This time last week, I was flying back to New York after staffing a Birthright trip. The trip was amazing but it was also bittersweet as the group I staffed was one of — if not the very — last trips for anyone between the ages of 27-32. After five years, Taglit-Birthright has reverted to the original age group of 18-26 – a decision which will be a huge mistake.
I understand the reasoning behind it: participation in the younger groups is lacking since young Jews realize they have more time to take advantage of the trip to Israel. Okay, I get it, but why should those of us who are older suffer for that?
Some people are surprised to learn I only went on Birthright when I was 28. Yes, I was part of the 27-32 group in January 2019. How is it that an ardent Zionist, pro-Israel, Jewish activist, could only have gone on this trip less than four years ago? Well, it was this trip that made me realize how important it was to be an ardent Zionist, pro-Israel, Jewish activist.
Speaking from my experience — and the experiences of others who have been part of the older groups — I can say with absolute certainty, it is vital to keep the 27-32 trips alive. Yes, the younger groups are important too, especially since they provide college students with tools to fight on-campus antisemitism, BUT — and I can’t stress this enough — there is an appreciation for this opportunity amongst older participants that tends to be lacking in the younger ones.
The first time I visited Tzfat on my own Birthright trip, I met a woman who ran the local mikveh and she said something quite clever: Jews are like ice cream; we come in different flavors and can be made from different milks but regardless of whether we are chocolate or pistachio, whole milk or soy, we are all still Jews and our diversity is beautiful. For many Jews, we don’t truly begin to appreciate our own special brand of Judaism and what we have to offer to the ice cream party until we’re older.
If I had gone on the trip in my early 20s, I definitely would not have been able to grasp everything that Israel not only is, but is also meant to be. Yes, it’s beautiful and the sights are breathtaking — but Israel itself and everything it represents may very well have been lost on me. And I’ve been told the same thing from not just participants in my own group, but from others who have gone on the older trips. Some — many — of us are not ready to embrace our culture and our heritage when we’re younger. For many in the younger groups, a trip to Israel is a 10-day party — an opportunity to get away from their studies and enjoy a country where the legal drinking age is 18 instead of 21.
Even Israeli peers share similar sentiments. I’ve had entire discussions with several Israelis who joined older groups years after being part of the younger trips as well. Those younger ages are where the starkest contrast is between Taglit participants and Israelis. While the participants were looking for a good time and enjoying their college/university years, their Israeli peers were defending the country. The difference in priorities and maturity levels were obvious. But with the older groups, we find much more similarities between us: we connect through our shared positions in life.
Within the first two days of my trip earlier this month, it was quite obvious where everyone stood on the “issue” of Israel. And if we’re being honest, I was not happy with some people’s perspectives. In fact, I was quite annoyed. I wasn’t planning on proselytizing, because Jews don’t do that, but I was planning on educating and was always open to civilized discussions and debates. And guess what? By the last day of the trip, everyone understood the purpose of Israel and why the Jewish homeland is vital for Jews to survive and thrive.
These were conversations which could only be had with people who were not only comfortable enough to have real and tough discussions, but were also mature enough to concede when they realized their views were not the reality of the situation. I’m certainly not saying all 30-year-olds are mature enough for these talks, but they are definitely in a better position than those even a few years younger whose egos and emotions more often supersede rationality.
It’s not only that, though. The older groups bring together people from all walks of life who have put behind their cliquey college days. Most participants come on their own or with a spouse or friend or sibling instead of in groups, and are much more open to meeting new people and immersing themselves with others who they normally wouldn’t socialize with in their everyday lives. These are people who have life experiences outside of the classroom; they have careers and many of them have their own families and the experiences they bring with them are vital. These trips spark the connection many have lost or rarely/never felt to Judaism; those with children or soon expecting, come off the trip with a renewed sense of appreciation for Jewish customs, realizing that maintaining traditions to their own comfort levels and extents and raising a Jewish family is important to them.
There’s also another perspective that comes with the older groups: they’re more likely to include converts. Whether you’re born into the tribe or actively choose to be part of it, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew no matter what. But there’s something special converted Jews add to the Birthright experience. I had conversations with Jews on my trip who had or currently are joining Judaism and while they sometimes felt Jewish history didn’t apply to them i.e. the Holocaust, pogroms, dhimmitude, etc, hearing how much they came to love and appreciate Judaism and Israel was enough to pull on anyone’s heartstrings.
A friend of mine staffed a 27-32 group earlier this summer and one of her participants had converted several years ago because her husband was Jewish. It wasn’t until her trip to Israel that she truly understood how deep and beautiful Judaism is and how we are more than just a religion and Israel is more than just a piece of land. It was her trip which made her realize she wanted to raise her future children Jewish, not just because it’s what her husband wanted but because she finally understood the importance of it and what it meant to live a Jewish life and have a Jewish family.
Another participant shared her experience at the Kotel — the anticipation she felt because she didn’t know what to do or what was expected of her there. She didn’t know the “right” prayers or the “right” way to feel. Instead, when she touched the stone and left her note, she found herself repeating the Shema over and over again. Hearing about the awe she felt on the trip, whether it was at David Ben-Gurion’s grave or watching the sunrise on top of Masada or even just on a hike through the Negev, was inspiring. But more than that, to see someone who actively chooses to be Jewish feel so at home, to push down any anxiety they felt at the thought of “not being Jewish enough,” and to eventually realize everyone connects to Judaism in their own way and they’re not any different from others who might have been born Jewish but not necessarily had a specifically Jewish upbringing, truly drives home the idea – the fact – that Israel is home.
Experiences like these are rarely found amongst younger participants. Most people who convert probably aren’t doing so when they’re 20-years-old and more interested in partying in Israel. Most of them have already started carving out their place in the world, and their experiences are an invaluable part of the Jewish identity as a whole. The overall mental and emotional maturity of the 27-32 groups allows for converted Jews to express themselves fully and explore what being Jewish means to them without the pressure of others inserting their opinions and viewpoints. To open up and express their worries and fears of how they and their families would be perceived; to wonder what side of history their ancestors stood on in their treatment of Jews; and to find only acceptance, excitement, and support from all those around them, is an integral part of their journeys. And it is something they could only find on this trip.
It’s not just these points, though, which highlight why trips for the older group are invaluable. Real talk: a lot of us “old people” are pretty set in our comfortable ways. These trips force us out of our comfort zones. Yes, they force the “younger kids” out of their comfort zones as well, but the kids tend to be more flexible. For us oldies, we like what we like and we want what we’re used to – even those of us who love adventures and meeting new people. Birthright trips push us past every limit we have whether it’s physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, or even just staying up past midnight. I don’t know a single person who came off an older trip unchanged in one way or another. Sure, the young ones come home in awe of their adventure and with new perspectives, but something fundamental shifts in those of us who claim we already know who we are. The trip changes most of us – sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes profoundly.
The depth of conversations I have engaged in and overheard from other participants are beyond the superficial which tends to be most prominent amongst younger participants and younger people in general. Those in older groups aren’t as afraid to show who they are; they are more likely to allow their experiences on the trip to make them more vulnerable and open to everything going on around them. They are able to sit with themselves and realize what truly matters to them and allow Israel to wash over them. They are not afraid to cut past the bullshit and embrace who they are and who they are becoming because of their trip.
Look, I’m not naïve enough to think this blog post is going to magically change the minds of whomever is making these decisions at Birthright. Hell, I highly doubt they will ever even see this post. But on the off chance one of them does and decides to read this, I hope they sit with my words just as I’ve sat with myself and other older participants have sat with themselves. I hope they realize the tremendous disservice they are doing to other Jews. I don’t expect a miraculous turnabout decision but as one very famous and extremely important Israeli once said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.” You know how you help ensure Ben-Gurion’s words remain true? Keep Taglit – keep discovery – available for 27-32-year-olds and watch them become realists because of Israel.