For senior clinical nutrition major Natalie Katz, the decision to sign up for a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip was a no-brainer. Ten days of sightseeing? Check. Reconnecting with her heritage? Check. All expenses paid? Check.
“We’d wake up, have breakfast, go on a hike for three or four hours and learn about the area. We did a lot of activities – whitewater rafting, camels and touring cities,” Katz said.”It’s like Davis – people who go to UC Davis tend to love being here, and Birthright’s the same. Everyone has an amazing time and amazing experience.”
Birthright is a completely free, 10-day trip to Israel offered to any Jewish person between ages 18 to 26 who has never been to Israel before. Last Tuesday, Hillel at Davis and Sacramento opened registration for their summer 2011 trip.
Taglit-Birthright Israel was founded to reconnect young Jewish adults with their community and build a connection to Israel. The program is funded by private donations and the Israeli government, though it is not an Israeli organization.
“Judaism is a nation, not just a religion,” said Guy Bershadesky, Israel fellow at Hillel. “[Birthright] is trying to connect them to their heritage and show them what they read in scriptures and bible.”
To qualify, people must be either Jewish by birth, converts to Judaism or be strongly connected to the Jewish community.
To apply, applicants choose one of several trip organizers, groups approved by Taglit-Birthright Israel to manage trips. Though all trip organizers must take travelers to certain locations such as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, each group has a slightly overall itinerary.
Last summer, Katz traveled with Israel Outdoors, a popular trip organizer that focuses on nature activities and adventure sports. Bershadesky said Hillel’s trip is more general, with plans including hiking, religious services and sightseeing in the cities.
As soon as a trip organizer’s registration opens, Birthright hopefuls are encouraged to apply, since spots are awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis. Applicants fill out logistical information online, participate in a quick interview and pay a $100 to $200 deposit, which is refunded after the application process is over. All lodging, food and airfare is provided.
Though Katz had to apply three times before she was finally selected, Bershadesky said Hillel typically receives only 80 to 100 applicants. There is a good chance even first-time applicants will be selected for their upcoming trip, which will accept 40 to 50 people.
A Hillel staff member, an Israeli guide and security guards travel with each group. Bershadesky said the trip is extremely safe and will cancel any activity planned in an area that may be dangerous.
Davis resident Lisa Goldberg took her Birthright trip in the summer of 2006 and said the best part was getting to see so much of the country in such a short period of time.
“If you were to go somewhere for 10 days on your own, you don’t really know where to go and it’s hard to plan. But they’ve got everything planned,” Goldberg said. “So you see almost everything in 10 days and you’re constantly moving.”
Meeting Israeli soldiers her own age was an unforgettable experience for Katz, who enjoyed her trip so much she is planning on going back to Israel this summer with her family.
“Being Jewish here in the U.S. is so different from being Jewish in Israel, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. It was really cool talking with [the soldiers] and comparing what their life is like and what our life is like,” Katz said.
Neither Katz, Bershadesky nor Goldberg could fathom why anyone who qualified wouldn’t want to take a Birthright trip. The chance to travel to the other side of the world at no cost is an amazing opportunity students should take advantage of, they said.
“If you’ve never gone to Israel and you never thought of going but you’re Jewish and you’ve heard of birthright and you have no concept of what Israel is, it’s worth going because you’ll be so surprised,” Goldberg said. “I think a lot of people think of Israel as a third world country but it’s not at all.”
For Katz, Birthright succeeded in its mission. Memories of bonding with her fellow travelers and experiencing life in a country so significant to her heritage have kept her eager to return to Israel.
“Being there and being surrounded by Jewish people all the time is a very unique thing you don’t get being in another country. It was constantly on my mind that I’m around Jews and I’m in Israel, which is our place. I just felt very connected while I was there.”
Registration for the Taglit-Birthright Israel Hillel summer 2011 trip opened Feb. 15. Those interested in applying can do so at http://www.hillel.org/israel/travel/bri_hillel/brim.htm.
ERIN MIGDOL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.