Birthright Trips To Israel Offer Students Free Religious Experience

By Margaret RhodesContributing Writer

The cornerstone city of three world religions is just a free flight away for some members of Northwestern’s Jewish community.

Students can explore Old World civilization and prayer and gain a New World perspective on culture by trekking across Israel during a 10-day trip organized by a partnership between the Israeli government, private philantropists and Jewish communities worldwide.

“The primary purpose of the trip is to become attached to the state of Israel and its people,” said Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein of the Tannenbaum Chabad House at NU.

The international program, called Taglit-birthright Israel, has sent more than 110,000 young Jews on free trips to Israel since it was founded in 2000, according to the group’s Web site. Mayanot, one of Taglit-birthright Israel’s largest providers, organizes the trip, which is offered through the Chabad House.

In order to be eligible for the trip, students must be between 18- and 26-years-old and not have previously traveled to Jerusalem on a peer-educational trip, such as those offered by youth groups and high schools.

Students, usually in groups of 40, travel for free, thanks to local philanthropists who think experiencing Israel is essential to the Jewish continuity, Klein said.

For Klein, who chaperones the trip twice a year, this December will mark his eighth year leading students overseas.

The trip offers a number of activities: Students can drive Jeeps in the Golan Heights (the range of hills at the border of Syria and Israel), ride camels with the Bedouins, dig through an archaeological site for ancient relics and go wine tasting at the most popular winery in the Middle East, the Yarden Winery.

The most emotional event, however, is visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem, said Weinberg sophomore Dan Harpaz.

“It’s just a really intense mood,” said Harpaz, who traveled on the birthright trip last summer. “Everyone is together and praying and you can feel how spiritual it is.”

Thousands of Jews flock to the wall to welcome the Sabbath through song, dance and prayer, he said.

“It was an absolutely moving experience,” said Nathan Caro, a McCormick sophomore who also went on the trip last summer.

“I went to a Hebrew day school for nine years,” he said. “I learned about the history of Israel and we studied the Torah. I really felt a strong connection (to Jerusalem) even though I’d never been there before.”

Both Harpaz and Caro were in Israel at the end of June when the conflict between Israel and Lebanon erupted.

“It was news I didn’t want to hear,” Harpaz said.

The state of Israel provides the Taglit-birthright groups with eight Israeli soldiers for protection, Klein said.

Since the soldiers are about the same age as the students, they can socialize with the visitors in addition to protecting them.

Through their relationship with young soldiers, the students said they felt the impact of the conflict.

“I really got to know them; they were just normal kids,” Caro said. But after the fighting broke out, “they put their uniforms on. They became so serious again.”

Despite the conflict in Israel, those traveling for spiritual purposes said they were not affected by the violence.

“I have no concerns whatsoever,” Klein said. “Everyone thinks that because of the news media it is a war zone, that it is a parched desert, but Israel is blooming.”

Birthright provides the travelers with army intelligence and information on regions in Israel classified as “risk” and “danger” locations.

“If there is any risk, we avoid it,” Klein said.

Reach Margaret Rhodes at [email protected]