forward, and continue onward with our mission to bring joy to the communities of Israel through sport during this difficult time. Our youth camp has continued this week despite threats in Tel Aviv. We’ve scholarshipped children from the south of Israel who have been relocated to the center, away from the border with Gaza. We will continue with our lacrosse camp in Ramla next week unless the [IDF] Home Front Command Unit instructs otherwise. It’s with this attitude that we press forward, and make our debut in the World Games. … We will not be deterred.”

Four candidates for the team did not travel to the U.S. because of their IDF commitments. Matthew Cherry, one of the team’s leading scorers, will begin his IDF training next month. In four years, with those commitments hopefully completed, Cherry and his mates hope to compete at the world championships in Manchester, England.

The challenges faced by the Israeli team in Denver were trivial by any comparison to current events in the Middle East. Once, while playing against the Netherlands at Colorado University in Boulder, Colo., a dozen or so geriatric Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions supporters showed up with anti-Israel signs and a bit of chanting. 

Getting no response from the athletes or the rest of the crowd, they left before halftime. 

Neil Kramer is dean of faculty emeritus at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills. He has played, coached and officiated lacrosse for more than 40 years

Life in a war zone: Birthright in a new light

Before my Birthright trip, when I pictured Israel, I saw myself riding camels, visiting the Western Wall, hiking Masada, floating on the Dead Sea. … I never imagined rockets exploding in the air, running barefoot to a bomb shelter or sirens wailing in the streets of Jerusalem. But on my trip I’m not just seeing the touristy view of Israel; I’m getting to see the constant struggle to survive that Israel must fight every day, all while people live their normal lives, for the most part without fear.

It’s July 12, day six of my Birthright trip, and in our hotel in Jerusalem today, we experienced our second siren. My roommate was in the shower, and I pounded on the bathroom door, shouting, “Hannah!” as loud as I could, wanting to run more than anything. She came out in her towel and, without a word, we held hands tightly and bolted down the hallway. 

Our guide, Daron, told us you’re not supposed to take the elevator, so we ran down the stairs flight after flight from the fourth floor with all the people in our hotel, mostly Orthodox Jews and other Birthright kids. Our guide also said that in Jerusalem, you have  1 minute and 15 seconds, maybe a minute and a half, after the siren sounds to make it to the shelter before the rockets would hit, and we realized we didn’t have time to make it all the way to the shelter, which is in the underground mall beneath our hotel. So we just stayed clumped together in the stairwell, Hannah clutching her towel, Orthodox women around us talking loudly in Hebrew, until we were allowed to leave after five or 10 minutes. 

On our run down, we heard two booms and felt sure rockets had just struck the city, but no one else seemed concerned. None of the Israeli soldiers on my trip seemed afraid — they walked casually down the stairs today while the rest of us pounded down them. They were more worried about their friends, some of whom are going to fight in Gaza and will be in direct danger soon. But I was scared. Later, our guide told us the booms we heard came from the Iron Dome deflecting the rockets, doing its usual miraculous job of preventing Israeli casualties even as Gaza pounded us with hundreds of rockets over the past few days. Every police siren we hear, every car alarm, every shout on the street makes us jump, wondering if it’s the siren and if we’ll be running for our lives again. 

But these moments of fear are few, and I’ve spent most of my time here enjoying the country. People here don’t let the rockets stop them from living their lives. We have visited the Western Wall, rafted on the Jordan River, walked through the quiet streets of Jerusalem on Shabbat and eaten our fill of falafel every day. Life goes on, and though the TV news reports all the fighting and the fear and the danger here now, I hope people back home in the U.S. know that Israelis are going to work, eating out, doing all the normal things we all do. They’re just doing it with the occasional and horrifying interruption of a siren warning them that a rocket might hit. 

The unity of the people here is like the U.S. after 9/11 — everyone is threatened, and everyone comes together, getting strength from one another and refusing to live in constant fear, no matter the circumstances. As frightening as it’s been at times, I’m glad I got to be here now, to see the resilience of the Israeli people and to feel like I finally understand what this tiny but powerful country is up against. It may not be the typical Birthright experience, but it’s a powerful one, and one I’ll never forget. I won’t miss running barefoot toward the bomb shelter, but it did help me appreciate how lucky we are in the U.S. to not know what that’s like, and how hard it is for us to fully understand a conflict that’s so distant unless, like me, you find yourself in the middle of it. 

What a time to be in Israel!

Cora Markowitz is an Angeleno about to become a sophomore at Kenyon College. She wrote this on her cell phone from Jerusalem.

Love, Birthright style

Now entering its 13th year, Taglit-Birthright Israel’s goal is to strengthen the Jewish identity of its participants and their connection to Israel. Yet the popular program also has provided a platform for untold numbers of young singles to form lasting, loving partnerships.

Michal Ezekiel moved from Israel to Los Angeles in 2010 to be with Max Simon, whom she met on the Tel Aviv beach in 2008. Simon was a recent graduate of the University of San Diego; Ezekiel was one of eight Israeli soldiers who accompanied his group on its Birthright tour.

“I was one of those people who went on Birthright just looking to get away from my life in L.A., and I had no idea what I was walking into,” Simon said.

A few months later, Ezekiel joined her family on a trip to California, where the two were reunited. They went out for dinner, followed by a romantic walk on the beach. In 2012, they were married in Israel.

“That was the first time we hung out outside of the trip,” Simon said. “We saw each other, and we realized there was something there.”

No data exists on just how many participants have met their spouses on such trips. Birthright knows of several dozen marriages, though anecdotal evidence suggests the number could be much larger.

“Because our main goal at Taglit is to strengthen Jewish identity and bring Jews closer together, we consider it a privilege that we’ve allowed hundreds of couples to meet and build Jewish homes around the world,” said Doron Karni, the vice president of international marketing for Birthright. “This is also in line with the findings of a study by Brandeis University that showed Birthright participants are 45 percent more likely to marry Jewish spouses.”

Of course, young couples finding love in Israel is nothing new. But Birthright’s scale, and its success in targeting participants who normally would not participate in an Israel trip, make its reach potentially far greater. The organization offers dozens of niche programs targeting particular interests and backgrounds, including cycling enthusiasts, fraternity brothers, foodies, recovering addicts and LGBTQ.

It was the LGBTQ trip that attracted Alicia Rosenbloom, who says she would never have gone on Birthright if it weren’t for what is known as the Rainbow Tour. She also wouldn’t have met her partner, Jordan Rubenstein.

In July 2011, the pair exchanged furtive glances at the airport in New York. During the layover in Zurich, they began chatting.

“By the time we got to Israel we were sitting on the bus together and talked a lot more,” Rubenstein said. “A few days in we were already an item.”

Over the next 10 days, they hiked up Masada, roamed the alleyways of Jerusalem’s Old City and spent a night in a Bedouin tent in the Negev Desert. When they returned home, Rosenbloom moved from Philadelphia to New York, where Rubenstein works at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the LGBT synagogue in Manhattan.

This summer, on the second anniversary of their meeting, the two women will tie the knot at a ceremony in Queens.

Meredith Ross will never forget when she first laid eyes on Lior, her partner for the past seven years.

Lior, an infantryman in the Israel Defense Forces, was escorting Ross’ Birthright Israel group on a free tour of the Jewish state when his friend, a fellow soldier, was killed. Lior was leaving to attend his funeral and had come to say goodbye.

The two 18-year-olds spoke for just five minutes, but it was enough.

“I remember borrowing someone’s phone to call my mother in the U.S., crying and telling her that I was in love,” said Ross, now 26.

Seven years later, they live together in Ramat Hasharon, a leafy suburb of Tel Aviv. The Chicago native completed her undergraduate degree in Israel and now works for a local start-up company.

“Birthright was an eye-opening experience for me,” Ross said. “And on top of that it made me so proud to be Jewish.”

For those who find love on Birthright, meeting their significant other is the main reward. But for years there was speculation that there might be another: it was widely reported that Michael Steinhardt, one of the program’s main funders, promised Birthright couples a free honeymoon in the Caribbean or Israel.

On its Web site, the Birthright organization makes clear that it does not provide honeymoons to couples who meet on the trip. 

“Unfortunately,“ said Rubenstein, who is planning a post-wedding getaway to the Grand Canyon, “it’s an old wives’ tale.” 

The Birthright Israel flip side: Fewer high school students traveling to Israel

With the summer travel season fast approaching, providers of Israel programs for teenagers are bracing themselves for what several say could be a season of historically low travel in a year unaffected by major security concerns.

Over the past decade, Israel travel among those aged 13 to 18 has seen a dramatic falloff. Though exact figures are difficult to come by, leaders of several leading North American teen programs say they have seen drops of 30 percent to 50 percent in participation in their Israel trips since 2000. Two recent studies point to a roughly 40 percent drop in the number of North American 13- to 18 year-olds going to Israel.

“I think every year [the overall number of high schoolers going to Israel] is getting smaller and smaller,” said Avi Green, the executive director of BBYO Passport, a provider of travel programs for teens. “And there's no reason to believe this year won't be the smallest.”

Though leaders of teen programs acknowledge the role of Middle East violence during the second intifada and the 2007 financial crisis in depressing participation, they unanimously point to one central cause of the decline: Taglit-Birthright Israel, a program created to provide free Israel trips for Jews aged 18 to 26.

Founded in 2000 to counter the decline in Israel attachment and Jewish identity among North American Jews, the program has brought hundreds of thousands of Jewish young adults to Israel on the 10-day trips, including a projected 20,500 North Americans this summer alone. Yet the promise of a free Israel trip seems to have had a flip side: thousands of parents of Jewish high schoolers deferring Israel travel until their children are eligible for Birthright.

According to an internal survey conducted in 2008 by BBYO Passport, 30 percent of parents whose children were BBYO members said they preferred sending their kids on Birthright. Another 28 percent said they preferred high school trips, while 40 percent were undecided.

“Birthright is an extraordinary experience,” said Paul Reichenbach, the director of Union for Reform Judaism's Camping and Israel Programs. “We're a big supporter of it. Yet at the same time it's made it difficult for sponsors of high school trips to get traction.”

According to a 2010 report, the overall number of 13- to 18 year-olds traveling to Israel from around the world dropped from a record 20,000 in 2000, the year of Birthright's founding, to 12,000 in 2009. Elan Ezrachi, a fellow at the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education and the study's author, said approximately half of those participants are North Americans.

Ramie Arian, who conducted a separate 2011 study focusing specifically on teen travel from North America, came to a similar conclusion: the number of high schoolers going to Israel has dropped 40 percent since 2000, though the numbers have since stabilized. Meanwhile, Birthright participation has surged, with the program struggling to keep up with demand.

Len Saxe, a Brandeis University professor who has done extensive research on Birthright, acknowledged that some programs have taken a hit, but claimed the overall numbers of teens traveling to Israel may have risen — particularly if one includes the Poland-Israel March of the Living trip, which the two studies did not.

“Based on the available data, I believe what's happened is that there has been a shift,” Saxe said. “The shift is toward shorter programs that engage younger people — middle school trips, in particular, have grown and there are other short-term programs, including March of the Living. Instead of the normative programs [being] six weeks during the summer late in high school, there are more two-week trips.”

With no central body tracking data, it's hard to evaluate such claims. But several academics said the move away from longer term high-school travel is both clear and detrimental. Experiencing Israel as an adolescent rather than as a young adult, Ezrachi said, is more impactful. And teenagers have more follow-up opportunities through synagogue youth groups or Jewish day schools than those who return to college campuses, a drawback Birthright has belatedly sought to address.

“Its not enough for the Birthright people to say this is not my problem,” said Jack Wertheimer, a history professor and former provost at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “The question is whether they are willing to invest their resources to maintain these teen trips. The summer teen trips are much longer, much more impactful, and may end up bringing teens to Israel to study and work there. Something ought to be done.”

Proponents of teen travel have offered a number of ways to level the playing field, including distributing philanthropic dollars more equally between trips for adolescents and young adults, or creating an Israel voucher that could be used for any number of travel options.

Gideon Shavit, the head of Lapid, a coalition representing 30 providers of teen programs to Israel, said the Israeli government should be supporting teen travel as it supports Birthright — to the tune of $40 million in 2013. But sending kids on a costly multi-week Israel summer trip in high school is a tough sell when there's a free trip in the offing a year or two down the road.

“Given the choice of spending $7,000 or $8,000 on a two-week trip or nothing on a 10-day trip,” Reichenbach said, “it's a no-brainer.”

Birthright Israel declined to comment.

Local Birthright offerings feature niche trips

Registration began this week for Taglit-Birthright Israel, the program offering free 10-day trips to Israel for Jews ages 18-26 that was created to connect young people to their heritage. This year, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is co-sponsoring a variety of opportunities: With nine trips and room for 40 people on each, there are 360 spaces available, however many trips fill up quickly.

Designed to serve a cross-section of young adults in the local Jewish community, these trips are inclusive and “low-barrier” to join, said Jay Sanderson, Federation CEO and president. They cater to a wide variety of participants: Jews of all denominations, LGBT Jews, Iranian Jews and Jews in recovery from substance abuse.

L.A. Way —“the flagship program for L.A. community trips,” according to Michael Gropper, program director of Birthright Israel at Federation — includes visits to Masada, the Dead Sea, the Old City in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The original Los Angeles community Birthright trip, L.A. Way, offers two trips this summer, for ages 18-22 and 22-26, respectively. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers of the same age will accompany the group for the entire 10 days. 

Another option, Tlalim-Israel Outdoors, is for the more adventurous soul, with treks across the Holy Land, visits to cultural and historical sites, and more. As with L.A. Way, IDF soldiers accompany participants for the entire 10 days. Three of these trips will be offered this summer — one for ages 18-22 and two for ages 22-26.

Niche trips that the Federation is involved with include the L.A. LGBT & Ally Trip. It takes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young adults as well as their friends and family — ages 22-26 — on an exploration of arts and culture of Israel’s LGBT community. Participants also learn about Israeli gay rights and visit classic Israeli sites, and the trip concludes with the Tel Aviv Gay Pride parade. JQ International, an LGBT Jewish movement, co-organizes the trip.

The LGBT trip “seeks to layer participants’ Jewish identities and LGBT identities in a whole new way with Israel as a setting for this process,” according to absolutelyisrael.com. 

Meanwhile, L.A. Way’s Recovering Israel trip, intended for individuals in addiction recovery, delves into programs helping Israelis who struggle with substance abuse. It also provides a drug- and alcohol-free environment in which to learn about Israel’s culture, history and politics. Beit T’Shuvah, the Culver City-based residential treatment center, co-organizes the trip, which is for ages 18-26.

Lastly, L.A. 2 Israel — Persian Style brings Los Angeles’ Iranian community on a tour of Israel’s most famous attractions. Inaugurated this past winter, the trip is run by provider Sachlav — also known as IsraelOnTheHouse — which has a reputation for appealing to the Iranian community. Its two trips are intended for ages 18-22 and 22-26, respectively.

Registration for Birthright trips began on Feb. 13, and many close within a week, according to a Birthright official. For more information or to register, visit birthrightisrael.com.

Federation officials hope that the trips are just one step in Birthright participants’ continued engagement with the Jewish community. It has two fellowships through which former trip leaders and participants organize and promote events that keep their Birthright peers connected long after the trips are over.

All of this is part of Federation’s goal of making Birthright more meaningful than simply a free trip to Israel, Sanderson said. 

“For us, Birthright begins when someone applies, and the experience doesn’t end,” he said. 

Taglit-Birthright Israel roundup

Since its inaugural trip in the winter of 2000, more than 340,000 participants ages 18-26 have traveled to Israel for the first time through Taglit-Birthright Israel. The 10-day excursions have attracted people from 62 countries, bringing together Jews from virtually every cultural and socio-economic background in the Diaspora. To fit the growing demands of such an eclectic cross section of participants, Taglit-Birthright also offers a host of niche trips, including theme and topic-focused programs (think LGBTQ, musicians, finance) and ones catering to those with special needs (there are programs for the hearing impaired, the physically disabled and those with developmental challenges). And if 10 days isn’t long enough, participants can extend their stay in Israel, choosing from a variety of four-day extension trips ranging from the adventurous to the relaxing, or a combination of both. 

Jewish people “come in all sorts of shapes, colors, personalities and backgrounds,” said Traci Szymanski, Taglit-Birthright alumna and former Oranim Educational Initiatives executive. “It is important for Birthright to accommodate young Jews from all facets of life. They have done a great job at partnering with a diversity of organizations to make sure that there is something for everyone.” 

Registration for Birthright trips from the United States and Canada for spring and summer 2013 begins at 10 a.m. EST on Feb. 13.
Past applicants can access early registration at noon EST on Feb. 11. For more information or to register, visit birthrightisrael.com.

The following is a sampling of some specialized Taglit-Birthright trips: 

Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles expects to send 360 young Angelenos to Israel on nine trips through a number of different organizers, according to Michael Gropper, program director for Birthright at Federation.

Foremost is their flagship, 10-day program that includes visits to Masada, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. In addition, Federation this year is organizing “Recovering Israel,” in partnership with Beit T’Shuvah, targeting Jews in addiction recovery and those who want to live in a drug- and alcohol-free environment.

Another program, “L.A. LGBT & Ally” is designed for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths, along with their friends and families. There is a trip focused on the outdoors, and “LA 2 Israel — Persian Style” is geared toward the local Persian community.

Information: 323-761-8186 or mgropper@jewishla.org.


This trip caters to those who want to travel with Israelis for the entire 10-day trip (rather than just part of the time like many of the other programs). Shorashim staff members program alumni with several years of leadership experience who are committed to a pluralistic Jewish experience. Shorashim reaches out to all Jews, from secular to observant. Participants teach each other about Jewish life and culture in Israel and the United States. israelwithisraelis.com.


Crohn’s and IBD Birthright Trip

Organized by Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), the trip is intended to provide an experience that counteracts the feelings of insecurity among many young adults with Crohn’s and IBD (inflammatory bowel disease). In addition to being provided with emotional support, participants stay two to a room (rather than the standard three). “Although young adults with Crohn’s typically lead productive lives, the episodes of bowel dysfunction that accompany the disorder create potential for shame and social anxiety in this age group,” said Beverly Daley, a social worker at CHLA, who helped found the trip. “The fear of being in public places inhibits international travel; our program is organized around the need for frequent restroom stops and sensitivity to bouts of fatigue and abdominal pain.” For more information, contact Beverly Daley at (323) 361-2490. 


No Limits — In Motion

Routes Travel-Amazing Israel sponsors this trip, which is geared for those in wheelchairs or with mobility limitations. amazingisrael.com.


Ou Israel Free Spirit

For hiking, biking and nature enthusiasts, this trip (affiliated with the Orthodox Union) is for the adventure buff who wants to combine a passion for outdoor activities with the discovery of the land of Israel. israelfreespirit.com.


Sachlav — Israel On The House

One of the largest organizers of Taglit-Birthright trips, Sachlav is a nondenominational trip that features an all-encompassing itinerary offering a mix of outdoor adventure with hands-on experience with Israeli culture and people. Highlights include getting involved with the Lone Soldier campaign and being a guest in the home of Sachlav’s founder and CEO, who meets and greets every participant. israelonthehouse.com.


Aepi And Aephi Members Experience

For sorority sisters and fraternity brothers who want to party after last call at the on-campus keg party, Tlalim-Israel Outdoors offers a few trip options, including Israel Quest, Israel on Foot and Israel by Bike. israeloutdoors.com.

Palestinian Diaspora discover their roots

The participants gather outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s old city for a group photo. They look like any group of college students visiting Jerusalem on a summer trip.

The photographer counts to three. “Free Palestine!” they yell in unison, and laugh.

The 41 delegates, half of them Christian and half of them Muslim, all between the ages of 18 and 25, are here on a two-week trip called “Know Thy Heritage,” sponsored by the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation.

Most are from the US, but a few are from Australia, Canada, England and France. All but seven are women, says Rateb Rabie, president and founder of the sponsoring group.

“This is good because they are the ones who are going to raise the children, and this will help them understand their roots,” he told The Media Line.

The participants pay for their airline tickets and the Foundation, with additional sponsorship from the Bank of Palestine and the Palestinian telephone company, Paltel, picks up the other costs.

“They see how the Palestinians are living here,” Rabie said. “They see how Palestinians are building a state under occupation. An agreement is coming regardless of what we hear on the news and we will be ready to run this state.”

Many of the participants have visited relatives in the West Bank before, and speak at least some Arabic, but they say this trip is strengthening their Palestinian identity.

“I’m getting to know who my people are and what I want for the future,” Noor Diab, 23, a recent college graduate from San Diego told The Media Line. “It’s given me a sense of pride but I’m also saddened by the situation here and by the (Israeli) occupation and the separation between Israelis and Palestinians. Throughout the trip, you feel happy, frustrated and sad but at the same time you’re experiencing the reality of the holy land.”

Diab is wearing a sky-blue head covering or hijab, which she put on when she went into the mosque, and decided to keep on for a subsequent visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. She said she found the visit to the mosque inspiring, but was angered by the Israeli security checks before she reached the site.

“When I’m in the mosque, I feel like I’m home,” she said. “But the journey there was a little difficult because going through metal detectors and checkpoints really takes away from the spirituality of the land. I would like to come here one day without being asked my race or my religion.”

To reach the mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, visitors must pass through an Israeli-controlled security checkpoint. They then walk up a narrow bridge onto the large plaza where both the Al-Aqsa mosque and the gold-cupola Dome of the Rock stand. On the plaza, the independent Muslim Waqf Trust is in charge of security, although Israeli soldiers are allowed to patrol and conduct searches in the plaza.

An uncomfortable moment for the group ensued when Muslim guards refused to let the Christian delegates inside the mosque, saying entry was restricted to Muslims. Western tourists were also excluded. Several group members, including Rabie’s wife Rocio, who is an Ecuadorian citizen, went to the administration and complained. Most of them did eventually manage to enter.

“It was very disappointing,” said Mohammed Iftaiha, a financial advisor and the group leader from Virginia. “This was the first time the issue of religion had ever come up. What made it worse was we saw Israeli security escorting a group of Israelis into the mosque. So the Christians thought, why are we being singled out?

The students stay in Bethlehem but they are also warmly welcomed in Ramallah, the Palestinain financial capital. Hashim Shawa, the chairman and general manager of the Bank of Palestine, tells the young people that they should consider what they can do to help build a future Palestinian state.

“The country should not just be built from American aid – what’s really needed is investment from our own people,” he said. “Doing good is investing in bricks and mortar. Consider working here for a year or two.”

He also said that Visa and Master Card used to consider the West Bank part of Israel, but the Bank of Palestine convinced them to consider the West Bank as a “separate country” and now all processing of credit cards goes through the Bank of Palestine, the largest bank in the West Bank.

Several students complained that the Israeli security forces detained them for seven hours as they crossed the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into Israel. The Christian Ecumenical Foundation’s Rabie seconded their frustration.

“We all have Western passports and instead of helping us out, the Israelis hold us and question us,” he said.

Shawa urged the students not to let these kinds of incidents frustrate them.

“You’re always going to be held up – is that going to stop you from visiting?” he asked them. “In Israel these days, you get stuck in a traffic jam. Let’s not use that as an excuse.”

The delegates also visited Paltel, where Kamal Abu-Khadijeh, the Deputy CEO, described the difficulty his company faces.

“We can’t service Area C,” he says, referring to the 60 percent of the West Bank that is under sole Israeli administrative and military control. “If we can’t install our own towers, we can’t provide service. You have to be part of an Israeli network to operate from one place to another.”

That means that many Palestinians have two cell phones, one with a Palestinian number and one with an Israeli number to cover the whole West Bank. He also said that the core equipment switches are located in Jordan and London while the company operates in the West Bank.

The Know thy Heritage program is loosely modeled on the popular Birthright program, which has so far brought almost 300,000 Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 to Israel for free ten-day trips to strengthen their Jewish identity. The family of casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson has announced that they will donate an additional $13 million to Birthright to reduce the long waiting list.

Rateb Rabie says the Know thy Heritage trip is different than a Birthright trip.

“The Jewish people offered some good things and we thank them for bringing this (idea) to us,” he said. “But we have a completely different agenda and we are not involved with politics or religion.”

Rabie says that even the world “diaspora” is a Jewish term, which the Palestinians have now adopted to refer to the seven million Palestinians living abroad.

Just as the Birthright participants do not meet Palestinians from the West Bank, (although they do meet Arab citizens of Israel), the Know thy Heritage delegates do not meet Israelis.

Rabie says he is open to the idea of holding a dialogue with either Israelis or Jewish Birthright participants.

“Dialogue is the most important thing in anything you want to do,” he said. “When people sit face-to-face, they come to their senses. It would be a pleasure to do that, but we need that cooperation.”

Some of the students also say they would like an opportunity to hold discussions with Israelis.

“I would like to meet the young generation of Israelis,” Wassam Rafidi, 21, from Houston, Texas, told The Media Line. “The older generation was involved in wars and fighting and there’s too much harsh sentiment on both sides. You always remember, you never forget, but we have to learn how to forgive. It’s the young generation that will make or break this thing.”

But for most of the participants, the focus of the trip is in strengthening their ties to the West Bank and to their Palestinian heritage. Hadeel Abnadi, from San Diego, is visiting for the first time. Her mother was born in Jordan, her father in Lod, which is today part of Israel. In 1948, he fled and moved to Jordan. At age 14, he moved to the US and attended Michigan State University. After college he returned to Amman, where he met his wife.

“I wanted to do this program because I kept hearing stories about our land,” she told The Media Line. “I would watch CNN and Al-Jazeera and see the land that was being fought over. I wanted to learn about the culture and my roots. Whey you come and see it, it puts it all in perspective.”

Sarah Ikhnayes, 23, tells a similar story. Her father was born in Surif, and lived in the Deheishe refugee camp adjacent to Bethlehem. She was born in Kuwait where she was raised in a refugee camp called Talibiye until she was 8 years of age and then headed to New York.

“It was nice to come back to the land where my father, my grandfather and my great grandfather were born,” she said. “This took us to a whole new level of knowing our heritage.”

Israeli parody of Taglit-Birthright Trips [VIDEO]

This season of “Eretz Nehederet,” Israel’s version of “Saturday Night Live,” features a running parody of a Birthright trip to Israel that mocks American Jews for their enthusiasm and naivite (and obesity and JAPpiness, of course) and Israelis for their gold-digging and trigger fingers. Chuckle along:

Become Israel advocates, Netanyahu urges Birthright participants

Israel’s prime minister called on participants in the Birthright Israel program to become advocates to for Israel when they return home.

“I want you to enjoy yourselves, go back to your homeland and tell the truth about Israel. Tell them about a country where you can be free, free to work, free to criticize the government.  A country in which a woman is the Supreme Court Chief Justice, a woman is a general in the military, and a country in which a woman can sit anywhere she wants to,” Benjamin Netanyahu told some 3,000 Birthright participants Wednesday at the Taglit-Birthright Mega Event in Jerusalem.

“The most important battle is the battle for the truth.  And all of you can become an ambassador for Israel. And whether you come here or whether you stay where you are, be proud of your birthright,” he said. “You all come from great countries, but you all come from here.  We all started here many years ago, and we all came back here.”

Major birthright funders Michael Steinhardt and Lynn Schusterman also spoke at the event.

The Birthright program, which provides free ten-day trips to Israel for Jewish adults between the ages of 18 to 26, is entering its 13th year. Nearly 300,000 Jews from 54 countries have participated in the program.

Birthright Israel: As political as chopped liver

Does Taglit-Birthright Israel have a political agenda? Questions about Birthright’s content have come to the fore, magnified by intense debate about Israel and, perhaps, as a consequence of the program becoming a rite of passage for Diaspora young adults. The questions are not new, and from the time the first planeload of participants landed in Israel, observers have been looking for the political agenda. But political agendas are more in the mind of the spectators than a part of the program itself.

To regard Birthright trips as “political” is to misunderstand the program’s goals and how it educates. Birthright is unabashed in its focus on promoting Jewish identity, peoplehood and love of Israel. By regulations reinforced by voluminous guidelines, its educators are required to offer apolitical, “balanced messages.” The overarching point is that identification with and love of Israel does not require support of a specific political position about Israel. 

The Hebrew name of Birthright Israel, Taglit, literally means “discovery.” What participants discover is not a political position on settlements or international negotiations; rather, it is their personal relationship to the Jewish people and connection to their heritage. Birthright may be political in that it has a particularistic focus to connect Jews with Judaism and with other Jews, but this is no more subversive than an effort to deepen family relationships. This ambitious undertaking helps a generation of young Jews develop self-confident connections to the Jewish people and to Israel.

The content of Birthright programs is fixed in terms of core themes, but the specifics of what is taught varies. Although this flexibility suggests that the door is open to politicization, participants are empowered as learners. In educational philosophy terms, Birthright is John Dewey-inspired experiential education. The program teaches by allowing participants to experience Israel and to appreciate their heritage through interaction with others. It engages a participant’s “heart, mind, and body” and utilizes peers, as well as formal educators, as teachers.

Operationally, Birthright works through trip organizers (TOs) who develop specific curricula. TOs are certified by Birthright, which sets standards and evaluates the process and outcome of the trips. Individual TOs handle the logistics and details of educational programming. The TOs represent a diverse group of public and private educational organizations. Although they differ in philosophy, by accepting Birthright’s support, TOs accept the pluralistic educational goals of the program.

The Birthright journey lasts for 10 days, enough time to stimulate participants’ connection with other Jews and develop a sense of Israel. The trip is about engaging with other Jews in the context of Israel, not about teaching specific content. From a social psychological perspective, the trip serves as a cultural island that allows participants to unfreeze and reform their attitudes about being Jewish.

Although most trips are designed for participants regardless of background and interests, some trips are more specialized. Thus, group itineraries might be tailored to individuals from a particular campus or community, those who are athletic and interested in hiking or biking, or those studying law or medicine. Political ideology is not a factor, and young adult Jews are eligible based on age, lack of prior educational experiences in Israel and acceptance of program rules.

The educators who serve as trip leaders are central to Birthright’s success. The experienced guide knows when to talk and when to walk, when to let group dynamics evolve and when to intervene, when to lecture and when to discuss. The best guides are role models who live their love of Jews, Judaism and Israel. In many cases, participants never discern their trip leader’s political orientation. 

At the core of every Birthright journey is a mifgash (encounter) with Israeli peers. Mifgashim take place over five to 10 days of the trip and enlist as co-participants up to eight young Israelis, most of whom are still doing their army service. The peer-to-peer learning made possible by engaging young Israelis is, perhaps, Birthright’s most potent educational tool. By creating personal connections, participants gain insight into the Israeli polity. Diaspora Jews begin to understand that there is a diversity of views among Israelis, and that the political situation is far more complicated than many previously believed. 

Of course, every guide and educator has a set of personal views — left, center and right — and some express them in spite of the regulations. These views are more than mitigated by the mifgash experience. Any group of young Israelis will reveal a spectrum of Israeli views. The late-night conversations among these peers sort out many contemporary issues, including those that are “political.”

The claim that Birthright is hasbara (propaganda) and not hinooch (education) is at variance with how the program is organized and what has been observed with thousands of participants. No doubt, each participant — and each observer — views Taglit through his/her lens. Some of these lenses are political, but the program is about Jewish identity, not the resolution of conflicting Israeli and Palestinian claims. The three key elements of identity — knowledge, emotion and behavior — are all substantially impacted by the experience.

Birthright is counter-cultural — particularistic in a universalistic world, with programming that tackles issues of identity and group commitment. The program has created a new paradigm, a new way for Diaspora Jews to relate to Israel, that emphasizes connections among people, not mythology or ideology. In an era where political diversions are ever sharper and destructive, it is a breath of fresh air and a sign of hope for the future.

Leonard Saxe is Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies and director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University; Jeffrey Solomon is president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.

Study: Birthright alumni better Israel advocates, marry Jewish

The impact of a Taglit-Birthright experience is significant and lasts for years, according to a new study.

Participants in the 10-day Israel trips are more confident advocates for Israel, are more likely to feel very connected to Israel, and are 51 percent more likely to marry a Jew than their peers who applied for but did not go on a Birthright trip.

These are some of the findings of “The Impact of Taglit-Birthright Israel: 2010 Update,” a recently released study by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies. It is a follow-up to the center’s 2009 report, “Generation Birthright Israel,” and looks at 2,000 young Jews who applied for and/or took part in a Birthright trip between 2001 and 2005.

According to these findings, trip participants were 46 percent more likely to feel “very much” connected to Israel and 28 percent more likely to explain with confidence Israel/Middle East issues. They are 35 percent more likely than non-participants to consider it highly important to raise Jewish children, and if they marry non-Jewish spouses, that spouse is four times more likely to convert to Judaism.

Noting that this study compared trip participants to those who applied but did not ultimately go, usually because there was no room for them, Birthright Israel Foundation President Robert Aronson said the findings demonstrate how greatly “the lives of those who were turned away from the trips would have been changed.”

The research was sponsored by the Robert K. and Myra H. Kraft Family Foundation, the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center Fund and Taglit-Birthright Israel. The full study is available here.

Birthright gets record number of applicants

Birthright Israel received a record-breaking number of North American applicants for its free, ten-day trip to Israel.

The organization, which provides all-expense-paid trips to Israel for Diaspora Jews aged 18 to 26, received 40,108 applicants during the seven-day registration period ending Tuesday.

Israel’s Minister For Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, Yuli Edelstein, called it ““the most successful project in the Jewish world.”

Currently, demand for the free trips far oustrips the resources available to pay for them. Birthright says it can send 15,000 of the applicants on trips between May and August, part of a larger total 33,000 young adults it will bring to Israel from all over the world in 2011.

The Israeli government announced in January it would be upping its contribution to the program to $100 million between 2011 and 2013. The money will only come through, however, if American philanthropists can raise $222 million over the same period.

Birthright hopes to bring 51,000 Jews to Israel in 2013.

Storahtelling taps Isaac Shalev, ex-Birthright NEXT exec, as new leader

Storahtelling has tapped former Birthright NEXT executive Isaac Shalev to become its next executive director.

Isaac Shalev, who helped launched Birthright NEXT and served as COO to the official follow-up program for Birthright Israel, will assume his new post on Feb. 15.

Shalev succeeds Amichai Lau-Lavie, who founded Storahtelling some 13 years ago. The organization pioneered taking the narratives and traditions of Old World Jewish liturgy and adapting them into modern performance art and storytelling.

Storahtelling informs and transforms the ways modern Jews relate to their cultural legacy, ritual celebrations and spiritual heritage, using what it calls “The Maven Method,” which integrates Judaism’s oldest teaching tools with contemporary stagecraft and educational techniques. The organization has satellite programs in Colorado, California and Israel. 

Lau-Lavie will continue working with Storahtelling as founding director, focusing solely on overseeing the organization’s work training Mavens around the world.

“For everything there is a season,” Lau-Lavie said in a statement announcing the hire of Shalev. “Building Storahtelling from the ground up has been a tremendous adventure. With so many talented people now on board, we are ready for bigger and better. I am proud of what we’ve achieved and am excited about our next chapter.”

Birthright launches effort to take back ‘Zionism’

Birthright Israel has launched an effort to reclaim the word Zionism from Israel’s detractors.

The effort, launched last week in New York with speeches by Israeli U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren and Birthright funder Michael Steinhardt, drew several hundred alumni of Birthright Israel, the philanthropic effort that has brought hundreds of thousands of young Diaspora Jews on free trips to the Jewish state.

“The idea for the event came from a consistent experience we hear from young people once they get back from their trip to Israel,” said Rebecca Sugar, executive director of the Birthright Israel Alumni Community. “They feel lied to—all this time they were told on campus and in much of the media that Zionism is racism and apartheid. But when they see Israel with their own eyes, there is no apartheid and it is not a country characterized by racism.”

The project aims to reclaim Zionism from negative associations with conflict and to broaden popular understanding by emphasizing Israel’s humanitarian contributions around the world.

The kickoff event, held Feb. 1 in Times Square, included a slick media presentation with actors describing the assistance “Zionism” had made available in disaster zones around the world.

Birthright rejects J Street partnership

Birthright Israel has rejected a proposed partnership trip with J Street, saying it no longer works with organizations with Israel-related political leanings.

J Street had begun promoting the trip last week being organized by its campus arm, J Street U, in cooperation with Israel Experience, one of several tour providers used by Birthright. But Birthright said it nixed the idea for a J Street trip focusing on progressivism and social action when it was first presented months ago.

“We said such a trip, as described in a brief conversation with the Israel Experience, would likely be out in keeping with our longstanding policy of not conducting trips with a political orientation,” Birthright said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Birthright subsequently confirmed that the policy was adopted in 2009, when the organization decided not to partner any longer with groups that are “overtly political.”

Prior to 2009, Birthright trips were run in conjunction with the Zionist Organization of America and the Union for Progressive Zionists, the precursor to J Street U.

Birthright continues to partner with AIPAC, though references to the pro-Israel lobby group were scrubbed recently from the website of the Israel Experience. Birthright said AIPAC did not fall under the 2009 policy change because the organization does not generally seek to influence Israeli policy.

According to e-mails obtained by JTA, planning for the trip continued through mid-January. It was not immediately clear why Israel Experience continued to work on the trip despite Birthright’s claim that it rejected the idea at the outset. Birthright said it was looking into the matter.

Israeli court sentences Birthright assailant

A New Jersey man who assaulted a fellow Birthright Israel participant was sentenced to time served and community service.

Jonathan Haft, 25, was convicted Monday in Israel of aggravated assault for attacking Sherry Kestenbaum, 23, also of New Jersey, last May. He was sentenced to to 2 1/2 months in prison and six months of community service. The prison time has already been served.

Haft also was ordered to pay Kestenbaum about $55,000 in compensation, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Since his release from prison, Haft has been under house arrest at a hotel in Rishon Lezion, the Post reported.

Haft, a martial arts expert, attacked Kestenbaum on May 31 in the hallway of a hotel at a kibbutz guest house near the Dead Sea after she rebuffed his advances, according to reports. Her injuries included multiple broken facial bones, loss of teeth and severe chest contusions that brought on pneumonia.

Kestenbaum told the New York Post Monday that she is afraid Haft will come after her to “finish the job” after he serves his community service time in Israel.

Israel to ramp up Birthright investment

Israel’s government announced it would more than double its investment in the popular Birthright Israel program.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the announcement Thursday night before 3,000 program participants in Jerusalem, The Jerusalem Post reported.

“My government will give more than double its investment in Birthright, and over the next few years we will invest more than $100 million in Birthright,” said Netanyahu, according to the Post. “Together with private donations we can increase the number of people to 50,000 a year.”

Considered one of the most successful initiatives in the Jewish world, Birthright Israel provides free 10-day trips to Israel for Jewish young adults aged 18-26. Some 30,000 people participate in the program each year; more than a quarter-million have participated since its inception in 2000.

Birthright bringing 21,000 to Israel

Participation in Taglit-Birthright Israel trips this summer has doubled from the summer of 2009, the group said.

Some 21,000 young Jews will take the free 10-day trip to Israel this summer. Thousands remain on waiting lists, the group said in a news release.

This summer marks the 10th anniversary of the Jewish educational project.

“We set a goal for ourselves that within the next 7-10 years, half of Jewish youth living in the Diaspora will visit Israel through our program,” Gidi Mark, CEO of Taglit-Birthright Israel, said in a statement. “They will become alumni who will represent the foremost strategic asset of the State of Israel. The number of participants of the summer season of our 10th year is testimony to our ability to achieve our goals. We are increasing fund-raising around the world in order to meet the great demand and to enable short-listed participants to come to Israel and be exposed to the true reality of Israel, and then take it back home with them.”

More than 250,000 Jews aged 18 to 26 from over 50 countries have traveled to Israel with the Taglit-Birthright program.

At least 10 teens contract swine flu during ‘Birthright Israel’ trip

Around a dozen participants on a ‘Birthright Israel’ trip contracted swine flu during their tour of Israel and were put under quarantine, Israeli media reported on Tuesday.

The teens reportedly infected 18 Israel Defense Forces troops who participated in the trip with them.  Read the full story at HAARETZ.com.

Report: Communities Must Do More to Attract Birthright Alums

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA)—Nearly 160,000 young Jews from North America have taken part in Taglit-Birthright Israel, a 10-day free Israel trip aimed at revving up their Jewish identities.

Of those no longer in college, only half have attended any Jewish event since their return.

That’s one of the findings of “Tourists, Travelers and Citizens,” a new report by the Cohen Center of Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. The report is based on interviews and online surveys of 1,534 Birthright alumni in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto, the four largest Jewish communities in North America.

“It means we have a lot of work to do,” says Daniel Brenner, executive director of Birthright Israel NEXT, a national organization that tries to steer alumni toward greater Jewish involvement in their home communities.

The Birthright program was instituted in 2000 by mega-philanthropists concerned about what they perceived as the younger generation’s lack of Jewish involvement. Numerous formal and informal evaluations show participants’ connection to Israel and the Jewish community are enhanced by their trip, but that does not translate into ongoing Jewish involvement, according to the new report.

“Years after their trip, Taglit alumni continue to look more like ‘tourists’ than ‘citizens’ in the Jewish community world,” the report’s authors write. “Although they value their Jewish identities, most have only limited participation in Jewish communal life.”

The report shows that 44 percent of Birthright alumni who are no longer in college have not attended any Jewish program since their return from Israel. A further 39 percent have attended just one or two programs. Only 4 percent have taken part in more than four programs.

Toronto shows the greatest success at keeping this population somewhat engaged, with 63 percent of returnees participating in at least one Jewish event. Report co-author Fern Chertok attributes that to the close-knit nature of Toronto’s Jewish community, which keeps Birthright returnees apprised of a well-planned schedule of Jewish programs.

In New York, where 43 percent of returnees have not attended any Jewish program since their Israel trip, researchers found an array of Jewish offerings but little effort to communicate that information to Birthright alumni. Asked whether they had even heard of a dozen Jewish organizations offering programs for their age, the largest number—67 percent—said they knew of the JCC Manhattan and the Y’s at 92nd Street and 14th Street, but just 20 percent had attended events there. Other Jewish programs showed even less participation and were lesser known.

Los Angeles showed the greatest number of completely disengaged alumni, with 53 percent saying they had attended no Jewish programs since Israel. San Francisco had higher numbers of alumni taking part in one to four activities—43 percent and 10 percent, respectively—but just 1 percent who said they attended five or more.

Both California cities are hampered by a lack of good programs, say the report’s authors. Those that exist, particularly “Friday Night Live in L.A.” and the “Bay Area Tribe” and “Late Shabbat” in San Francisco, are high profile and do draw crowds.

The alumni surveyed in all four cities said they would like to be more involved than they were in Jewish life. Most preferred small gatherings to large, anonymous “meat market” Jewish events.

“They’re happy to eat free food and drink free beer at those big events, but they don’t feel it meets their needs to find Jewish community,” Chertok reports.

Respondents also said they were interested in learning more about Judaism and Jewish culture and history, including Hebrew, but were wary of outreach groups with a perceived “religious” agenda. They also wanted a network of friends to share those experiences as a way of re-creating the camaraderie they felt on their Israel trips.

“Birthright shows people that being part of a group, a Jewish group, is a meaningful experience,” report co-author Leonard Saxe says. “They come back hungry for that, and most communities don’t provide them with a set of those experiences.”

Birthright NEXT, which has chapters in New York and, as of last year, San Francisco, is taking those tips to heart, Brenner says.

Last fall, the organization launched NEXT Shabbat, which encourages Birthright alumni to host Shabbat meals in their homes. It’s a peer-driven project, Brenner says: Invitees RSVP online, Birthright NEXT provides resources and recipes on its Web site, and it picks up the tab after hosts submit feedback, which often includes posting photos.

So far, Brenner reports, 2,000 such Shabbat dinners have been held in the past six months. The average age of participants is 25, and 65 percent of the hosts said they had never invited people to a Shabbat meal before. In 2009, Brenner projects 70,000 young participants.

“We need to make drastic changes in New York,” he acknowledges. “There are so many alumni here, and just 5 percent say they participate ‘a lot.’ ”

NEXT Shabbat seems to appeal to New Yorkers, he says: About 28 percent of Birthright participants come from the New York area, which also provides about 28 percent of those taking part in NEXT Shabbat meals.

Brenner points out that many young Jews sign up for Birthright just because it’s a free trip.

“They have no intention of doing anything afterwards,” he says. “But if we can meet their real needs, I have no doubt we can help the majority build Jewish community.”