30,000 young adult Jews visited Israel over the summer with Birthright


Some 30,000 young Jews from 59 countries visited Israel over the summer with Birthright Israel, which offers free 10-day trips to Israel for young Jews between ages 18 and 26.

Birthright announced last week that it will offer a new, seven-day trip to Israel in an effort to allow young professionals to participate in the free trip to Israel.

“The purpose of this trip offering is to allow those who are busy and having a hard time taking off work to still enjoy the trip,” said Noa Bauer, Birthright Israel’s VP of International Marketing. “We’re reaching out to young professionals who are committed to building their careers and can’t seem to take the full 10 days off work.

Over the past 16 years, Birthright Israel has brought more than 500,000 young Jewish adults to Israel.

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.

Birthright trip offering college credits for first time


The first Birthright trip offering participants academic credit is now in Israel.

Some 50 students from colleges and universities in the United States are participating in the inaugural cohort and will be entitled to three academic credits at their academic institutions, according to Taglit Birthright.

They will attend courses at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, or IDC, and at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev during their two-week stay.

At the IDC, the students will learn about “The challenge of terrorism in Israel and the Middle East” and visit an Iron Dome battery in the field. At Ben-Gurion, they will study “Global Warming, Renewable Energy and the Desert Ecosystem,” which includes snorkeling in the coral reef in Eilat.

Birthright Israel provides a free 10-day to two-week trip to Israel for Jews aged 18 to 26.

‘Reverse Birthright’ gives Israelis a look at America’s Jews, from Philip Roth to the Three Stooges


Instead of visiting the Western Wall, they visited Ellis Island. Instead of hiking in the Negev Desert, they took a day trip to a Habonim-Dror summer camp. Instead of basking in the sun on the Tel Aviv beach, they watched clips of the Three Stooges mocking the Nazis.

And instead of Birthright, a 10-day trip meant to acquaint American Jews with Israel, a cohort of Israeli graduate students participated in a 10-day trip to get to know American Jews.

The trip, which began June 18, is the highlight of a yearlong master’s degree program at Haifa University, the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies. The program teaches 25 students about American Jewish history, religion and culture to have them better understand and identify with their American counterparts.

“In Israel they don’t teach about Jewish Americans,” said Haifa University history professor Gur Alroey, who runs the program. “American universities are full of Israel studies departments. It’s important that Israelis will understand that they live in Israel but they’re not alone.”

In the program, students attend class all day once a week, allowing them to work on the side. Classes cover everything from American Jewish immigration and American Zionist movements to American Jewish culture and contemporary issues.

Along with history books like Arthur Hertzberg’s “The Jews in America” and Jonathan Sarna’s “American Judaism,” students read excerpts from “Portnoy’s Complaint” by Philip Roth and some Three Stooges films from the late 1930s. They also looked at how Hebrew translation to English changed as American Jews grew more assertively Zionist.

Omri Asscher, who teaches a course on American Jewish culture and identity, said students already appreciated cultural touchstones like “Seinfeld,” or superheroes like Batman and Superman, before knowing or caring that they were created by American Jews. But Asscher said a cultural disconnect remained. His students, for example, had trouble appreciating the role decorative objects — “tchotchkes” like a cup with Hebrew writing or even a Jewish National Fund charity box — played in solidifying communal Jewish identity.

“We talked about how being a Jew in America is a question of choice,” Asscher said. “You can choose to be, and you can choose not to be. And if you choose to be, you need to be active in that regard. That’s not a given in Israel.”

The program attracts some 100 applicants each year, but the 25 students don’t necessarily reflect the average Israeli. Many have had experiences with non-Orthodox movements, which have a scant presence in Israel. A few are studying to be Reform rabbis. Others have lived abroad for long periods of time.

The trip is billed as a “reverse Birthright,” and aims to get Israelis to like American Jews in the same way Birthright aims to create pro-Israel Americans. But while Birthright has brought more than half a million young Jews to Israel, the master’s program is orders of magnitude smaller. Sarna, who teaches American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said the program aims for depth of impact rather than breadth.

“The Birthright people don’t have much preparation beforehand; these people are getting an M.A.,” Sarna said. “I don’t see these folks like Birthright participants in [terms of] numbers. I see these folks as future leaders.”

On the trip, which takes place entirely in New York, the students hear from leaders of all four major denominations and meet with a range of Jewish organizations. They explore the history of Jewish immigration to America, visiting Ellis Island as well as the Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Along with “Fiddler on the Roof,” they attend a Yiddish theater performance and see a documentary on American Jews in film. The trip also includes a lecture by journalist Peter Beinart, a self-described liberal Zionist.

A few students said they were surprised by how much American Jewish movements have in common, even as they emphasize their differences. Almost everyone they meet, said student Yehuda Lahav, speaks positively about the LGBT community.

“I don’t know if they realize that the direction all the streams are going is the same,” he said. “Some have been there for a while, some will get there in the future. None of them see a contradiction between Jewish life and American life.”

The students are largely bullish about the American Jewish community and the values it represents. Some praised American Jewry’s pluralism and downplayed the challenges and divisions that afflict its subgroups. Israelis, a few suggested, have much to learn from Judaism’s success in America’s free market of religion.

“American Judaism, despite the challenges and problems it’s facing, can embody a different and in many ways positive model of Judaism that is very important for us in Israel to know,” student Assaf Gamzou said. “Israelis a lot of the time have a very monolithic sense of themselves and our place. Sometimes we think Israel is the center of Jewish experience, but it is not necessarily so.”

Birthright group asks alum to lobby Congress against Iran Nuclear deal


On Tuesday, a New York-based Birthright Israel alumni group sent an email to all of its members urging them to lobby Congress to reject the nuclear arms agreement between Iran and the United States.

The email, however, does not speak for the national and global Birthright Israel organization, according to the latter’s president.

[POLL: Do you support the Iran nuclear deal?]

The rejection appeal was spelled out in a mass email to the membership, using the logo of the Birthright Israel Foundation, which appealed to members to “Help the State of Israel by contacting your congressman and senator and requesting that they reject this deal and override President Obama’s veto of their decision.”

The non-profit Birthright Israel Foundation underwrites the program of sending young Jewish adults from the United States and around the globe for 10-day organized trips to Israel to strengthen Jewish identity, communities and ties to Israel.

Rebecca Sugar, executive director of The Alumni Community, said that the appeal had been emailed to some 35,000 former participants of Birthright Israel, residing primarily in New York City, but also in parts of New Jersey and Connecticut.

Sugar said that she was very happy with the decision to launch the appeal to Congress and hoped that other Jewish organizations would follow suit. “This is an existential moment for Israel and we should all care about that,” she said.

She noted that the alumni group had not consulted with the Birthright Israel Foundation or its leadership before launching and publicizing the appeal to influence Congress.

There is no similar alumni group anywhere else in the United States, and Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, confirmed that no such group exists in the Los Angeles area.

He estimated that 35,000 to 40,000 former Birthright Israel participants reside in Los Angeles County.

David Fisher, president of the Birthright Israel Foundation, headquartered in New York, confirmed that he had received no advance notice of the action by the alumni group, which he described as a separate organization, with no ties to the foundation.

Asked whether the alumni group’s initiative might be interpreted as an intervention by his non-profit organization in a highly emotional political issue, Fisher declined comment.

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.

Social justice group brings Birthright youth to South Tel Aviv


One muggy afternoon in December, a tour bus carrying a football team’s worth of young Los Angeles Jews pulled up to a dirty curb in South Tel Aviv. It was their fourth day of Birthright, and they were scheduled for a tour of Tel Aviv’s notorious bottom half. 

After they exited the bus, one petite L.A. woman in head-to-toe sportswear grimaced and held a tissue to her nose, blocking the neighborhood stench. “I feel like there are a lot of homeless people here,” her friend whispered.

BINA Secular Yeshiva’s director of international seminars and communication, Elliot Glassenberg (right), led a Birthright group from Los Angeles on a tour of South Tel Aviv on Dec. 18.

“Anybody know the name of the neighborhood we’re in?” asked their guide, Elliot Glassenberg, director of international seminars and communication for the BINA Secular Yeshiva, a Jewish school and social action center in South Tel Aviv. The yeshiva is funded in part by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

“The name of the neighborhood is Neve Shaanan, which means ‘oasis of serenity,’ ” Glassenberg said. “You feeling it?”

The group laughed nervously. Their tour of South Tel Aviv — one of about a dozen Birthright tours scheduled at the BINA Secular Yeshiva throughout the program’s current winter season — had been arranged and financed not by the umbrella Birthright organization but by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, one of Birthright’s many partners. (Another two-dozen Birthright tours of South Tel Aviv were scheduled for summer 2014, but were all canceled because of the war.)

“There are a lot of moving parts” to the Birthright funding structure, Birthright spokeswoman Pamela Fertel Weinstein said in an interview. When Federations from different U.S. cities put money toward a Birthright bus, she said, they have the option to include a couple of stops in the itinerary that correspond with “things The Federation is supporting” — in this case, the BINA Secular Yeshiva.

For security reasons, Birthright groups are not allowed to travel into the West Bank or Gaza — not even the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. But what is perhaps Israel’s second most controversial demographic conflict — the government’s struggle to expel 50,000 undocumented African immigrants — is easily accessible from within the confines of Tel Aviv, Israel’s sexiest, most contemporary city.

Weinstein said BINA’s tour of South Tel Aviv is “an approved site visit under the Talmud/Torah educational category,” but is not one of the “certain places everyone must visit,” such as the Western Wall or Masada. 

However, Birthright’s policy toward these offbeat tours appears to have shifted in recent months. According to Sarah Austin, head of Birthright programming for the L.A. Federation, the BINA tour — which had been supplemented by Birthright in past seasons — is no longer covered.

“It’s not supplemented within our normal visit,” Austin said. “Seasons before, we didn’t have to pay for the visit. I don’t know why, but something changed.”

Weinstein said she was not aware of this change.

The L.A. Federation was willing to pay for the tour itself, Austin said, because it felt strongly about the value of visiting South Tel Aviv. “It’s important that people see there’s a bunch of different ways to be Jewish — that Israel is not just a tourist country,” she said.

On the Dec. 18 tour, Glassenberg tread carefully while telling his abridged history of the neighborhood. “In 1921, there were, um, well, riots — er — tensions between Jews and Arabs in Jaffa,” he said.

So a group of a few hundred Zionists, he explained, moved north to the lower outskirts of Tel Aviv, where they founded Neve Shaanan — an idyllic agricultural village with streets in the shape of a menorah. Their vision was for Neve Shaanan’s crops to feed the middle classes up in Tel Aviv proper. But “as an agricultural experiment, it quickly failed,” Glassenberg said, and Neve Shaanan soon became known as an immigrant neighborhood — not unlike “the Lower East Side of New York or the South Side of Chicago.”

“It’s almost a microcosm of Israel,” Glassenberg told the Birthright group. “A little piece of every wave of immigration has come to this neighborhood.”

He pointed out architecture left behind by each wave of immigrants. The first wave was of European Jews, post-Holocaust. Then, in the 1970s, Middle Eastern Jews arrived from countries such as Morocco, Syria and Iran. In the 1990s, around 1 million Russians — some Jewish, some not — escaped to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union. And later on in the ’90s, following the First Intifada, migrant workers flooded in from Asia and Eastern Europe — arriving to fill blue-collar posts formerly filled by Palestinians. By 2008, there were approximately 300,000 foreign workers in Israel.

But the most recent influx of around 50,000 Eritrean and Sudanese work migrants and asylum seekers has been one of the most dramatic. It has transformed the area surrounding the dilapidated Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, where most of them came to live, into what locals call “Little Africa.”

Neve Shaanan’s street signs are written in a mishmash of Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, Amharic (Ethiopian) and Tigrinya (Eritrean). Cafe windows steam with fragrant African stews and breads. Groups of unemployed Eritrean and Sudanese men — and some women — cluster in South Tel Aviv’s central Levinksy Park, lining benches and sitting or sleeping in the grass. Many of the neighborhood’s homes are barely standing, covered only with sheet metal or tarps to protect them from the weather.

Walking down Neve Shaanan Street, some Birthright kids looked bewildered, others inspired. “It reminds me of L.A. in some ways — certain parts of L.A. where you’ve got the Blacks, the Mexicans, the Asians all in one place,” participant Erik Knipprath said.

Oren Peleg, a Disney employee (and occasional contributor to the Jewish Journal) who was on his third Birthright trip working as a staff member, said he’d “never done anything like this” on prior trips. “I was talking to the [Birthright] soldiers and they were saying, ‘It’s a grimy neighborhood, we never come here,’ ” Peleg said. “But I see a lot of character.”

When the group reached a free community library in the middle of Levinksy Park, set up by Israeli volunteers and featuring books in 16 different languages, Glassenberg delved further into the debate.

“Israel in 2011 realized this was becoming a major problem,” he said of the African influx. “So they did a few things: First, they built a fence along the border with Egypt so people are no longer entering. So there are now about 50,000 asylum seekers in Israel, but nobody else can come in. But they decided that now — instead of getting a free bus ticket and a visa — they would now be considered illegal infiltrators and they would be given three years in prison.”

Glassenberg then gave the floor to Birthrighters, asking them how they felt about so many foreigners moving into an Israeli neighborhood. “It’s an ongoing discussion,” he said. “What does it mean to be a Jewish state? How can you have, in the Hebrew city of Tel Aviv, 50,000 foreigners? That’s a significant chunk of the population, in a country of 8 million people. What does it mean?”

One participant responded: “It’s tough if everyone meets this [refugee] requirement. What can you do?” Another asked: “Maybe they could make aliyah?”

As the group continued to discuss, an elderly Israeli resident of South Tel Aviv pulled a couple of Birthright boys to the side, telling them in a hushed voice about how dangerous the neighborhood had become since Africans moved in. 

A few more blocks into the tour, Glassenberg ran into his friend Walyaldin Suliman, a Darfuri refugee who now runs a barbershop in Neve Shaanan.

Somewhat reluctantly, Suliman tried to sum up one of Israel’s most complex issues in a five-minute pitch: “I have 2 1/2 years in Israel,” he told the group. “I’m living, but I didn’t get the status of refugee. I only have a visa to stay. And now the visa is not a solution, because the government made a new decision to take everybody for 20 months in the Holot prison. This is a big prison in the desert. They take people to the desert prison because they come from Africa.

“More than 2,000 Sudanese and Eritreans are now in prison,” Suliman said. “In prison, they push you to go back to your country. But when you go back, and you arrive at the airport, the security men of the government of Sudan catch you.”

After the walking tour, BINA organizers told the Journal that their tours’ most educational moments often come when an Israeli or African approaches the group.

“We don’t want to be this foreign element just wandering through their neighborhood,” said Dan Herman, director of the Tikkun Olam post-college volunteer program (a joint project of BINA and the Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism). “We want to be responsive to the neighborhood, not to force our solution or force our ideals.”

Multiple participants on this Federation-funded Birthright trip told the Journal that South Tel Aviv turned out to be the highlight of their itinerary.

“This is the most interesting thing we’ve done,” said Ariel Thomas, a 23-year-old Hawaii native with Jamaican roots. “I was looking forward to it — especially because we couldn’t stop talking about what happened at customs.”

According to Thomas, she and a handful of other Birthright participants from minority racial groups had been interrogated for hours at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport — an experience that made them question whether they were welcome in Israel. “They didn’t believe we were Jewish,” she said of airport security officers. “I thought they weren’t going to let me in. So I thought, ‘I wonder if they’re racist because of the immigrants.’ ”

Avila Santo, 23, a Los Angeles artist, said he was “surprised but happy” that Birthright had allowed the BINA tour. “I think it’s very important because it allows you to question Jewish identity, what it means to be a Jew and what it means to care about your neighbor, right here in Tel Aviv — it was great to see.”

But Santo realized that the visit might not work with every group. “Even in this group, which is very secular, it’s very sparked,” he said.

Indeed, during a discussion session following the South Tel Aviv tour, a 22-year-old Israeli soldier accompanying the trip called the Africans ungrateful. “I know it’s hard to live here, but it’s such a better place for them than in Sudan and Eritrea,” he said. “In Egypt, they shoot them. In Europe, in a lot of countries, they put them in jail. In Israel, they can live. So I think they just need to thank Israel.”

The soldier added: “They can cry about it and say Israel is stupid, but … they have such a better life here.” 

A male L.A. participant sitting next to him, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed with the soldier. “We still haven’t addressed the fact that they’re not citizens, though,” he said. “Shouldn’t our obligation be toward the people who are citizens first? The fact that they can make in a day here what they can make in two months in their country — it’s infinite times better than what they already have. Is that enough, or are we required to give more?”

Santo thought for a moment, then responded: “It’s kind of hard to have a cookie-cutter avenue for everyone to go through. Because some people can’t go back to their countries.” 

The group’s Israeli leader, Nadav Dori, said afterward that he believes more Birthright groups should come see South Tel Aviv. “[Glassenberg] has an agenda, and it’s obvious,” Dori said. “But it’s important that people bring up this subject to public opinion, because people who aren’t from Tel Aviv, it’s important that they see this. And it’s a very good subject to bring up specifically with Americans, because they’re dealing with the same thing in America.”

America’s own immigration debate did come up many times in discussion. “Sometimes I feel like they get more than we do,” Sasha Santos, 26, said of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who are eligible for college scholarships. “As Americans, we’re not getting the resources that we should be getting, and they’re getting them before us.”

Glassenberg told the Journal that simply starting this discussion was half the point of the tour, and fits into Birthright’s mission of engaging young Jews.

“If you open up a conversation and invite the participants to understand and take part, they respect that and they appreciate that, and they’re able to engage more positively in the conversation,” he said.

And most importantly, as a result, he added, “They feel more connected to Israel.”

BINA leaders, and others within the social Zionist movement, believe visits to the area might offer a way to modernize Birthright’s reputation in the eyes of politically aware Jewish youth — and help with Birthright registration numbers, which the organization has been attempting to increase.

A Haaretz news story from before the summer war dissected Birthright’s recent attempts to expand its PR reach. The piece cited a Birthright-commissioned survey finding “less affiliated Jews had not enrolled in Birthright amid concerns it would be too religious for them or push pro-Israel propaganda. More than half the respondents cited these two issues.” 

Although Birthright participation increased overall between 2011 and 2014 — from 33,000 to 43,000 participants — new registration hasn’t kept pace with rising donations and projected growth of the program.

Weinstein said Birthright is an “apolitical organization” that does not oppose trips to areas like South Tel Aviv. “We consider it a job well done if people come home and have more questions,” she said.

However, multiple other sources involved in organizing Birthright tours said they felt more resistance to exploring the area in recent months.

“I think there’s a natural fear of airing the dirty laundry,” Herman said. “A fear that if you show people [South Tel Aviv], you’re going to scare them off or be unfairly critical of Israel.”

However, he said, “Our generation was brought up learning to question things and be critical. You can’t ask them to put that on hold here. Because if you do, they’re not going to trust you.”

Herman’s program, Tikkun Olam, is one track available within the monthslong study abroad and post-college program Masa, known as an extended Birthright for the quarter-life-crisis crowd. Masa has been very public about its work with African immigrants, and has been sending young American Jews deep into dirty, messy South Tel Aviv through various programs for six to seven years now.

A 2013 study conducted by the Jewish Agency for Israel on the effects of longer-term programs such as Masa found that “exposure to Israel’s challenges and problems in the context of service work did not weaken participants’ commitment to and interest in the country. On the contrary, connection to the country and its people seems to have been consistently intensified by exposure to some of its most challenging realities.”

In the words of Noga Brenner Samia, deputy director of the BINA Secular Yeshiva: “Love is what’s left after you’ve seen the complexity and understood the reality.”

It’s Birthright Israel — for Jewish moms


On the surface, the tour looked much like a standard Birthright Israel trip: Participants celebrated Shabbat in Jerusalem’s Old City, swam in the Dead Sea and ascended the ancient mountain fortress at Masada. The trip was mostly free and organizers were prepared with follow-up programming after the participants returned home.

But the nearly 200 women who arrived in Jerusalem last week weren’t there for one of the free 10-day Jewish identity-building trips that Birthright has operated for more than a decade. They were participants in what has been described as Birthright for Jewish moms, an eight-day tour of the Jewish state for mothers.

Run by the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, or JWRP, the trip’s goals are much the same as that of the regular Birthright: strengthening Jewish identity and connection to Israel.

But the trip also has an explicitly religious component, with several events hosted by the Orthodox outreach organization Aish Hatorah. Some JWRP staff members are former Aish employees and several board members are also Aish donors.

And unlike Birthright, which is open to all Jews aged 18 to 26, the JWRP trip is open only to  women who are not traditional Sabbath observers – a sign that they already have strong connections to Judaism, JWRP’s founding director Lori Palatnik said.

“If you impact a 22-year-old boy, you impact a 22-year-old boy,” Palatnik said. “If you impact the mother, you can impact the whole family. If we want to have Jewish communities rise, a community lives and dies by where the women are.”

Some 5,000 women from 19 countries have taken the trip since JWRP was founded seven years ago. The trips are free aside from airfare and are partially funded by the Israeli government. They have become so popular that JWRP began running men’s trips last year.

“I thought I needed to find more balanced meaning and not be so wrapped up in life,” said Debra Aronson, 42, a non-Orthodox mother of two from Toronto. “For me it’s more of the spiritual aspect and our relationship with each other. It’s not for religion. I’m happy where I am religiously.”

The trip caters specifically to women in everything from the cuisine to the programming. The meals are lighter — fish and wine rather than the meat and beer on the men’s JWRP trip. The women visit a group children’s home and attend a cooking workshop, while the men visit an army base and see high-tech start-ups in Tel Aviv. To avoid conflicts over egalitarianism, group prayer is avoided altogether on the women’s trips.

Though most of the participants have been to Israel before, some said traveling with other women has allowed them to feel a sense community and warmth. Ellie Bass, who led a delegation from Toronto, said she’s enjoyed getting to know the other group members.

“The most fun has been hanging out in the hotel with a bottle of wine and snacks, and making each other laugh,” said Bass, who last came to Israel to perform in a dance company in 1997. “It’s that feeling of family.”

After the trip, participants must commit to attend follow-up seminars back home at least once a month either on Israel, relationships or community leadership. Palatnik hopes to build an infrastructure to guide the women into a more involved Jewish experience.

“We want this to be the springboard for their entry into their Jewish community, Jewish life and personal growth,” Palatnik said. “Some have been in Israel before, [but] their last memory was the soldiers are so cute. Now the soldiers are their sons’ age. At this age they’re taking life more seriously than when they were in their 20s.”

 

 

An unfit, collegiate Israel advocate


I can remember sitting in my high school seminar class, called Modern Israeli History—a class invented, essentially, to equip us with political Israeli defense before we were sent off to college—into what was advertised as the anti-semitic abyss. There were one hundred fifty or sixty students in my grade, back in 2007, so the course was split into several separate classes, a few different teachers, but the message was unified: with this knowledge imparted onto you, and the past four years of education at Milken Community High, it is your responsibility to represent the Jewish Homeland, wherever you may be. Which I take to mean, in hindsight, you don’t have to wear a beard, nor all black, but your parents just invested a fortune in your Jewish identity, now do your best at Herzl.

That I did. It was an elective class with little academic significance—we had already gotten into our colleges, there were no grades, no final exam.  But I probably took it more seriously than any other class I’d taken. I often found myself reading texts twice instead of once, participating vocally, emailing Mr. Bloom questions sheerly out of personal interest. If I were to have taken my actual classes as seriously, my parents would have probably been more satisfied with my final transcript.

I took the message of Modern Israeli History to heart. Probably too much so. When I began my Freshman year of college at UC Irvine in 2007, I entered excited, energized; ready to take on my anti-Israel foe. I developed a nearly flawless thesis, developed off of key quotes, decisions and meetings in Israeli history—catered for length and delicacy, of course—that I was prepared to present at any moment somebody called Israel an ‘Occupier’ or racist.

In early 2008, Israel began to respond to the bombardment of rocket attacks coming the recently evacuated Gaza Strip. Right around then, an imam came to campus to speak under the theme of ‘Genocide: Auschwitz to Gaza.’ I remember my initial fury upon seeing caricature pictures of larger than life Israeli soldiers with swastikas on their uniforms pointing machine guns at little babies; in addition, a desperate responsibility to dissuade people from buying in to this. I skipped class that day, heard the imam equate Zionists to terrorists, then stuck around with a dozen AFI’s (Anteaters for Israel), ready to engage the imam’s empathizers, who stuck around chanting ‘end the occupation’ in unison.

We AFI students and MSU (Muslim Student Union) students started talking. It did not require much time before this “intellectual quarrel” warranted the presence of cops standing nearby, watching, prepared to act. Getting nervous now, but more so feeling the stronger obligation to act, I turned to talk to a female MSU member standing close to me. In a timid voice, I explained to her the logical fallacies in the imam’s speech, but she basically ignored me. I tried to speak more loudly, but in the face of this chaos, I realized I didn’t have it in me. What value did my self-created theses have in the forum of passionate, educated college students going at it?

I decided I needed confidence, a mentor, somebody to learn from. And so I chose to become a disciple of Isaac Yerushalmi—the fearless president of Anteaters for Israel, also a fellow AEPi. “That kid’s got balls,” Rosen, the tallest, toughest member of our fraternity said once, while we watched Isaac stand in the center of an intense anti-Israel rally with a mien of steadfastness, holding up a sign with statistics and phrases that contradicted the MSU’s message.

As the year continued, I followed Isaac around. I helped him in many ways—unloading and loading stuff into his car, telling my friends to come to events, helping him videotape things—but when it came to the intellectual, or the argumentative, Isaac kept it sort of to himself.  “What are we going to do, Isaac?” I asked, stressing the ‘we,’ when the pro-Israel body would have to act. I never got clear answers. Isaac had an impeccable ability to dodge a question with mum silence, and have you not take offense—a tremendously valuable skin nowadays. You just figured he was thinking ahead, or thinking more deeply. In truth I envied a Batman and Robin dynamic, where I, Robin, possessed an energetic yet untamed courage, who could only mature into an asset once disciplined by Batman himself. The dissension arose, perhaps, from how Issac saw me for what I was: a neurotic, timid freshman, rather than who I wanted to become: an influential, confidently speaking pro Israel leader on campus.

I ended up transferring out of UC Irvine in favor of UC Santa Barbara. There, I met Eli Levine, a very talented leader of the pro-Israel body. He, unlike Isaac, seemed eager to have somebody young and energetic get carried under his wing. And I, being the Israeli groupie of sorts, was the one he picked. But it was at an AIPAC Policy Conference in 2010, where I had become Liasion at UCSB and Eli lined up with a fine gig at Hasbara, that I let Eli down before we began work. See, I missed my flight to the conference, and ended up hanging out at LAX for over a day and a half, missing half the conference itself. I got incessant, disappointed text messages from Eli: “Where are you? Loads to discuss.” I explained what happened. “This is ridiculous,” he said. He had a aggressive manner of forming important relationships and building connections, and each time I sought to contribute to them, I didn’t fail to underperform.

Then there was Leah, president of American Students for Israel, who I always sought to please, but I couldn’t work well with because I’d always end up having feelings for her. She applied a blend of work-oriented discipline and coquettish push-pull that I had never experienced before. In result, any time we met to discuss campus activity, I pondered telling her how I felt.

The following summer I became an intern at AIPAC in San Francisco, but that did not translate to glory either. I lacked professionalism and truly feared the concept of a cold call. To make matters worse, my mother had a meltdown and made a call to a VBS rabbi, begging him to reach out to the right people at AIPAC and have me return to Los Angeles without negative repercussions. This, obviously, didn’t boost my credibility within the reigns of the AIPAC office.

During this entire aching for relevance to the pro-Israel movement on college campuses, I wasn’t eligible for Birthright until turning twenty-two, given that I had attended the March of the Living trip in high school. The trip for UCSB’s Hillel delegation was taking off on June 15th, 2011—one day before my twenty-second birthday.

“I’m eligible to go, right, Rabbi? Does one day actually make a difference?”

 “I spoke to them,” the rabbi said softly. “And the age restriction is firm. We’re sorry,” the rabbi said.

But sometime around early June two weeks away from graduation, a call from a strange number woke up my excellent daytime nap.

“Hello?” I asked.

“I’m calling from Taglit. A few extra spots have opened up for the Hillel group with Stanford University. There may be other students from other universities, but as of now I don’t think you will know anybody else on the trip.”

“I’ll take it,” I said.

I mention Birthright because I think the highlight of my Israeli advocacy came on this trip, in a very unexpected way. Ten new friends I had made and I sat in the backseat of the bus, driving back from the Dead Sea, and a handful of them said that they were having an excellent trip thus far, but were curious: Why was bloodshed so often associated with Israel? Why is the country relentlessly warped in a field of controversy? These were Stanford students, so I knew it was not ignorance, or an incapacity to process information, which prevented them from knowing this. Lilach, our guide, sought to answer these questions, but her explanations did not quite suffice to the level of detail these students needed. Before thinking about it, I commenced an impromptu lecture: starting from 1922, I then delved into the UN Partition Plan, the War of Independence, Six-Day War, various Peace Treaties, and now the complicated relationship between Hamas, Fatah and Israel. I spoke with a loud, clear voice that I never had in college as fifteen Birthright fellows encircled me and we cut through the South of Israel. I attributed this great moment to a vast intellectual shift made subconsciously. I finally used my privileged education from to engage others, rather than feed my identity. It was essentially everything I wanted out of Israel advocacy.

What I deduce from all this, other than missing my Birthright trip, is that one only encounters personal satisfaction when staying true to their path, to their skill set. Forcing myself to be a leader, I think, is not doing so, unless it happens organically. So often we’re instructed to be leaders, to influence others with a superior goodness. There’s an underrated value in simply acquiring information and passing it on to the next curious mind, as I did on that bus.

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.

Eating my way through Israel on a Birthright trip


At first, the idea of going on a Birthright trip seemed silly, at best.  I’d already been to Israel, twice – once on a family trip when I was 15 and first exposed to lax drinking laws and Jewish college boys, and again before my senior year of high school, on a Write on Fellowship trip.

Both visits to Israel had been positive experiences, enough so that I attended a J Street conference in 2013 and subscribed to various Israel- related e-newsletters, but going back on an air-conditioned tour bus through Jerusalem, presumably with a group of people who were trying to brainwash me to make Aliyah, wasn’t high on my to-do list. There was so much more of the world to see, and my politics seemed far left of the Birthright agenda. 

When my mom (who else), sent me a link to the application for a culinary Birthright trip, I was slightly intrigued. I’d been working since my graduation in May 2013 as a freelance food writer and was about to embark on a month-long trip to Spain and France to eat and write.  A free opportunity to do that same in Israel didn’t seem so bad.  Plus, Jewish parents like it when you do things like apply for trips to Israel.

During my Birthright interview, which took place over the phone while I sat at an Arab café in Greenwich Village, I explained that my relationship with Judaism had changed over the years, partially due to my education at the Jewish Theological Seminary and also thanks to all the changes that happen in your twenties.  I explained that I no longer kept kosher, although I had been raised in a house with strictly separate dishes, and that food and Judaism had an important connection to me.  I also spoke about the menu at my Bat Mitzvah.  Clearly, no one was going to pick this hedonistic freeloader for a Birthright trip.  But Israel Experts did. 

On June 29, I headed to JFK International Airport to meet my best friends for the next two weeks. I hadn’t packed hiking shoes or a flashlight, because this was a culinary trip, not an adventure trip, and I had bought an international iPhone plan, so I could be as antisocial as possible. Again, I was a great candidate to take up a seat on the bus. 

After several unappetizing kosher meals on Austrian Airlines (and yes, I shamelessly begged the crew for the traif schnitzel, but no one obliged), we finally landed in Tel Aviv. About half of our group (none of whose names I knew at the time) had never been to Israel and was already overwhelmed with the foreign characters printed on the signs and all the ultra orthodox men hustling to daven mincha before passing through customs.  I rolled my eyes. Ten years of Hebrew school and a bachelor’s in modern Jewish studies overprepared me for this. Plus, I was hungry. Really hungry. 

We boarded a Coach bus that headed north to Shvil Izim, a goat farm where we would have orientation and our first meal in Israel. The whif of goat pens was soon overpowered by the scents of fresh salads, pasta, and a spread of cheeses, olives, and dips that quickly swallowed any qualms I had about taking two weeks off of work to go on this trip.  Many say that stepping of the plane in Israel makes them feel home, for me, it was that first bite of goat cheese. 

Our days soon filled with tours of holy and historic sites (I’d seen them several times before and may have ventured off to get international flavors of Manum bars not available in the states), meals at recommended Israeli restaurants, and plenty of frappe-style iced coffees that Birthright kids are all known for becoming “obsessed” with. 

The touring was enjoying, I brushed up on my Israeli history and geography, remembered a few Hebrew conjugations, and tried to appreciate the sites I’d seen before with new insight and perspective. Despite my original grumpiness, I knew I was extremely lucky to be on this trip. I’ve been fortunate to travel to many countries and continents, and getting to know these places via their cuisine, their daily meals and routines, helps me feel connected to the foreign destination as must more than a place on a map. 

It wasn’t my third visit to the kotel or another walk through the streets of Tsfat that renewed my love for Israel: it was the people. And perhaps more importantly, the food these people made.

We visited a Druze village for a cooking class, where we learned to make sambusak, tabbouleh salad, and stuffed grape leaves (which mysteriously disappeared before dinner, so maybe we didn’t really learn to make them correctly), and sat down to one of the best meals I’ve ever had adjacent to our instructor’s home.  Despite a few language barriers and perhaps an inability to correctly roll dolmas, the hospitality was incredible, and the desire to share the flavors and culture of the region was addicting.

 

Stuffed artichokes from The Culinary Queens of Yerucham

The Culinary Queens of Yerucham, a group of women whose children are out of the house, warmly welcomed us into their empty nests with plates of homemade, still sizzling schnitzel and couscous and stuffed artichokes. If their dining rooms weren’t in the middle of the desert but in Manhattan, there would be a month-long waiting list for a table, I joked.  But it was true: all the Israelis cooking for us were there, sharing their food, and we were somewhere else, living completely different lives.

I didn’t know what to do when I got back from Birthright. As we discussed in our closing session, talking about the experience with people who were not on the trip would be difficult: How could they ever understand? And what would we want them to understand? Birthright had done a decent job of educating us on the history and current events of Israel, our tour guide, David, open to questions about Palestinian rights and statehood and Israeli immigration issues, and I never once felt pressure to become more religious or even consider moving to Israel.  I took away a greater appreciation for the region, an understanding of individuals rather than just a group that we talk about in discussions about politics.

So I cooked.  I loaded up on purple cabbage and tomatoes and cucumbers and tahini and goat cheese and eggplant and ptitim (Israeli couscous) and chickpeas and olive oil and Halal ground lamb from a butcher in Queens and I cooked.  I cooked and I fed my friends and told them about my Israeli meals, and made them clean their plates like the good bubbe that I am. And I continue to cook with the recipes and inspiration I gathered in Israel.

Coucous from The Culinary Queens of Yerucham

Sentiments regarding the conflict in Israel are difficult to voice, almost impossible if you don’t want to offend one group or another. But the tastes are easy. We may not understand the conflict, may not know how to mediate Palestinian and Israeli peace, but the flavors and recipes humanize the struggle and hopefully make us stop and remember that a war going on thousands of miles away, in a foreign, distant, and delicious land, is so real, you can taste it.  

On a Birthright trip, love is born


Sagi Alkobi almost didn’t go on the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.

It was August 2008, and the then-20-year-old student at The City University of New York had applied months in advance to participate in the educational tour of Israel for young Jewish adults. But a problem with his paperwork kept the application on hold, and, five days before the trip was about to begin, he assumed he wouldn’t be on it. Then he got a call.

“It was from Birthright,” recounted Alkobi, “They said, ‘We have an open spot for you. If you’d like, you can get on our Birthright trip. It’s on Monday.’ ” 

Perhaps it was destiny. Alkobi didn’t know it yet, but his life was about to change forever.

That change had a name: Daniella Elghanayan, a 21-year-old recent UC Santa Barbara graduate. They fell in love on the Birthright tour, and Sagi and Daniella, now 26 and 27 respectively, married last month at the Spanish Hills Country Club in Camarillo. 

It’s not the first time a Birthright experience has led to a wedding, said Pamela Fertel Weinstein, acting director of communications for Taglit-Birthright Israel. A recent request on the organization’s Facebook page for love stories from Birthright participants who met on the trip yielded more than 50 replies. 

Fertel Weinstein said studies of the program also show that Birthright participants are 46 percent more likely than non-participants to marry a Jewish spouse, and 25 percent of alumni are married to other Birthright alumni, although not necessarily from the same trip.

“People often look for similarities and common interests in their partners and Birthright Israel is becoming a more common experience,” she told the Journal in an email.

For Alkobi and Elghanayan, their love story began on the second night of their 10-day trip to the Holy Land. Their group of about 40 young people from the United States was camping with Israeli soldiers near the banks of the Jordan River. It was hot, people were snoring, and Alkobi and Elghanayan couldn’t sleep. As they sat with a small group of fellow sleepless campers, the two began to talk, and their conversation lasted all night.

“It just felt so natural and easy to talk to each other,” said Elghanayan, who is Persian. “There was definitely a spark.”

In the days that followed, Alkobi and Elghanayan grew closer. At first, Elghanayan felt a little shy, but slowly she let her guard down, and the pair became inseparable. 

“I would always look for her, I was always trying to see where she was. … It was like I was drawn to her,” Alkobi said. “I wasn’t really thinking straight, because I knew she lived in California, but I didn’t really care about that at all. I was like, whatever is going to happen, it’s going to happen. I just have to get to know her.”

When the time came to return home, it didn’t seem right that things should end there. 

“After we got back, it was like, wait, but, we’re not finished yet,” Elghanayan said. “I just couldn’t wait to talk to him again.”

Back home in the United States — but on opposite sides of the country — the couple stayed in touch with regular phone calls. Within a month, Alkobi had booked a flight to California, but he was still nervous. Getting to know Elghanayan amid the wonders of Israel had been magical; would that same spark still be there when he saw her again on her home turf?

He needn’t have worried.

After about 2 1/2 years of long-distance dating, Elghanayan moved to New York City to be closer to Alkobi, who had opened his own jewelry store, while also working for his family’s real estate and property management business. Then, around the fifth anniversary of their Birthright trip, the couple decided to take another trip together, back to Israel and also to Italy. 

They returned to their old haunts in the Jewish state, where their love had blossomed on Birthright, and visited Alkobi’s relatives. All the while, Alkobi carried a ring with him, waiting for the just the right moment. 

The young man’s original plan was to pop the question at the top of Masada, but with the August weather unbearably hot, he decided to wait until they reached Italy. After dinner on their first day in Rome, the couple headed to the famous Trevi Fountain. As they stood there admiring its majesty, a man came up and offered to take their picture. 

“Is this your wife?” he asked, causally.

“Not yet,” Alkobi said.

“I just kind of laughed and brushed it off. I didn’t think anything of it,” Elghanayan said. “Then as soon as he took the picture, [Alkobi] went down one knee. … I just stared at him with my mouth open.”

When Elghanayan finally said yes, it seemed the whole crowd of tourists surrounding them had been listening in. People began to clap. Somebody threw them a rose.

“It was really romantic,” Elghanayan said.

The couple were married Aug. 17 in a traditional Jewish wedding officiated by Rabbi David Zargari of Torat Hayim in Los Angeles. Prior to the big day, they held a celebration in Israel with Alkobi’s family, a Moroccan henna party, to honor his relatives’ cultural traditions.

The couple now lives in Santa Barbara, where she is a public relations consultant for several companies; one of her clients is Tel Aviv University. He works in real estate development and property management. They said they’re grateful to the Birthright trip for bringing them together.

“I really had no expectation at all. I was just going to see this country that obviously we had a connection to, and to see a new place that I’d never seen before,” Elghanayan said.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Alkobi agreed. “I just thought it would be a cool trip, and I happened to meet my future wife.”

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

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.

Slain Americans in Gaza among long line from U.S. to fight for Israel


Three days before he was killed fighting for Israel in Gaza, American Nissim Sean Carmeli sprained his ankle, and a doctor asked the Texan if he wanted to heal before going into action.

He refused, according to Maya Kadosh, Israel's deputy consul for the U.S. Southwest.

“He said no. He said he wanted to go into combat with his friends,” Kadosh told Reuters.

Carmeli, part of the elite Golani Brigade, and Golani sniper and fellow American Max Steinberg, 23, were among 13 Israeli Defense Forces soldiers killed on Sunday, the bloodiest day of the fighting in Gaza. About 100 Palestinians were killed.

Carmeli, 21, from South Padre Island, and Steinberg, from California's San Fernando Valley, were among the estimated 800 foreigners who enroll yearly in the 175,000-strong Israeli military, according to Joe Berkofsky, a spokesman for the non-profit Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces.

Kadosh said Carmeli was born on South Padre, the only son of a Zionist couple who had emigrated from Israel. He has two older sisters and grandparents in Israel.

Carmeli went to Israel at age 15 to attend high school and will have a military funeral there, Kadosh said. He held dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship.

“People say why would an American go to Israel to fight? I think it makes you more American fighting for what you believe,” she said.

LOS ANGELES STUDENT

Steinberg, a student at Pierce College in Los Angeles, visited Israel through the Birthright program, which pays for young Jews to visit from abroad, according to the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

He returned to join the IDF in December 2012. The trip to Israel helped Max realize where he belonged, his father, Stuart Steinberg, told the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.

“Although he was American, he truly connected (with Israel),” the newspaper quoted the father as saying. He said his son had not established permanent residence in Israel and was not an Israeli citizen.

Steinberg had been serving on the Syrian border, but the unit was sent to Gaza several days ago, the Journal said. He was killed when his armored personnel carrier was hit by a makeshift bomb or mine.

He had been scheduled to return to the United States in November after his military service. He also will be buried in Israel, the newspaper said.

Steinberg and Carmeli are among a long line of Americans who have served in the Israeli military, including the country's first general, David “Mickey” Marcus, a Brooklyn-born West Point graduate.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is not a crime to go abroad to enlist in a foreign army, but it may be illegal when someone is recruited in the United States.

An American can lose citizenship if he or she intends to give it up and serves voluntarily in armed forces fighting the United States, or serves in a foreign military as an officer or non-commissioned officer, according to the State Department.

Additional reporting by Ian Simpson, Steve Gorman and Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Peter Cooney

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.

Birthright to bring Israeli-American kids to their homeland


As the sun dipped below the horizon on the evening of May 6, nearly 100 local supporters of Birthright Israel gathered under a massive tent in the backyard of the Encino estate of philanthropists Adam and Gila Milstein.

Two hours later, Adam Milstein had announced a new Birthright program for Israeli-Americans and helped raise $6.5 million for Birthright — about $3.5 million for the new program — with the promise of much more. 

That’s thanks in large part to casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and media mogul Haim Saban, who, together, contributed about $3.5 million. Other large contributions were made by various attendees and board members of the Israeli American Council (IAC), a Los Angeles-based group that seeks to strengthen the Israeli-American community.

At the dinner, Adelson, 80, pledged to match up to $50 million in donations made this year to Birthright and spoke broadly about his historical connection to Israel and his commitment to ensuring that any Jew who wants to go there won’t face the same fate as his father, who was too ill to go by the time Adelson and his siblings could afford to send him.

“I don’t want one Jewish person not to be able to go to Israel because they are too old and too sick,” he said.

Speaking for more than 30 minutes and passionately explaining his fear that American Jewry is vanishing, Adelson — whose support from last year is helping the IAC expand nationwide — said that Birthright is the single best guarantor of keeping young Jews interested in being Jewish. Coming seven months after a Pew Research Center survey reported an alarming decline in involvement among young Jews, Adelson’s admonition sounded particularly urgent.

At one point, he even looked at Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and predicted that, absent programs such as Birthright, Jewish communal organizations will be the first to disappear.

“Jay won’t need a job — there won’t be a Federation,” Adelson warned. “You better take that seriously. And then it will be AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] and then it will be the ADL [Anti-Defamation League], the day schools, the Jewish camps. There won’t be any need because there won’t be any Jews left.”

Today, Adelson — whose net worth is just under $40 billion, according to Forbes — is heavily invested in Jewish life in America. He told the Journal after his speech that he has given more than $240 million to Birthright since the beginning of his involvement seven years ago, when his son’s inability to reach the top of Birthright’s waitlist alerted Adelson to the fact that, because of  lack of funds, thousands of young American Jews weren’t making it to Israel. He asked Birthright’s leadership how much it would cost to clear the waitlist. Their answer was $30 million. Adelson cleared it.

His reach has extended to Jewish life in Israel in recent years with his purchase of several news outlets, including the country’s largest newspaper, Israel Hayom, and a paper of the Zionist-religious right, Makor Rishon. The new Birthright program announced by Milstein is the IAC Leadership Taglit Birthright Trip. It will be jointly run by Birthright and the IAC with the goal of reversing what he said is a trend of assimilation in the Israeli-American community. “[This is] a community that’s not connected to Jewish organizations or Jewish life,” Milstein said. “If we were not there to work with this community, there is a real probability that they will assimilate quickly. They don’t go to synagogues. They don’t get a Jewish education.” 

Milstein estimates that about 1 million Israeli-Americans live in the United States. He said that Jews between 18 and 26 who have at least one Israeli parent and have spent most of their lives in America will be eligible. “When an Israeli-American comes on Birthright, the impact is probably five times more than the impact on Jewish-Americans,” Milstein said. “The reason is simple — Israeli-Americans are connected to Israel already.” 

In line with Birthright’s recently loosened eligibility requirements, Israeli-Americans who previously toured the land on an organized trip before the age of 18 will not be disqualified. Even so, Milstein predicts that many of the participants will not have intimate knowledge of the land. “They don’t know the land of Israel,” he said. “They know the house of their grandma; they know the beach in Netanya.” 

The new program, which will begin marketing this summer, hopes to send the first group of Israeli-Americans to Israel in the winter. A key component of the trip, Milstein said, will be regular follow-up with the participants after their return. He added that American Jews who prefer to go on a Birthright trip with Israeli-Americans will be able to apply to the program as well. 

My Birthright trip: From Mizzou to Masada


I was raised in a suburban, particularly Jewish area of the San Fernando Valley, where everyone knew everyone’s friend. We all studied Hebrew and proceeded with our b’nai mitzvahs, polished for our big day, not fully grasping the concept that this occasion was a rite of passage rather than a passage to every adult’s check book. I saw my bat mitzvah as an opportunity to get dressed up and recite a few Hebrew verses. Nothing more. I halted my Jewish education just weeks after the big event, putting myself into a state of secular identity. 

In the past, people have asked me if I was a Jew. I would say Jewish. Jew-ish? My answer always was heavy with insecurity, rather than pride. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I started to feel as though an existential crisis was present. I realized that I was one of 700 Jewish students in a Midwestern school of 35,000 students, yet the only authentic connection I could link with Judaism was the matzah ball soup that my sorority chef prepared for the house on the second night of Chanukah. Oy vey. Just weeks after this religious epiphany, I registered for a winter Birthright trip and was accepted 20 days later. 

As not only a Jew, but also a photojournalist, I thought of this experience as an opportunity to warm up to a life of National Geographic escapades and adventures, while at the same time cruising around the Holy Land for 10 days, noshing on falafel and shawarma. I had no idea that this trip would be the best gift I could ever receive. 

For 10 days, I opened my eyes to 2,000-plus years of history, culture and traditions. 

Israel remains an enigma to me. Yet, the level of comfort and security I felt there will never be matched anywhere else. It is an indescribable feeling to set foot on foreign land and feel at ease with myself and with 40 Jewish strangers. For me, the Holy Land has become the Happy Land. I caught myself smiling at the endless wonders this country holds. 

Where I was once religiously jaded and lacked appreciation for my biblical past, I have now realized that ignorance is not bliss. I now believe that not wanting to understand Judaism is simply a missed opportunity. The journey I experienced just a few months ago proved to my 13-year-old self that religion is not something you should brush past in conversation, but rather a story waiting to be told, for every resident of and visitor to Israel. These photos tell my story.

A visit to Yad Vashem, Israeli’s Holocaust memorial museum, culminates with a spectacular view of the thriving Ein Kerem Valley in Jersualem. 

A herd of sheep eat their food at Naot Farm, an innovative Israeli desert farm known for producing homemade cheese and milk from 150 goats. The farm was created in 2003 by the Nachimov family and continues to be an active farm, along with providing living accommodations for visitors.

A Bedouin man pours tea for visitors before their night hike into the desert on Jan. 8. Many Bedouin tribes offer visitors the opportunity to spend a night in tents, ride camels and learn about  Bedouin life during their visit to Israel.

Children embrace in the Old City of Jerusalem on Jan. 17. 

Ein Avdat is a canyon located in the Negev. There are many springs in the southernmost part of the canyon with a collection of waterfalls. It was once inhabited by Catholic monks and Nabateans, an ancient Semitic people.

Morgan J. Lieberman is a photojournalism student at the University of Missouri.

Birthright initiative keeps seders on next gen’s tables


This ” target=”_blank”>NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.

Adam Pollack, senior director of NEXT’s Western region, said the Passover project encourages young people to develop their own experiences and personal version of the holiday. In Los Angeles, a number of hosts in their 20s and 30s are participating this year.

“They’re reinventing Passover rituals,” he said. “We provide educational materials so that they can understand what is possible. Some pick and choose what they like. Some discuss social justice, and others talk with their friends about the traditions. In the most clear sense, it’s do-it-yourself.”

Birthright alumni who sign up to host seders — registration ends April 14 — receive $10 per guest for food and supplies. It’s required for hosts to hold their seders on the first two nights and to give feedback afterward, according to Pollack. 

Since 2011, when the project began, more than 1,000 people have hosted NEXT Passover seders. Thirty-year-old Danielle Kreinik-Siegel, who lives in Carthay Circle, held her first seder in 2012, five years after returning from Birthright. 

“I think, especially for people my age and younger, that it’s important to learn how to have a seder,” she said. “We have seders every single year as a family, and I had no idea how I was going to do it myself. I couldn’t afford to do a seder with friends, and many people wouldn’t be able to celebrate if it wasn’t for a program like Birthright.”

Falyn Sokol, 26, who lives in the Pico-Robertson area, held her first seder in 2011 with 14 friends. This year, she plans to welcome a dozen guests into her home to commemorate Passover. 

“The seders offer an opportunity to celebrate the culture and the community aspect of it and bring my friends together,” she said.

After her experience hosting a few seders through NEXT, 28-year-old Becka Ross was able to lead the dinner at her family’s house. 

“My parents were so impressed that I was able to plan and cook an entire seder meal, and [by] the additions I had made to our family haggadah,” she wrote the Journal in an e-mail. “All of that I had gained from my experiences of hosting Birthright NEXT seders.”

Pollack said that hosts put their own twists on the holiday. Kreinik-Siegel created her own haggadah and included information about social issues and pictures from the show “Arrested Development.” 

She said, “It makes people want to be part of it. I’ve gone to really long and boring seders, and I wanted to make it fun.”

Along with the Passover project, NEXT holds Shabbat and High Holy Days initiatives that also are aimed at getting young Jews more involved with Judaism. There are thousands of Birthright alumni in the United States who have connected with their peers through these offerings, which are intended to provide them with a space to celebrate their religion and heritage. 

Sokol said the Jewish people are strengthened by this particular NEXT initiative.

“It’s important to keep the culture of Judaism alive and to connect with other Jewish people,” she said. “There is something about the culture and the community that, no matter where you are, when you find it, you’re home.”

Birthright the ‘LA way’


When registration opens Feb. 19, a Birthright trip sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles geared specifically toward entertainment professionals will represent the first time that young adults up to age 29 will be allowed to take part in the free Israel program. 

Taglit-Birthright Israel was launched 15 years ago to connect Jews ages 18-26 with their heritage. Now, the rules are being softened by Birthright organizers for certain groups. Students who had gone on an extended experiential Israel trip while in middle school or high school, for example, now qualifiy for the fully funded 10-day trip, which was not allowed previously.

This could spell a large increase in Angelenos headed to Israel come June. As it stands, last year, the Federation sent roughly 600 young Angelenos on L.A. Way Birthright Israel trips, according to Tal Gozani, Federation senior vice president of young adult engagement and leadership development.

With registration for the summer Birthright trips opening on Feb. 19 at birthrightisrael.com, Federation officials said they are excited about expanded programming for local participants.

“I have had the privilege of staffing two L.A. Way trips,” said Margalit Rosenthal, the Federation’s senior director of the Birthright Israel Experience. “For many, going to Israel and seeing all of the ways people — both other Americans and Israelis — are Jewish, opens their eyes and minds. I learned that this is so much more than an educational trip about Israel and Jewish history. This experience empowers individuals to express their Jewish identity in a way that is meaningful to them.”

The Federation sends an average of 15 L.A. Way Birthright trips to Israel each year. It is the nation’s leader in community trips sending the most local participants, according to Gozani.

Niche-option trips change from year to year based on demand. Some of the trips for young adults ages 18-22 are in partnership with local university campus Hillels, including USC Hillel, Hillel 818 and Hillel at UCLA. 

This summer, the Federation will be co-sponsoring its second L.A. Way LGBTQ & Ally trip in partnership with JQ International, whose mission, according to its Web site, is to “advance greater inclusion of LGBT Jews and Allies via identity building programs and services that embody Jewish values.” 

This trip will visit culturally, artistically and historically important sites within cities such as Tel Aviv that show the ways in which Jewish
LGBTQ life flourishes and continues to make great strides politically and socially in the state of Israel. The tour guide for the trip will be someone who understands and identifies with the LGBTQ community, according to the program description.

Another niche trip the Federation is including this year is an entertainment professionals trip — the first official trip centered on adults working in that industry in L.A. 

“We have found that up to one-half of our typical buses are filled with young Jews working in the entertainment industry,” Gozani said. “Because of the professional nature of this trip, we are able to populate it with eligible young Jews up through age 29.”

That’s a big deal for many young adults who thought they were past the age of eligibility. For nearly all trips, the deadline is 26 at the time of registration, although one can be 27 at the time of the trip. A select number of professional trips this summer, however — specifically for medical students/professionals and business students — will allow participants up through age 29. 

There have been other eligibility changes as well. Taglit-Birthright Israel, the leader in Birthright tours and the Federation’s partner in sponsoring trips — along with three trip organizers: IsraelExperts, Israel Outdoors and Sachlav — will now allow those who “participated on peer educational trips to Israel prior to turning 18 years of age” to apply. Up until now, those students had been ineligible.  

“We expect more clarifying information to come later this month and in the weeks following registration,” Gozani said. “It is too early to assess the effect of the eligibility requirements on this season. There may be longer-term effects on the number of applicants and the type of applicant.”

Both Gozani and Rosenthal feel it’s very important for young Jews to take part in a Birthright trip.

“There are two aspects of Birthright Israel that I believe are incredibly powerful and important for young Jews to experience: traveling to Israel and being surrounded by a new community of Jewish peers,” Rosenthal said. “Having this type of immersive Jewish experience is so powerful.”

Gozani added, “Birthright Israel is, for many, the first time they encounter Israel, encounter another country, live surrounded by Jews and create a Jewish community. People come back from this trip with a newfound sense of pride in their Jewish heritage and identity. The trip offers an access point into the Jewish community through Israel, through relationships, through history, through culture, or through religion — to name a few.”

Birthright Israel trip staffer almost bails for Heineken [VIDEO]


Drop everything and go.

That’s the pitch made to travelers at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport in a Heineken ad campaign, who were given the opportunity to press a button that would select a vacation destination — departing immediately.

As seen on the video posted to the Heineken YouTube page, the campaign was was so compelling that a Taglit-Birthright Israel group leader contemplated bailing on his bus and let the beer company choose a new destination.

Fortunately, we think, his female counterpart was a bit more level-headed in her approach.

Remember, kids: rule number one of Birthright’s alcohol policy: ”Drinking is not permitted on the flight to Israel.”

Adelsons donate $40 million to Birthright


Casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, donated $40 million to the Birthright Israel Foundation.

Their latest gift brings the couple’s overall donations to the program to $180 million.

“Sheldon and I are committed to improving the world through cultural exchange and educational opportunity,” said Miriam Adelson in a statement released Wednesday by Birthright Israel, which offers Jews aged 18 to 26 a free 10-day trip to Israel. “Exposing young Jews to Israel helps broaden their awareness and deepen their cultural identity. We are committed to the goal of all young Jewish adults having the opportunity to be inspired by their ancestral homeland.”

In recent years, the Adelsons have given major donations to several Jewish institutions and organizations. In 2011, they donated $25 million to Yad Vashem, bringing their overall donations to the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem to $50 million. Other recipients of their largesse include the Shalem Center, a think tank in Jerusalem, and the Zionist Organization of America.

In addition to their philanthropy, the Adelsons have given tens of millions of dollars in support of Republican politicians and conservative causes.

Sheldon Adelson is the 15th richest person in the world with an estimated net worth of $26.5 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

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.

Adelson to face courtroom cameras despite safety concerns


Sheldon Adelson, a major benefactor of Jewish and Israeli causes, will face courtroom cameras in an upcoming trial despite safety concerns based on his views on Israel.

A Nevada court ruled against a petition by Adelson asking to keep cameras out of the courtroom during a breach of contract civil trial concerning The Sands, a Las Vegas casino of which he is CEO. The petition cited concerns for his safety and that of his family, according to a report in Politico. The trial was scheduled to begin Thursday.

According to the Las Vegas Review Journal, the parties were bound by a confidentiality agreement and could not comment on Monday's hearing.

In petitioning the court to keep Adelson from being videotaped, his attorneys cited a statement from Las Vegas Sands chief of security Brian Nagel, Politico reported.

“Mr. Adelson has achieved widespread notice not merely because he is the CEO of a major corporation, but also because he is a prominent advocate of political views — including, but not limited to, views concerning U.S. policy concerning Israel — that are highly controversial in some quarters,” Adelson's lawyers wrote. “The world does not need and can ill afford yet another tragic demonstration that some individuals who hold opposing views will engage in acts of violence and terrorism targeting individuals, like Mr. Adelson, whose views they reject.

The lawsuit concerns a breach of contract suit that was filed against Adelson’s company in 2004, according to Politico. Plaintiff Richard Suen said he should have been paid for his work in helping the Sands obtain licensing in Macau.

A jury rendered a $43.8 million verdict against Adelson, but the ruling was overturned in 2010.

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.

Shorashim

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.