June 4, 2021

Taglit-Birthright Israel is back and just in time

By Barbara Sofer

Over the past two decades, more than 750,000 young Jews from 68 countries have toured Israel under the auspices of Birthright Israel. We locals got used to seeing the Birthright Israel buses traveling around the country, carrying ebullient university students on their free 10-day trip. Everything stopped when the coronavirus froze international travel.

So now it’s with particular joy that I greet the group of 14 American university students on the first Birthright Israel trip in more than a year.

These college kids flew out of New York on May 23 while the ink on Guardian of the Walls ceasefire was still drying.

They’ve all been vaccinated against the coronavirus, but like all travelers these days they needed to bring proof of a negative coronavirus test at check-in.

One student from a rural area who wanted to be sure he’d get his certificate on time was tested in two different local labs. When neither came through, he spent $200 on getting a test at JFK!

Although foreign tourism hasn’t fully opened in Israel, Birthright Israel CEO Gidi Mark has told me that allowing Birthright Israel visits is seen as a national priority. External studies of the program over the last two decades have shown that the experiential trips increase connectedness to and pride in the Jewish people and Israel. Over 90% of participants rank their trip as a positive life-changing experience.

Before the coronavirus, 40 students made up a typical Birthright group, and thousands gathered for sensational mega events. Numbers have been cautiously scaled down, in keeping with pandemic restrictions. Reputedly 80,000 students are on the applicant waiting list.

I’ve always enjoyed meeting Birthright Israel participants. I thrill to their descriptions of seeing Israel with fresh eyes. I suppose it reminds me of my own first stirrings of love – for Israel – when I touched down at Lod Airport and spent a summer with Young Judaea, learning the words wadi and nahal, and my first-ever hikes through those ravines and dry riverbeds. To borrow from Jeremiah, “I remember your youthful loving-kindness when you walked with me through desert wilderness.”

Under the guidance of the travel subcontractor Israel Free Spirit, these enthusiastic travelers have already hiked in the Golan Heights and rafted down the Jordan.

OF ALL the places I might have met up with these young adventurers, the organizers happen to set up our rendezvous at the Jerusalem home of my coauthor Rena Quint, a premier speaker for Yad Vashem, whose life story I chronicled in A Daughter of Many Mothers. Ahead of their visit to the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem, they get to meet and ask hard question of this very special survivor.

We’re sitting around Quint’s living room with its hundreds of photos of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the elegant china and silver, the daily love notes from Quint’s late husband, Rabbi Emanuel Quint, pinned on the walls. Every table surface is covered with food snacks.

The students, in T-shirts and Hawaiian shirts, jeans and shorts (no apparent kippot or long-sleeved dresses) feel immediately at home with this double-digit great-grandmother who insists they have something to eat.

Quint, 85, was three years old when the Nazis occupied Poland and set up their first ghetto in her hometown of Piotrkow, Poland. When her parents and brothers were murdered, a series of righteous women helped her survive the cattle cars, concentration camps, death march until she was liberated, barely alive in Bergen-Belsen.

She was invited to the US in place of a survivor’s own dead daughter, but when they got to the United States that mother died. A couple in Brooklyn took in the orphaned 10-year-old.

“That’s when my life began again,” says Quint, who explains that the plethora of burekas and biscuits is probably a reaction to her near starvation as a child.

When Quint asks if anyone has family who were in the Holocaust, one of the participants says his grandfather was in the Dachau concentration camp. Sitting across from him, a student says with pride that his grandfather was among the camp’s liberators. Then Ron, a naval officer who is one of their soldier guards, reveals that he was recently in Bergen-Belsen while on a training mission in Germany.

I can’t help thinking that this conversation wouldn’t have taken place if these young people had met at a party back in the United States.

Eyes fill with tears as Quint describes her partings from family members. There’s a stunned silence as Quint matter-of-factly describes the closet in her apartment designated as shelter if there is another rocket attack on Jerusalem. Her commodious apartment was built way before reinforced safe rooms were required in the building code.

NOT ONLY have these students been undeterred by the thousands of rockets lobbed our way, but they have also come to Israel despite the deluge of anti-Israel sentiment among university students.

Several tell me that it was the latter that fueled their determination to come to Israel right now. They need to see Israel for themselves and to become better informed.

Others admit that the Israel bashers have impacted them, and although they were eager to take advantage of the Birthright experience, they came with a chip on their shoulder: a widely shared perception on campus that Israel is among the world’s oppressors.

Rutgers student Samantha Marshak says that when you come here you realize immediately that the conflict can’t be whittled down “to social media clichés.”

Maya Kessler, a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, explains that even someone like her, who was brought up in a pro-Israel family, has found it futile to try to speak up for Israel to those who don’t even recognize Israel as a legitimate country and write the word “Israel” with quotation marks.

Conor Mullaney of the University of Maryland says he thought he knew a lot about Israel and Judaism until he came to Israel, but has discovered how much there is to learn.

Although Operation Guardian of the Walls is on everyone’s minds, the students stress to me that the trip is foremost about just experiencing Israel and having fun.

Birthright Israel’s success has made it a target of attack of Israel’s detractors, falsely accusing the program of having a religious or political agenda. It has remained pluralistic, inclusive and apolitical, and best of all – indeed fun.

That’s why I put criticism of Birthright Israel in the same category as new complaints that it’s not fair that Israel has invented the Iron Dome. Both are national priorities, now more than ever.