January 13, 2023

2023 is a New Year for Birthright Israel - opinion

By Barbara Sofer

I’m starting off 2023 on the right foot. At 7:30 a.m. on January 1, I’m waiting to meet a cousin named Jordan, like the river, in the dining room of a Jerusalem hotel. She’s the granddaughter of a dear first cousin with whom I grew up in my small hometown of Colchester, Connecticut.

Life took my cousin and me in different directions. Jordan grew up in Ohio and Texas. I am delighted to learn she has come to Jerusalem with Birthright Israel.

Even though the Birthrighters were out partying on New Year’s Eve at Mahaneh Yehuda, they’re up early. While I wait for Jordan to come downstairs to breakfast, the room fills with lively, radiant American Jewish college students. I dotingly watch them fill their plates high with Israeli salads, scrambled eggs and rolls.

They’re particularly excited because today they’re headed to the famed Western Wall.
And then enters Jordan, a smiling, pretty coed who has the familiar countenance of my cousin’s family. She’s wearing a nifty black jacket. “I decided to dress up for the occasion of going to the Kotel,” she says.

To qualify for a free 10-day Birthright trip to Israel, you have to have at least one Jewish birth parent or to have completed Jewish conversion through a recognized Jewish denomination. “Recognized” means Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox or Sephardi.

If you practice another religion and have questions about your Jewish eligibility, you can get a personal interview to figure out if Birthright is a good fit for you. If you apply from the former Soviet Union, you are eligible for the free trip if you have at least one Jewish grandparent. You need to be 18 to 26. The trips for older participants that Birthright once tried have been discontinued.

Jordan easily qualifies. She has two Jewish parents and four Jewish grandparents. She’s been to Hebrew school and has celebrated her bat mitzvah. She takes part in events at the campus Hillel and sometimes Chabad. Nonetheless, at age 20, this is her first trip to Israel. I am grateful to Birthright Israel for bringing her and the 800,000 other students who have visited Israel with Birthright so far. Yes, 800,000.

Jordan heads straight for the jahnun, the rolled dough brought to Israel by immigrants from Aden. She’s already acquiring a Middle Eastern palate. “This is delicious,” she says. “The food in Israel is awesome.”

I ADMIT that I’ve always enjoyed meeting Birthright Israel participants. I thrill to their descriptions of seeing Israel with fresh eyes and fresh taste buds.

Meeting them reminds me of my own first stirrings of love – for Israel – when I touched down at Lod Airport. I was 17.

I spent a whole summer on the Young Judaea summer course, so there was more time than on Birthright’s 10-day program for schmoozing with my Sabra relatives, chewing over Zionist ideas and even partying.

I had never heard of, let alone tasted, hummus and tehina, although the sophisticated city kids in my group seemed to know all about these foods.

We had professors come to lecture for us in the dormitory of the David Yellin teacher’s college in Beit Hakerem. All these decades later, I am still puzzled by one of our lecturers who quoted Shakespeare’s Falstaff’s “discretion is the better part of valor.” I couldn’t understand then and still don’t know what he was describing in this country full of heroes.

It was a fun-filled summer, and I didn’t realize its impact. On Tisha Be’av we climbed to a rooftop for a peek at the Kotel. Six months later, I surprised myself by deciding that I would live my life in Israel.

JORDAN AND I talk about college, family and her plans. She’s studying brain science at the University of Texas. She has made new friends on the trip, some of whom are from her campus back in Austin.

The most emotional moment for her up until now has been the visit to Yad Vashem, where she found herself unexpectedly weeping.

I don’t ask her about the controversy at her university, where the student government was the first on an American college campus to challenge the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism. A student governing body at the University of Texas at Austin voted on a resolution condemning the definition and “affirming the rights of advocates for Palestine.”

She was a little concerned about the possibility of terrorism in Israel, but not enough to keep her from coming.

She was also stirred to see all the hanukkiot on the roadsides, in shops and public buildings.
“I realized that I was in the place where Jews were in the majority, and it felt good,” she says.
Her only complaint is that the trip is too short. She’s determined to get her parents here and also her grandmother, my cousin. She’ll spend more time at Hillel, too.

I kvell over the sparkle in her eyes when she talks about Israel.

I KNOW Birthright isn’t magic. Ideally, follow-up after the trip with educators grows the enthusiasm and helps cement the ties.

The statistics from studies done at Brandeis University are impressive. In one study, 93% of participants reported that they were more likely to be “very much” connected to Israel after Birthright Israel. Program alumni are 41% more likely to participate in Jewish social events, and 36% are more likely to get involved in their Jewish communities. Participants are 41% more likely to marry someone Jewish.

According to Birthright CEO Gidi Mark, my experience of the exuberance of my cousin’s group is not idiosyncratic. “We believe we’re back to the enthusiasm of 2019,” he says.

The need is greater than ever, he says, as antisemitism and anti-Israel activism have made Jewish life on campuses more difficult. The drop in numbers during the pandemic – from 50,000 to 5,000-10,000 – also created a vacuum of Birthright graduates on campuses.

The increase in travel costs has limited this year’s participants to 35,000. Sadly, next year, with the rising costs, the number of students accepted to the 10-day free trip will drop to 25,000.
Birthright may not be magic, but it’s a magnet that pulls the sparks inside the next generation toward Israel and the Jewish people.