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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


    From the Perspective of a Jewish American: Birthright

    It’s 3:45 in the morning and no one is asleep.

    A dozen or so college-aged students are huddled around a bonfire, throwing everything from paper cups to articles of clothing into the flames. Several more are walking about in the cold and peering up at the stars. The rest, hundreds maybe, are milling about inside a huge tent, talking with friends or lying awake in their sleeping bags. All of them are in the middle of the desert, and all are there for free.

    It is a Taglit-Birthright trip, one of hundreds that have taken roughly 150,000 young Jewish students from over 50 countries to Israel for ten-day tours of the country since the creation of the program in 2000.

    The trips run throughout the year, but the most popular ones run over the summer and the period that most colleges and universities have their winter breaks.

    The program is paid for entirely by the Birthright Israel Foundation (which receives donations from private philanthropists), the government of Israel, and Jewish communities around the world.

    The purpose of the trip, according to Taglit-Birthright’s website, is to “diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world.” “It is important to make sure that Jews feel they have a home in Israel,” said Yuval, the tour guide who accompanied Bus #725 on their trip this January.

    Stony Brook University, through the campus chapter of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, partnered with Brooklyn College’s Hillel to fill a bus (#725) with 39 students. That bus, in turn, was a part of a six-bus caravan that largely remained together throughout the trip, staying in the same hotel in Jerusalem and visiting many of the same locations.

    The trip began in the Golan Heights, located in the northeast corner of Israel, which is roughly the size of New Jersey. From there, participants toured an army base that played a key role in the Yom Kippur War in the early 1970s, crossed the Sea of Galilee in a boat, and unwound in the city of Tiberius.

    From there, the trip moved south to the Dead Sea area, where Stony Brook’s participants, along with four or five other buses’ members, spent the night in a Bedouin tent encampment before hiking up Mount Masada to see the sunrise.

    Later, after a swim in the Dead Sea, the buses drove to Jerusalem, where participants remained for the remainder of the trip, taking day trips to museums, memorials and other locales.

    Birthright has, in eight years, become something of a given, amongst Jewish college students. Out of 30 Jewish students polled from schools in and around New York City, all, but one, knew at least one person who had participated in a Birthright trip, and all of them said they either have, or wanted to participate in a trip themselves.

    In order to qualify for the Birthright trips, students must be at least half Jewish (“we round up,” one Birthright official said) and may not have already participated in a youth-oriented tour to Israel already. Taglit-Birthright provides the funding, but trip organizers provide the itinerary. Many college students choose to go with their schools’ Hillel, as the Stony Brook contingent did, but some choose to participate in themed trips. There are trips that have more of an outdoors approach, ones that are more religious, and ones that are more secular. These trips are open to anybody aged 18-26, and operate all across the world. For example, at the hotel in Jerusalem, there was a group from Australia on a similar program.

    As with any program as large and as popular as Birthright, there are some complaints about the way Birthright handles the increasingly polarized politics of Israel and the crisis in the Middle East.

    Birthright makes no claims to a holistic approach to the situation; in fact, they openly state that a secondary goal of the trips is “to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry.”

    But at times, that can lead to a tricky confrontation between Jews who see themselves as Zionists and those who perhaps are more sympathetic to the Palestinians who are caught up in a centuries-old conflict. Regardless, most participants are more than willing to put their personal beliefs aside in the name of a good time.

    “When I went on Birthright, we had many students who were completely in support of Israel’s every move and just as many who looked at the situation with a more skeptical eye” said Jessica, a student who went on Birthright with her school, the University of Maryland. “But that never got in the way of friendships or activities.”

    Stony Brook students who participated this winter, also ran the gamut of opinions and beliefs, and again, there was little if any animosity by trip’s end.

    The trip ran later than most Birthright trips over the winter break, due largely to the fact that Stony Brook does nOt begin the semester until the last week in January. Many other schools return earlier, and thus have to schedule their trips earlier. In doing so, there are far more people on early January trips than late January ones, according to a Columbia University student who had been on one of these earlier trips last year.

    Birthright has steadily gained in popularity since the first trip in the winter of 2000. The creation of Taglit-Birthright also happened to coincide with the reemergence of violence in Israel between the Palestinians and the Jews in Israel. For the first few years, parts of Israel were closed off to Birthright tours due to security concerns. As the tension lessened, the restrictions were gradually lifted. However, this did not guaranteed safe passage. Birthright groups were a stone’s throw away from an Israeli nightclub that was destroyed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in Tel Aviv in 2002. When Lebanon and Israel engaged in battles in the summer of 2006, Birthright trips were in Israel at the time. The Stony Brook group that was there then, visited several towns and locations that had been victimized by attacks as recently as a few months prior to the trip.

    Safety, though, on this past trip in January was never a serious concern. The only mention of a limitation on travel was in the old city of Jerusalem, where students were not permitted inside the Arab quarter of the city.

    Above all, the difficulties and tension in Israel was not the focus of the trip. Instead, the participants were focused on connecting, or reconnecting, to their faith and forming new friendships and this was the birthright that most people preferred to dwell on.

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