Caleb Deitch can still vividly remember the older Israeli man wearing the red fez he met on the Birthright Israel trip two years ago.
As he stood with his fellow Jewish students — some rediscovering their heritage, others cementing their spirituality — the man with the red fez asked them what Israelis think of American Jews.
After a few moments, the older Israeli decided to answer his own question.
“We care for you. We think of you as family. There is always a home for you here,” he said.
While Deitch may have forgotten his name, his words have remained.
“That was amazing,” he said. “That was a defining moment.”
Deitch was just one of the over 28,000 Jewish students that have jumped at the opportunity to spend ten free days exploring the tiny country since the program’s inception in December of 1999.
According to the program’s Web site, the program was originally conceived to send 100,000 Jews, aged 18 to 26, to Israel within a five-year span.
The Israeli government, local Jewish communities and a group of philanthropists led by Canadian Charles R. Bronfman and American Michael H. Steinhardt fund the trips. According to a story in the Jerusalem Post that ran in February of this year, $210 million had been pledged to the program.
The trip is considered educational; the developers hoped students would use the time to learn more about their heritage. Organizers hoped to strengthen the bonds between the diasporic Jews and their religious history in an attempt to quell their secularization.
While the trip is about connecting with one’s roots, how that is done is up to the individual.
“A lot of people are hesitant about the trips because they think it’s a brainwash,” Deitch said. “Go there with an open mind; if you don’t, you’ll miss so much.”
Students are kept busy all ten days, with Jeep rides in the Golan Heights, barbecue lunches by the Dead Sea and walking tours of Jerusalem.
While critics have questioned the effectiveness of a crash course in Jewish history, Hillel coordinator Ken Krivitsky sees the trip another way.
“I would say a large, large percentage come back better connected to Judaism,” he said. “It changes them; they come back and feel connected.”
While the trip may be beneficial for students, it also carries some risk. With the ongoing hostilities between the Israelis and Palestinians rocking the country, certain liberties were scaled back.
Tours are not conducted through the West Bank, Gaza or East Jerusalem, which have been pegged as trouble spots. Coordinators are in constant contact with the Israeli government and are notified of any hotspots to avoid. The tour groups are also accompanied by armed guards at all times.
The groups do not stay in hotels that are located in major cities and free time is severely limited to group activities. Students are barred from venturing around at night.
“I can’t say it’s 100 percent safe. We take every safety precaution,” Krivitsky said. “We will change a trip in the middle of it; luckily, this has not been a problem. We have never run into any violence. Some would say we were lucky; I credit our safety rules.”
He said the trip used to have two different aspects: one part educational, one part Spring Break. Now the trip is completely educational.
“We’re not going to have any students going into a city they do not know,” he said.
Krivitsky said local interest in the trip has lessened because of the violence. But he also sees that as a positive.
“We don’t want any student going who is not comfortable going in this environment,” he said. “The students applying now are more serious than we used to get. They are more serious about the education.”
While the current environment may limit the amount of students attending, the people the groups meet are more than willing to show them the positive side.
“The most common refrain heard is ‘welcome home.’ You hear that constantly, people are so excited. It’s the Jewish homeland,” said Krivitsky.
According to a January 2001 poll taken by Gallup Israel taken on behalf of Birthright Israel and reported by the Jerusalem Post, 85 percent of Israelis believe the ties between Israel and the Diasporic communities need to be strengthened.
“Israelis support this trip,” said Krivitsky. “Hey, these are people that might move to Israel; they want an educated Jewish community.”
Deitch, a 22-year-old Political Science major who is graduating in May, did not have a strong connection to his Jewish heritage growing up, although he had decided when he was young that he wanted to visit Israel at least once in his life.
“I wasn’t involved with the Jewish community at all,” he said. “I never hung out with other Jewish kids until I came to Temple. After the trip, I started coming to Hillel more often.”
Before the trip, he said he felt like a “stranger in a strange land.” Deitch is now considering a move to San Diego to do programming work for the Hillel chapter. “I know the trip to Israel had something to do with it,” he said.
As for the man in the red fez, his message to Deitch may have spoken volumes about the Israelis feelings toward their overseas brothers and sisters.
“They are looking to the future, not to the past. They are not giving a free trip to my mom,” he said. “They’re saying ‘Listen, this is your heritage. It’s rich and colorful. Now it’s your choice.'”
Mike Gainer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org