Is Birthright Israel too good to be true?

A 10 day trip to Israel with flights, food, and a ton of instagrammable moments… all for free?

You may have heard of Birthright-Israel, the all expense paid adventure to the holy land. Seems too good to be true, right? There has to be a catch.

But, there isn’t one. You’re not going to be roped into long, boring religous seminars or be told what to think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, there is a goal.

I mean, this isn’t Oprah… the organization behind the trips does have donors who want a return on their investment… So what is the goal of Birthright-Israel?

In the 1990s, polls in America and throughout the West confirmed what most Jews could see for themselves: many young Jews were drifting away from Jewish life.

A Birthright Israel group in 2016. (Photo: henrymaxm/flickr)

They weren’t excited about being Jewish or building Jewish lives. Jewish leaders called this the “continuity crisis.”

While pondering this “continuity crisis, these individuals noticed that when they traveled with their families to Israel, their kids seemed far more excited about being Jewish.

Recognizing how their own kids connected to their heritage in Israel but yawned in synagogue, they wondered if visiting Israel would have the same positive impact on others. That got them thinking… could they make trips to Israel more accessible?

In the 1990s, most young Jews had never visited Israel. Especially not those living in North America, where the 11-hour-plus plane-ride didn’t come cheap.

The polling at the time predicted that barely one in five American Jews would visit Israel at any point during their lifetimes.

Two philanthropists took this all very seriously, and brought other thinkers and leaders together to wrestle with the issue. They came up with kind of a crazy proposal: “Could we give every young Jew born outside of Israel the gift of a trip to Israel?”

That premise would eventually become the most unprecedented, experimental, and ambitious educational project Judaism had ever seen.

Birthright Israel Bus 423 in 2016. (Photo: henrymaxm/flickr)

But in those early days, there was a lot to sort out: How long should the trip be? Should it be free for everyone? Should they just hand out free plane tickets and let Jewish backpackers invade?

Though the debates could have continued forever, these forward-thinkers took the plunge and launched the program in December of 1999.

They landed on offering free ten-day trips for 18 to 26 year olds no matter how much money they had or how observant they were. If you’re Jewish, this trip was made for you – as your birthright.

The “catch,” for this free trip, was simple: create new links in the chain of Jewish continuity.

The program was committed to four guiding principles:

  1. Show don’t tell – participants are there to experience Israel, not hear about it. Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the Negev desert, and Tel Aviv would all be on the itinerary.
  2. Make it fun. The trip couldn’t be all lectures, museums, and historical ruins. Hikes, experiencing Israeli nightlife, floating in the Dead Sea and camel rides were other ways young Jews could enjoy the culture as much, if not more so, than the history alone.
  3. No strings attached – This could only inspire connection if nothing else was asked in return. This was an actual gift. No alumni donation calls, no expectation to push it on your friends, no paybacks.

And finally…

  1. Invite every participant to be the captain of their own Jewish journey.

Now this last one was a little tricky.

The trip would need to be set within certain parameters. The first trips happened just as the 2nd Intifada erupted, and there were safety concerns. Also, there would still need to be some sort of teaching aspect and a goal to foster connection. The experience would introduce them to the history and heritage of the Jewish people, the story of Zionism, the meaning of Jewish identity. But once teed up, each young Jew could follow through as they wished.

Their solution was guided tours with 40 participants exploring the country together. In the past, group tours of Israel had been run by political organizations or religious groups with specific agendas. So Birthright-Israel committed to offering non-partisan, non-ideological, general introductory tours, using an approach tailor-made to fit this new generation.

As they continued to grow the program and fine-tune it, “themed trips” were created to best fit each participant. These focused around interests such as food, and outdoor activities, or ones that cater to specific communities like trips for Orthodox, or LGBTQ participants, which foster a deeper connection to personal identity within the group.

After the 10 days were up, participants had the option to extend their stay to have whatever experiences they chose.

In the earliest days of the trip, the impact was immediate and apparent. Participants quickly learned that being in Israel meant Judaism was much more than just going to synagogue, observing Jewish holidays, or keeping kosher. Judaism wasn’t some distant or abstract idea you learned about in Hebrew school – but it was something real, something tangible.

The food, the music, the sights, the history. Wandering around the streets, in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, they had a feeling of belonging…to a big, diverse, worldwide Jewish family. As one first-time visitor to Israel remarked: “even when cab drivers say ‘good morning’ or ‘shabbat shalom’ to you, you don’t feel it’s just coming out of politeness. You feel that they care about you”

In addition to their shared heritage, traveling in groups created an instant-community resulting in lasting, life-long friendships. Countless romances from the trips have blossomed into serious relationships and even marriages. Every trip builds on the Jewish people’s long-standing involvement and fascination with Israel. A mere 10 days fully immersed in the Jewish state 24/7, where a Jew can feel proud to be Jewish, is life changing. And there are statistics to prove it.

Since Birthright-Israel began, over 750,000 Jews from 68 countries have taken the trip – 85% of alumni feel that the Birthright-Israel trip was a “life-changing experience”. Eight-four percent of Birthright-Israel Israel alumni are raising their children Jewish. Birthright-Israel Israel participants are 93% more likely to be “very much” connected to Israel. And Birthright-Israel programs have contributed upwards of $1.5 billion to the Israeli economy. Few organizations, foundations, or even commercial brands can report such success rates.

Birthright-Israel’s unique and immersive experiential education was the first of its kind. Since then, other diaspora communities and heritage groups seeking to connect their younger generations have taken note. Irish-Americans, Korean-Americans, and representatives of other groups have consulted with Birthright-Israel, hoping to root their own young people in their own stories.

It all may seem too good to be true that donors, philanthropists, and the Government of Israel are willing to 100% foot the bill so you can take a vacation. But there’s something about this experience that simply can’t be replicated.

There’s so much more to Judaism than Hebrew school, High Holidays, and Manischewitz. If the only catch is the chance, not the expectation, that you’ll learn a little about Jewish history and possibly form a connection to your heritage, then maybe it’s a chance worth taking.

You can find this video on our YouTube channel Unpacked.
You can find this video on our YouTube channel Today Unpacked.

Subscribe to This Week Unpacked

Each week we bring you a wrap-up of all the best stories from Unpacked. Stay in the know and feel smarter about all things Jewish.