Kiera Feldman writes:
The seekers are young, just beginning to face the disappointments of adulthood. Their journey is often marked by tears. They may weep while praying at the Western Wall, their heads pressed against the weathered stone, or at the Holocaust Museum, as they pass the piles of shoes of the dead. Others tear up in Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery, while embracing a handsome IDF soldier in the late afternoon light. But at some point during their all-expenses-paid ten-day trip to a land where, as they are constantly reminded, every mountain and valley is inscribed with 5,000 years of their people’s history, the moment almost always comes.
When Julie Feldman (no relation), then 26 and a Reform Jew from New York City, arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in December 2008, she called herself “a blank slate.” She returned as the attack on Gaza was under way, armed with a new “pro-Israel” outlook. “Israel really changed me,” she said. “I truly felt when I came back that I was a different person.”
It was mission accomplished for Birthright Israel, the American Zionist organization that has, since its founding in 1999, spent almost $600 million to send more than 260,000 young diaspora Jews on free vacations to the Holy Land.
Birthright co-founder Charles Bronfman claims he just provides free airfare and lodging. “Then,” he says, “Israel does its magic.” Indeed, in 2009 Brandeis University researchers found that almost three-quarters of alumni describe their Birthright experience as “life changing.” “If you come here, and you connect to the origins of the Jewish people, the country that forged our existence, our faith, our values,” then–Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu promised in a 2008 Birthright video, “it’ll change your life forever.”
Bronfman’s partner in founding Birthright, Michael Steinhardt, professes faith in Israel as “a substitute for theology.” Steinhardt understands that for a generation weaned on irony, Birthright could offer an opportunity for deep, wholehearted conviction. “My liberal arts education taught me that any distinct concept or ideal will crumble under the scrutiny of too many questions,” laments a recent college grad writing on her Birthright experience, which taught her “it was okay and even honorable to believe in the state of Israel, to adopt, so to speak, the settlers’ original dream.” Her Jewcy.com essay is hardly unique: Birthright has generated reams of effusive essays and blog posts over the years.
Barry Chazan, a Hebrew University professor emeritus and the architect of Birthright’s curriculum, explains in a celebratory 2008 book, Ten Days of Birthright Israel, that the trip is designed so travelers “are bombarded with information.” The goal is to produce “an emotionally overwhelming experience” that “helps participants open themselves to learning.” On my own Birthright trip last year, I experienced the Chazan Effect. Chronically underslept, hurled through a mind-numbing itinerary, I experienced, despite my best efforts to maintain a reportorial stance, a return to the intensity of feeling of childhood.
“This is not a vacation,” a Birthright employee pronounced the first evening, before shooing us to the hotel bar. “You are embarking on a journey.” Just four nights later, my steel trap of a heart was overcome by emotion upon seeing my new Birthright crush dancing with another girl. I fled to my room and cried.
Conceived as “the selling of Jewishness to Jews,” in Bronfman’s words, Birthright trips are offered in dozens of varieties, from secular to Orthodox, from outdoorsy to LGBT-friendly. Crisscrossing the country in rollicking tour buses, Birthright participants between 18 and 26 swim in the Dead Sea, ride camels, visit the occupied Golan Heights, listen to lectures on Zionism and spend their nights boozing and flirting with the IDF soldiers assigned to accompany them. Trips are conducted by a variety of contracted tour providers, each designing itineraries approved by Birthright’s central office in Jerusalem. Itineraries must include core sites (the Western Wall, Masada) and curricular themes (“The History of Zionism”), and Birthright maintains rigorous quality control. Currently, there are seventeen tour providers, with Hillel, the international Jewish campus group, among the largest. Each trip is overseen by two American camp counselor figures, an Israeli guide and a rifle-toting guard.
The free trip is framed as a “gift” from philanthropists, Jewish federations and the State of Israel. Far-right Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is the largest individual donor, having given Birthright $100 million over the past five years. The Israeli government provided Birthright $100 million during the program’s first decade; Prime Minister Netanyahu recently announced another $100 million in government funding. Birthright’s budget for 2011 is $87 million, a number expected to reach $126 million by 2013, enough to bring 51,000 participants to Israel that year alone.