A trip to Israel can be an inspiring experience, and for Jews around the world aged 18 to 26 there is an opportunity to travel to the Holy Land for free. Taglit-Birthright Israel is a foundation that provides educational 10-day group tours of Israel. The foundation is funded through private donors around the world and has operated tours since 2000. In the first ten years, Birthright has provided free trips to Israel for almost a quarter of a million Jewish youths.
In 2005, I joined a Birthright tour out of New York. After meeting people at Hillel at University of Colorado who had joined previous tours, I decided to apply for the trip before I was too old. I had hoped to join the graduate tour group that was reserved for college graduates and graduate students. Unfortunately, I was informed that the specific program was overbooked and there was a chance I would not be able to join it. However, I was given the option of joining a younger tour group for the same 10 days-the tour wasn’t full and I would be guaranteed a spot. I was one of three people on the tour who had graduated college-most of our group were 18 or 19 years old.
The tours are carefully planned, but the itinerary is never released in advance-security for each tour is tight, and depending on the situation the itinerary may change. Each tour group has one armed guard, which can be a little unsettling for some travelers. Although the itinerary is kept quiet, each tour includes trips to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and historical sites around Tel Aviv. The tour also is altered depending on the trip organizer-some are more religious while others are more focused on outdoor adventure tourism. In the past, there have been tours that included short home-stays with Palestinian families in the West Bank.
Throughout the trip, our tour was packed-the plan was to leave the hotel before 8 am and not return until late in the evening. This meant that we were able to see a lot of Israel in a short time, but it was also exhausting. Being on a tour with young college students also meant that we were always running late-there were always a few that weren’t motivated enough to be on time.
As part of the experience of a Birthright Israel trip, a group of eight Israeli soldiers joined the tour for a few days. It was meant as a cultural exchange-an opportunity for the tourists to meet young Israelis. There were also opportunities for the group to meet with other Birthright tour groups from other countries.
One of the highlights for me was a trip to the Negev desert with a night at a Bedouin camp. That was followed by a sunrise hike up Masada that ended with a relaxing afternoon floating in the Dead Sea.
Birthright Israel also has programs for its alumni in some cities. They offer events and opportunities to meet with other program participants. There are also discounted tours of Israel for those who want to return.