Thoughts on Birthright Israel

Over winter break, I finally took the plunge and went on Birthright. For those of you that don’t know, Birthright (technically called “Taglit Birthright”) is a program that sends American Jews on a ten-day trip to Israel… for free. It sounds too good to be true, but there’s no catch. It really is free, even airfare. All Birthright requires is that you’re Jewish and between 18-26. I returned the day my classes started again here, so I’ve just now beaten the jetlag to write down a few thoughts:

  • After traveling for close to sixty hours, then averaging three hours of sleep for ten days, every reclining surface looks like a bed.
  • There is a huge maturity difference between being 18-22, even if you’re on the high side of the scale, and being 22-26. Birthright splits participants in half according to age; our particular program put our group alongside a younger group for much of the trip. The difference was obvious.
  • Israelis don’t drink whiskey. They don’t know what they’re missing. The closest you can get to Jack Daniels at a liquor store is scotch. I died a little inside when I realized this.
  • When an Israeli tells you, “everything is 45 minutes away,” that can mean anything from 10 minutes to 3 hours.
    • Corollary to this one: the Israeli stereotype that they’re terrible at giving directions is 100% true. A typical answer to a request for directions goes like this: “Well, you go down this street for a little while, turn right, and then turn left. Then ask someone else. You’ll find it!” Then the Israeli walks away, leaving you bewildered.
  • Instagram, or The App That Lets You Take Hipster Photos, is amazingly popular among people from Los Angeles.
  • Going on Birthright is a little like going on a cruise: you go to different places every day, hang out with the same people every time, and you are often targeted with special “birthright-only!” tourist offers from enterprising merchants. Getting off the beaten path takes a little creativity and camouflage.
  •  Every schwarma stand is “The Best Schwarma In Israel!” And actually, when it’s three in the afternoon and you haven’t eaten since your yogurt and cucumber breakfast at 7 AM because you were touring four cultural landmarks, they’re all correct.
  • Americans take an abnormal number of pictures.
  • Tebowing has not yet reached the Holy Land.
  • Persians (we had seven Iranians on our trip) do not have an off switch.
  • Also, Persian humor consists primarily of a chanted story involving a parsley store owner spanking a female customer; then again, a significant chapter in American comedic history involved dead baby jokes, so I probably shouldn’t make fun.
  • In Israel, the first line of medical treatment for any ailment, such as a broken foot, is to “drink a glass of water and sleep it off.”
  • The second line of treatment is simply to wrap it in an Ace bandage.
  • The city of Tsfat, where Kabbalah is studied, essentially consists of extremely pious, extremely stoned expats. The particular Kabbalist artist all Birthright groups go to see is named Avraham. Avraham is actually from Detroit, and he is a YouTube sensation for his permahigh speeches.
  • The Bedouin tent experience is really excellent, right up until the space heater breaks.
  • Iberia Airlines is hands-down the worst airline in the history of mankind, and that includes United and American.
  • Finally, when you try to board a plane to Washington DC after 48 hours of traveling (from Israel to Madrid to Los Angeles), you get profiled at the security checkpoint and “randomly selected for additional screening,” because anyone looks murderous at that point.

Serious note: When I signed up for Birthright, a few of my friends raised a skeptical eyebrow. I had been pushed all through my undergraduate experience – from family, returned Birthright alumni, and religious leaders – to go myself, but I resisted out of some bizarre principled opposition to Birthright’s goals. I thought that Birthright sought not only to turn every American Jew into a fire-breathing Zionist, incapable of seeing any fault in Israel, but also to encourage the rare formation of a Jewish marriage. I called it “P&P,” propaganda and procreation. I eventually signed up because the lure of free international travel eventually won out.

My skepticism was unfounded. Birthright openly acknowledges its reason for existence: yes, they want to create defenders of Israel, but Birthright is more a push to impel you to return. The organizers reiterate often that Birthright is “just a taste,” and everyone always tries to get you to extend your trip – to stay on in Israel without the tour guide, the herding of hordes of Americans, and the overloaded schedule. For those that couldn’t extend, like myself, the goal was to convince us to come back. And in that endeavor, I suspect they’ve succeeded.  I’d love to go back and spend a more reasonable amount of time exploring Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and all that Israel has to offer – so I guess Birthright worked as intended.

Tel Aviv

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Birthright Israel

  1. You may not realize what happened here: despite every attempt to articulate exhaustion, impatience, deficiency and zealotry, you inadvertently wrote a GLOWINGLY optimistic post. Oh good god. Are you having a primary adult epiphany? Are you coming over to the rosy side?

    Next you’ll be predicting a fine season for the Ravens

  2. Hey Nate. Glad to read your post — and hope that you DO go back soon. There really is so much to do and see and learn there, and for a small country, it’s pretty amazing how far it’s come in just over 60 years. Next time, spend time in Tel Aviv, now considered one of the coolest cities in the world (just ask Emily…). Also, medical research and practice is world-class. Let me know if you want me to introduce you to some senior doctors and PhD-types who are at the cutting edge of medical science and research. Meanwhile, have a great semester! Ralph

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