In early 2005, I went on a journey that will forever hold a place in my heart. Joining other young Jews, I visited Israel for ten days through Birthright Israel. Before that, I visited Israel ten years before on a Bat mitzvah trip with my family. It’s one thing to travel with your family as a young teenager; it’s another thing entirely to travel with a group of your peers in your late teens and early to mid-20’s.
Birthright Israel was started in 1999 by a group of wealthy Jewish philanthropists who wanted ensure that the upcoming generation of Jews not only had a strong connection to their religion and their history, but also Israel. Since then, over 500,000 young Jews can call themselves Birthright Alumni. They come from 66 countries and from all over North America. With a variety of trips appealing to the many religious and cultural sensibilities of the participants, Birthright’s appeal is nearly endless.
A Birthright trip is more than the average vacation. It is the opportunity to not only make new friends, but also to connect with Israel and Judaism in a way that can only be experienced on the ground in Israel. And in today’s political and cultural climate, it is more important than ever.
The statistics are alarming. According to a poll done by the Pew Research center, only 68% of Millennial Jews (born after 1980) identify as Jewish compared to the 93% of Jews of the greatest generation (born between 1914 and 1927). Anti-semitism is rising to levels that have not been seen since World War II, especially on college campuses.
When I look back to my experience with Birthright, I recall the visceral feeling of being in Israel and experiencing what it is to be there first hand. With the accusations, lies and half-truths that are being presented in the press and online, Birthright’s mission is more about meeting new friends, new experiences and connecting to our religious and cultural past. It is securing the future of Israel and the Jews that is the true mission of Birthright.
No Birthright trip is complete without a sunrise hike up to Masada. But for me, the hike was more than a hike up a mountain.
I had two Bat mitzvahs. One was in the Brooklyn synagogue that my family attended at the time. The other was on Masada.
It was as if I was coming full circle. Stepping into the ancient shul that I became a Bat mitzvah in just over 10 years before, I felt as if this journey to Israel was required to end one part of my life and begin another. Masada is more than just another set of ancient ruins. It represents the heartbeat and the strength of the Jewish people. We have been down many times before, but never out.
That morning of the hike was cold. We were woken up around 4am, the hotel only offered us coffee and muffins. Not exactly the food that is best for an early morning hike. As we drove up the bottom of the mountain, night had yet to slowly recede to dawn. With every step, the Roman ramp became steeper and my stomach began to growl. But the then sun rises and the ruins begin to sparkle with history and the reminder that Am Yisroel Chai, the Jewish people will live on.
Judaism will live on and Birthright plays an important part in that continuation.
This story "The Legacy And The Importance Of Birthright Israel" was written by Adina Bernstein.