Birthright Israel is back.
The program, which sponsors 10-day free trips to Israel, is resuming this summer after a two-year hiatus because of the pandemic.
“We are devoted to running a summer Birthright program,” said Daniel Marcus, executive director and CEO of Hillel Jewish University Center, which coordinates the trips for Pittsburgh university students.
More than 50 students have already signed up for the trip, which leaves May 19, Marcus said, noting that the number is high for this early in the year.
Students, he said, pay a $250 deposit, which they get back upon completing the trip.
Aware that there is a pent-up desire to travel to the Jewish state after such a long hiatus, Marcus said Hillel-JUC will ensure that every Jewish student who wants to go on a Birthright trip will have the opportunity.
Connections that students make on a Birthright trip, Marcus said, become part of their Jewish identity; and Hillel provides education and support before, during and after the trip.
“Equally as important is that there’s excellent follow-up when they return to campus,” Marcus said. “So, the Birthright trip is part of an ongoing relationship with Israel, with Jewish identity and with Hillel JUC.”
Jared Stein, as Hillel’s IACT (Inspired, Active, Committed, Transformed) coordinator, organizes Hillel’s Birthright trip for all of the colleges and universities in the Pittsburgh region.
“We have several students that have been trying to go to Israel over the last two years and have applied for every trip [which were canceled because of COVID-19],” Stein said. “For some of them, it’s their last chance to go with Pitt or CMU. It’s a very big deal to be going to Israel this summer and getting those people who really wanted to go for a long time.”
While all Birthright trips share aspects in common — such as visits to Masada, the Kotel, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, for instance — each trip is nonetheless distinct, Stein said.
“What makes our trip unique is that we have a Building Israel Connections Engagement Program grant that allows us to have extra funding,” he said. “So, we have Israelis coming on our trip for all 10 days, and we have two extra activities funded by the grant.”
One of those activities, he said, will be geopolitical in nature; the other will be cultural.
Earlier this year, it was announced that Birthright Israel had merged with Onward Israel, which offers two-month summer internships for students in Israel and includes educational seminars and trips around the country.
Stein said students planning to intern through Onward Israel can take advantage of the Birthright Israel trip beforehand.
“We time our trips so there is the least amount of time between the end of Birthright and the beginning of Onward,” he said. “In that way, we can allow students to extend their trips and not have to pay for their plane ticket. It’s the perfect opportunity to see the country, travel for 10 days and go right into internships with companies, research institutions and universities.”
The Birthright trips are funded in part through the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
“One of the reasons Federation invests in these programs is because all the research shows that when you do an experience like this, it’s giving young people a taste of what Israel is, giving them that hunger for more,” said Debbie Swartz, the Federation’s overseas planning coordinator. “If we can get one young person to say, ‘That was amazing, I need to go back,’ then I think we’ve succeeded.”
Both Stein and Swartz interview students for the Onward Israel program — Stein interviews students in Pittsburgh, Swartz speaks to students from Pittsburgh who attend out-of-town universities.
“I interviewed one young woman and asked her why she was applying to go with the Pittsburgh cohort, because she could have had gone with her university and her Hillel,” Swartz recalled. “She said, ‘It’s because I trust Federation.’ I thought that was a great testament to the work we do here in the community.”
Marcus said Birthright and Onward Israel should be viewed in combination.
“Birthright is among the most transformative Jewish experiences for Jewish students,” he said. “Onward Israel deepens and widens and extends the students’ connection and experiences to Israel and their Jewish identity.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicleorg.