What to Expect on a Birthright Trip (And Why You Should Go)
Birthright: A 10-day trip to Israel that is almost 100 percent free. It sounds too good to be true, right? Well it is true and it’s an experience that any person between the ages of 18 and 26 can have, so long as they have at least one Jewish parent or have converted to the Jewish religion.
It seems like the words “free trip” would basically have every anyone immediately packing a suitcase, ready to set off. But that is not always the case. In fact, when I first heard about the opportunity, I was pretty hesitant to sign up. I waited over five years before I finally did decide to go on the trip. The reason I was so hesitant was because I am half Jewish and not religious, so I wasn’t sure if I would be welcomed. And even though I loved the idea of going to Israel, I waited and waited, debating whether or not the experience was right for me.
But I eventually decided to sign up. And after going on the trip I can personally conclude that you do not have to be a religious person to go. There are a lot of different programs and some are more religious than others. In each group there are 30 to 40 people, and each person has a different experience and connection to Judaism. There were people on all parts of the “religious” spectrum. Some were very conservative, others nonreligious and many who fell somewhere in between. Religion was a small part of the trip, but an even bigger part was learning about Israel, its culture, its history and how you as a Jew fit into all of it. It was about seeing different places and talking to different types of people. I never felt uncomfortable with the fact that I am nonreligious and I really enjoyed learning from other people’s experiences and knowledge.
When it comes to the “free” part, this is basically true. Every hotel, all activities, the plane tickets, breakfast/dinner and all transportation were paid for by Birthright. The only thing you are expected to pay for is lunch and if you want to buy any souvenirs or extra things throughout the day, like a coffee or snack. Additionally, you need to get to the airport that your program flies out of. At the time, I was in Washington D.C. and needed to pay for a domestic flight to New York, where my program’s plane departed. But all in all, it’s a pretty great deal!
So now that we covered the eligibility and costs, maybe you are wondering what you do during a 10 day birthright trip. Some programs are geared more towards adventure and some focus more on culture. But in general, the itineraries are very similar. You will travel throughout the country, spending time in Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem, the Negev desert and the North, close to the border of Syria and Lebanon. You will go on a couple different hikes, swim in the dead sea, visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem, see the Holocaust museum and much more. They squeeze a lot of great activities and sights into just 10 days. I was very lucky to be on the trip during Chanukah and New Years Eve. This meant I was able to try special Chanukah donuts and go out for NYE in Jerusalem — which doesn’t happen on every trip.
There are also have other activities that are not advertised on the Birthright website. For example, each night there was a different type of talk or exercise where you learned about different subjects. Some of these activities were really interesting. Personally, I liked hearing from a few of the speakers or doing group activities with Israeli soldiers, where we were able to learn about different perspectives and experiences. Additionally we heard from a bone marrow organization and watched a video about the entrepreneur culture in Tel-Aviv. Every speaker and activity kept my attention, but a few of the activities I would have skipped if I had the choice.
But the truth is, a Birthright trip is extremely planned and has a set itinerary that you are expected to follow. Your group leader may only allow you 30 minutes in the market when you want to stay an hour. And there are curfews and designated nights when you can go out. But there is no straying from the rules, because doing so may result in you paying for your plane ticket home. This was definitely a bit weird for me, as I am very accustomed to traveling alone or living in another country without set rules or boundaries. But this is part of the Birthright trip and it is something you need to go along with if you want to be apart of the experience.
Regardless of the rules, if you were to ask me whether or not I would recommend the trip I would say 100 percent yes. It’s a different way of seeing a country, but it is free and there are a lot of experiences you can have and people you can meet through this specific trip. All trips invite Israeli soldiers to join the group for at least five days and you can hear stories and learn things from them that you can’t anywhere else. In general, the sites are amazing and all of the guides in my group were fantastic. I learned a little Hebrew and ate a lot of shawarma. And all in all, my experience was really special and I think it is something more people should take advantage of if they have the opportunity.