Born in 1948, after two hundred years of struggles against anti-Semitism and in the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust, the state of Israelis home to Jewish people all over the world and America’s strongest ally in the Middle East. With a population of a little over 9 million people, about seventy-five percent of whom are Jewish, surprisingly, Israel has the second-largest Jewish population in the world (30 percent of Jews live in Israel). A majority of the world’s over 15 million Jews — or fifty-one percent — lives in the United States. The rest are scattered in practically every continent and country around the world. A big challenge faced by the state of Israel is how to connect Jews from vastly different cultural backgrounds, ethnicities and races to their common Jewish heritage and to the land of Israel itself.
One of the best responses to this challenge has been the creation of the Taglit-Birthright Israel Program. Co-founded in 1994 by Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt in collaboration with the Israeli government, this program has connected over 750,000 diaspora Jews between the ages of 18 and 32 to Israeli culture and society since 1999. Since 2007 generous donations from Sheldon Adelson (and the Adelson Family Foundation) have made it possible to increase participation. As the Hebrew word “Taglit” signifies, this ten-day program is a journey of “discovery”: not only of Jewish heritage and Israel as a country, but also of how young Israelis live.
One of the crucial components of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program is the notion of “mifgash”, or “encounter”, between young diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews, who accompany the visitors in their tours of Jerusalem, the Western Wall, the Dead Sea and other sites and tell them about how they live and what they do. Most notably, this includes information about their unique experiences with military service in the Israel Defense Forces (or IDF), which is compulsory for most Jews (young Israeli women serve 2 years while young Israeli men serve 2 years and 8 months).
The Taglit-Birthright Israel Program is organized by several organizations, all of which have to meet the same eligibility requirements, standards and security measures. All youth between the ages of 18 and 32 who have at least one Jewish parent, have completed high school, have never traveled to Israel on an educational program after the age of 18, and have never lived in Israel past the age of 12 are eligible to apply to this program. Given that Taglit-Birthright provides a free ten-day trip and tour of Israel, the demand is much higher than are spots available. Furthermore, the security measures of the program and its affiliates are tight yet have some flexibility. Participants can travel to East Jerusalem and the West Bank, but never to Gaza; they must remain together at all times during their common tours and activities, but they can travel and visit Israelis on their own during the duration of the program; they can’t use public transportation; and, as an extra security measure, during the tours, they are accompanied by an armed escort.
Trips can be organized around various areas of interest: including music, religious affiliation, outdoor sports and hiking expeditions, international business, or culinary lessons. The program and its affiliates place great emphasis upon the concept of “mifgash”, or “encounter”, between the Diaspora Jews and their Israeli counterparts. For instance, for both the Taglit-Birthright Israel and the Birthright Israel with Shorashim programs (Jewish National Fund), Israelis join their guests for the entire ten days of the trip. (See https://www.israelwithisraelis.com/)
The word “Shorashim” literally means “roots.” As its name implies, the Jewish National Fund affiliated program, Birthright with Shorashim, is intended to reinforce the Jewish roots of North American Jewish youth. The program recognizes the importance of communication and contact between American Jews and Israeli Jews during the entire ten-day educational trip, which is quite an adventure. To offer an example of the classic Birthright Israel with Shorashim trip itinerary: Upon arrival at the Ben Gurion International Airport, the participants receive a warm welcome from their Israeli counterparts, grab lunch, are welcomed by the organizers in an opening ceremony and later enjoy dinner with their group. They spend the night in Galilee. The next day they hike in the upper Galilee (see Nachal Sarach and Nahal Betzet), have lunch and in the afternoon soak up the Mediterranean sunshine on the beach in the bustling modern city of Tel Aviv. The following day they do an architecture tour of the city and in the evening sample its exciting nightlife. In the next few days they tour historic Jerusalem and even enjoy a camel ride in the desert and a therapeutic mud bath followed by a swim in the Dead Sea. Through this literal immersion in the land of Israel, tour of its many attractions and contact with Israeli youth, the participants of Birthright Israel with Shorashim programs form a deeper and lasting connection to their Jewish heritage. For more information, please visit JNF.org to sign up for Birthright Israel with Shorashim this summer and beyond.