In late December, 15 Jewish F&M students will travel approximately 5,000 miles to embark on a journey more than 300,000 people from almost 60 countries have already completed.
From Dec. 29 to Jan. 9 these students will travel throughout Israel on a Birthright trip, which is a program funded by the Israeli government, local Jewish communities, and Jewish philanthropists, to provide young Jews with a free trip to Israel. Participants travel throughout Israel with a group of peers and visit sites of historic, cultural, and religious significance to strengthen the bond with their Jewish identities and express solidarity with Israel.
The annual Birthright trip F&M students participate in will be chaperoned by Jordan Stutz, the engagement and Jewish life coordinator, and Ralph Taber, associate dean of the College and director of the Klehr Center for Jewish Life.
In mid-September, Stutz picked students for the trip based on interviews with them in which he took into account their mental and emotional preparation for the trip, whether they had visited Israel before, and why they wanted to go on the trip.
“The trip shouldn’t be a person’s first taste of Judaism,” Stutz said. “They should have some form of knowledge of it, though it doesn’t have to be extensive — it could be through F&M Hillel or another place — and the trip builds on those prior experiences.”
The F&M students will travel through Israel along with students from Dickinson College, the University of California, Berkeley, and Israeli soldiers, who are native to Israel and go on the trip to learn more about Israel’s history and visit different areas of the country.
At a recent meeting with the Birthright participants that was led by Stutz, students attempted to label a blank map of Israel with the places they will visit, including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, Tzfat, the Dead Sea, Eilat, the Golan Heights, and Mt. Madasa.
While going over the location of each place, Stutz shared historical information about each area and personal anecdotes from his visits on previous Birthright trips.
“When the Jews were being attacked by the Romans, they defended themselves from the top of the mountain [Mt. Masada],” Stutz said. “The Jewish army created such a crazy path to get up the mountain they expected the Roman army to be dissuaded from climbing up it, but now they expect crazy American tourists to walk up it. And your legs will hurt by the end.”
Stutz countered this somewhat discouraging prediction by informing the students there is also an enjoyable McDonald’s at the bottom of the mountain.
“They make a Texas burger and a New Yorker and it’s basically their take on what they think Americans would want to eat,” Stutz said.
Stutz mentioned the McDonald’s would not serve cheese on the hamburgers, highlighting some of the cultural difference between Israel and the U.S. While patrons could get cheese if they asked for it, Stutz said they would probably be looked at strangely.
Of the many cities and landmarks the students will visit, many students said they are most excited to visit Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.
“The first time I went to the Dead Sea, it was disgustingly hot and the air was really thick,” Stutz said. “It’s really good for your skin, you get mud on you but you feel really oily afterwards. It’s very weird, but also cool.”
Stutz explained that, despite some of the perceptions about the security of Israel, in reality it is generally a very secure place.
“There are few police needed on the street,” Stutz said. “Birthright provides a huge boost to the Israeli economy and it is in the interest and priority of the Israeli government to keep the kids on Birthright safe so others will come too and the program can be sustainable.”
Stutz also explained it is a tradition of Hillel for students on the trip to choose a challah cover to buy, which is then used at Hillel’s weekly Shabbat dinners. All the challah covers Hillel uses were purchased in Israel by different Birthright groups over the years.
One highlight of the meeting was the unveiling of humorous T-shirts that have been designed specifically for this winter’s F&M Birthright trip. They feature drawings of the busts of Ben Franklin and John Marshall wearing yarmulkes.
In addition, three F&M students who have gone on Birthright trips previously, Jamie Gross ’14, Chelsea Berg ’15, and Sarah Pollock ’13, came to the meeting to answer questions and talk about their experiences.
“Getting to know people from other schools and having that immediate connection of both being Jewish was great,” Gross said. “The bonding with everyone on our bus was unexpected and it got very emotional by the end, especially at the Holocaust museum. I didn’t expect it to be so emotional.”
Pollock mentioned the benefits of having Israeli soldiers traveling with them, as they provided more opportunities for learning about Israeli life.
“Getting to know people who actually live in Israel and are close to you in age was one of my favorite parts,” Pollock said. “They were really cool to ride the bus with and ask questions from.”
Stutz said the students should take full advantage of the opportunities available for experiencing different aspects of Israeli culture, including going to clubs and even drinking while bonding with others on the trip. Yet Gross, Pollock, and Berg agreed that drinking excessively was unnecessary.
“To be honest, you’re not going to want to be like ‘white-Jew-wasted,’” Gross said. “You’re going to be so tired from the daily activities and want to be able to do all the activities fully the next day.”
They also agreed that Birthright had a lifelong effect on them and made them feel closer to their Jewish heritage.
“I originally had no interest in going, but ended up going with a friend who really wanted to go,” Berg said. “I ended up loving it; it was honestly the best 10 days of my life.”
Questions? Email Julia at firstname.lastname@example.org.