Every year, thousands of young Jewish people travel to Israel to learn more about their religion, culture and heritage. Through the organization Taglit-Birthright, Jews between ages 18 and 26 can participate in a 10-day trip to the Holy Land for free.
Hebrew for "discovery," Taglit exemplifies the goal of the Birthright trip: a discovery of Israel and its people, discovery of one's personal connection to Jewish values and tradition and connection to the larger Jewish community. Since its inception in 1999, Birthright has sent approximately 340,000 Jewish youth from 62 countries to Israel through donations from philanthropists, the state of Israel, the Jewish Federation system, the Jewish Agency for Israel and alumni.
"We believe that the experience of a trip to Israel is a building block of Jewish identity, and that by providing that gift to young Jews, we can strengthen bonds with the land and people of Israel and solidarity with Jewish communities worldwide," Birthright's website states.
Hundreds of Jewish teens and young adults throughout the Tri-Valley and Bay Area have participated in the educational pilgrimage, organized by a variety of companies who cater to niche areas of interest. Participants can opt for an orthodox, outdoors-focused, Hillel/student-centered or photography trips, among many others. By offering a variety of experiences, Birthright organizers hope to reach a whole generation of Jewish youth.
"It's important for Jewish youth to visit Israel to form a bond with the people and with the land. They hear so much on the media, they see things on television, online and they can often get a distorted picture of the politics and the social reality," said Beth Emek Rabbi David Katz. "To go to Israel shows them what is actually happening, revives their spirit, strengthens their identity and helps them understand where they fit in to a worldwide Jewish picture."
California High School graduate Jonny Grishpul went on Birthright in winter 2011 with a Hillel group. A rising junior at Cal Poly, Grishpul is active in Alpha Epsilon Pi, a national Jewish fraternity, and was also involved in college and high school Jewish youth groups. Despite his involvement, Grishpul considers himself more a spiritual Jew than a religious one.
"From my prior Jewish education I kind of learned the underlying values and morals Judaism teaches and really agree with those. I find it important to keep Judaism in my life," he said. "I studied about Israel for so long I knew it from a book sense, had heard about it but I'd never been there."
Grishpul counted visiting Tsfat the home of Kaballah and climbing Mount Heron as highlights of his trip. While activities vary based on trip provider, most Birthright participants visit ancient fortress Masada, spend the night in a Bedouin tent, ride a camel, climb Mount Herzel and float in the Dead Sea. All trips visit important sites in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
"It was really meaningful to be in the place where your ancestors once stood and in the place where so much has happened; it just made a lot more sense," Grishpul said.
Twenty-six-year-old Sarah Buczek, a graduate of San Ramon Valley High, traveled to Israel in January 2011 with an outdoors program. Although she went with the intention of further developing her Jewish identity, Buczek said she realized she was more religious than many of her peers, but much less so than Israelis she encountered.
"I just realized that I'm ok with being a 'culture Jew.' At first, when I came home from Israel, I felt like I needed to practice Shabbat and be more intense about Judaism, but living in the U.S. it's ok to feel that way," she said, adding that Israeli society is much more conducive to traditional or orthodox Judaism. "It's a lot easier to hold Shabbat, to not work. As opposed to here where to get the High Holidays off of work or school is impossible."
Birthright participants are toured around by Israelis, some of whom are actively serving in the army, in addition to being dropped in the middle of Israeli culture. For Cal High grad Leah Yamshon, the realities of societal enforced gender separation in religious places such as The Western Wall were initially troublesome. Upon returning to the Wall at night on Shabbat, Yamshon changed her mind.
"The women's side was like a celebration and the other side is not like that at all. It was a very uplifting experience with a whole bunch of Jewish women and I felt very united," she said.
A journalist and Jewish educator who has spent several years preparing teens for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Yamshon said she traveled to Israel with Buczek already solid in her Jewish identity.
"I came there loving being Jewish and I left still loving being Jewish and it kind of reaffirmed that this is what I believed," Yamshon said, adding that she would like to return to the country. "Israel is just so interesting because of where it is geographically. It's just kind of cool to be around this really neat culture for a week and it made me want to hold onto the faith even more when I got back."
Others, such as Pleasanton resident Lee Burg, left Israel a little disenchanted. Burg, 26, went on Birthright in 2006 and said he came home feeling less connected to his Jewish identity.
"It was an overwhelming and divisive experience. It was nice to really get into it and know exactly how a lot of people are with their religion and pretty much make it their whole life, but it was nice to be able to say you don't have to be like that," he said.
Josh Gordon, a former San Ramon resident, said he expected Birthright to have a bigger impact on his identity as a Jew. Although Gordon left feeling more proud to be Jewish, he didn't feel more inclined to go to synagogue or celebrate holidays.
"It's a very endearing experience in a lot of ways when you go over there, especially old Jerusalem and seeing how much they has gone through," he added. "They're a very proud people over there and it's pretty cool to be a part of that."
Responding to criticisms of Birthright being strictly pro-Israel or a means to sway participants in a Zionist political direction, all said they felt that trip organizers presented a fairly balanced view of the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. Buczek said she got a real taste for the Israeli way of thought when her group discussed politics with Israeli soldiers.
"I'm more aware now of why it's a very difficult location to have peace," she said. "Everyone was really nice but their perspective on Israel is that it belongs to them and that was a really weird thought to me, because I never thought of land as belonging to a certain religion. The idea of sharing it is not a concept that they even consider almost."
Burg said that while he understands both sides, he didn't want to get involved in political debate while on Birthright.
"I used to be on Israel's side just because it's all you know about. But once you start hearing about the other side and how everybody else thinks, everybody needs their own place to call their own," he said.
Rabbi Katz disagreed with the negative connotations of Zionism and said that while the trip is an arm of the Zionist movement in that it creates a bond between Jews and Israel, participants are wise to the political spectrum.
"Our young people know how to ask good questions, how to see both sides of the picture and understand the needs, desires and hopes of all the populations of Israel," he said.
Regardless of political orientation, all participants agreed that Birthright was a powerful experience and one that they would recommend to other Jewish youth.
"I wouldn't say I'm any more Jewish from going to Israel but I feel a lot more connected to my heritage and to my religion from going to The Western Wall and seeing thousands of years of history before my eyes," Grishpul said.
To learn more about Taglit-Birthright, visit birthrightisrael.com.