Birthright is now in its fifteenth year and continues to send thousands of Jewish young adults from around the world to get a sense of what it is like in our homeland. Taglit-Birthright Israel has sent over 350,000 Jewish young adults to Israel to date. The trip is continuing to allow Jews between the ages of 18-26 a free trip to Israel, but has decided to allow a group within that age range to have an opportunity to take part in the program. The Taglit-Birthright Israel program has expanded eligibility to include teenagers who went on an educational group trip to Israel during high school. Birthright’s vice president of international marketing confirmed this expansion.
While it seems like this is good news for young Jews across the world, it really is. However, there are some problems I have with it, and yes I am biased. I was never fond of Birthright allowing you to participate on a trip even if you had lived in Israel until you turned twelve. I had friends who went to Israel almost annually to visit friends and family and they were still allowed to participate in Birthright, despite already having seen every acre of land in Israel. I am also one of the many Jews still under 26 who went on an Israel trip in high school. I was sixteen when I participated on a group trip to Israel in the summer of 2006. That was the first time I had ever been to Israel so it was highly anticipated. While I had an amazing time that summer, it happened to coincide simultaneously with the second Lebanon War. The war broke out shortly after my group arrived in Israel, completely changing the itinerary for the trip. We were in Israel for over a month, but on account of the war spent almost the entire trip in Jerusalem. Other than a few days in the Negev, that was all of Israel I got to see. I did not set foot in Tel Aviv, Haifa or anywhere north of Jerusalem. That is over half of the country and many historical and significant landmarks I missed out on.
A couple years later as I was beginning college I heard about a Birthright trip through Hillel at my school. While I knew I was technically not allowed to go because of my previous group trip in high school, I thought there was a chance I could still make it. I had heard a few others would lie when they applied to go on Birthright and say they had not been on an organized trip. I did not want to lie so I went to the Israel Fellow at my school’s Hillel to see if he could help me. When I applied to go I said I had been to Israel on a group trip in high school, but due to the war I barely got to see anything. Hundreds of other people would be going on Birthright at the same time who had been to Israel before so I thought maybe there was a chance they could make an exception for me. The Israel Fellow tried to help, but to no avail. I found out they were not going to allow me to go on the trip.
In large part to these two previous life events, I decided to study abroad my junior year of college in Israel. I thought it would be a great opportunity to not only spend extended time in Israel, but perhaps to see many of the places I did not have a chance to visit previously. I ended up spending just one semester in Israel, but I did see at least a few of the places and visit some of the cities I did not have the opportunity to see the first time.
Fast forward to today, I found out that Birthright now allows Jews who went on organized trips before the age of eighteen. Having studied abroad I am still not qualified to go. It would be selfish for me to not like this decision because of that. I have already heard about many Jews I know who were previously disqualified wanting to go on Birthright now. Are these the Jews that will help Birthright fulfill it’s goal of having Jewish young adults have “a discovery of Israel and its people, discovery of one’s own personal connection to Jewish values and tradition, and discovery of the ways in which one can be a part of the larger Jewish community”? A majority of these Jews already have had these discoveries and every single one of them has already had at least an opportunity to make these discoveries. I hope if they do take advantage of the trip and that they become closer to Israel and Judaism as a result.
My other hesitation about accepting this new eligibility change in Birthright trip is that I have friends who have had trouble getting into the program despite being qualified. Some of my friends have had to apply multiple times before going and others have applied multiple times and still not made it yet. I hope that this change does not hinder them from having this opportunity. I figure like everything else, this decision is based on money. I assume that Birthright has a lot more money than before and can now offer more young Jews a free trip to Israel.
I will try to look at this change positively, and I hope that everyone who goes on Birthright has an amazing time and finds deeper connections with Israel and Judaism. I will continue being jealous while hearing about what a great trip everyone has on Birthright, but as long as Birthright fulfills it’s goals, I am fine being jealous.