January 19, 2020

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.