On May 24, the first group of Birthright Israel participants landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The yearlong halt was the first time that Birthright Israel, the largest educational tourism organization in the world, cancelled its 10-day heritage trips in 22 years. Since its inception in 1999, Birthright has provided over 750,000 free trips to Israel to young Jewish adults.
With trips back in action this summer, students are excited to finally experience Birthright Israel themselves.
“Even amidst the pandemic, we have not seen a decline in students who want to go on Birthright. If anything, we’ve seen a big uptick in students who are interested in going,” said Cassie Perez, IACT Coordinator at the University of Delaware Hillel. “A majority of our students are like, ‘I wanna do something— I’ve been stuck in my apartment for a year and a half.’”
The IACT (Inspired, Active, Committed, Transformed) initiative, started by Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), began working with Hillel last year. At 30 Hillels across the United States, IACT coordinators work to energize Israel engagement before and after student Birthright Israel experiences. IACT coordinators may also travel with their students on the trip.
Unsurprisingly, this summer’s trips look slightly different than those before the pandemic. Groups are limited to 20 participants— half the size of the pre-pandemic groups. All participants are required to be fully vaccinated and must also present a negative PCR test before flying as well as a serological test once in Israel. All groups must abide by social distancing and mask-wearing orders as directed by Israel’s Ministry of Health. The meaningful activities of the trip—such as visiting the Western Wall and Masada, among others— are expected to be largely the same.
“In the summer, we typically take two buses [of participants] and there are times when all 80 people are together. While it’s great to see that huge Jewish community, it can be harder to make friends and really get to know so many different people. I’m hoping that the smaller 20 person groups will become more tight-knit,” said Rachel Sasiene, IACT Coordinator at the University of Miami Hillel.
Tight-knit and personal engagement has been at the cornerstone of Israel engagement while Birthright was paused.
“I did a four-part virtual Israeli cooking club series for students. We cooked together on Zoom and then they would share with their roommates; things from bourekas to homemade tahini. There was a lot of impact not only on our students but their roommates as well. They got to share Israeli experiences with people who wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to them,” said Kaya Rubinstein, Director of Leadership and Engagement at the Oregon Hillel Foundation.
In an effort to virtually recreate one of the most impactful aspects of the trip, the days spent with the Israeli soldiers, Birthright launched a pilot program pairing American students with individual IDF soldiers. The pairs met online multiple times throughout the semester, with the goal of eventually meeting in person on Birthright.
“Talking to someone my age on the other side of the world really puts things into perspective; the stress and worry I feel about school work whereas she is a commander in training in the army, protecting a county and the Jewish people... Talking to her has been my favorite part of each week. We’ve shared many laughs, talked about our childhoods, our interests, our hopes for the future. I’ve found a friend in her and I'm so thankful to have been paired up,” said Isabella Duarte, a first-year-student at the University of Delaware Hillel.
“By the time you reach the end of your trip, or even by the time they finish their pilot program, you really do build a meaningful friendship with the mifgash and through that a really meaningful relationship with Israel...Having these Israeli soldiers, virtually or in person, makes Israel feel more like a home,” said Perez.
Now that the questions of if-and-when Birthright would make its return have been answered, it’s time to get packing. Register for July or August Birthright tips at FreeIsraelTrip.org/Go.