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March 26, 2014 - Image 11

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6B Wednesday, March 26, 2014 / The Statement
Discovering identity: Birthright trips as individual experience
by Katie Burke

the thought bubble

Free trips are often advertised as a sweep-
stakes grand prize or a selling point for a
family vacation. For Jewish youth, however,
one free trip in particular provides a way to
explore and experience an ancient and com-
plicated identity.
Taglit-Birthright is a 10-day, expenses-
paid trip to Israel for Jewish 18 to 26 year
olds around the world. Charles Bronfman,
former co-chairman of Seagrams, and
Michael Steinhardt, an American hedge
fund manager, founded the program in
1999, in cooperation with the Israeli gov-
ernment, the Jewish Agency of Israel,
private philanthropists and international
Jewish communities.
Israel was established as a Jewish state
in 1948, fueling territorial disputes that
have at times escalated to armed confron-
tations, and continue today.
The area in which Israel is located has
ties to all three major monotheistic reli-
gions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The city of Jerusalem is home to major
holy sites for each religion, from the
Western Wall to the Church of the Holy
Sepulchre to the Dome of the Rock, and
attracts millions of tourists each year.
The Taglit-Birthright program has
sparked similar trips, such as Birthright
Armenia, Reconnect Hungary and Birth-
right Greece.
To be eligible for the trip, one mustbe able
to trace Jewish heritage from at least one
parent and have not been in Israel for three
consecutive months since the age of 12.
More than 350,000 people from 64 coun-
tries have participated in Birthright trips
since 1999, with 65,000 of those being from
Israel - Israeli citizens join trips for about
half of the 10-day period. About 80 percent of
participants are from the United States, with
most Americans coming from New York.
The word 'Taglit' means discovery in
Hebrew, and with about 20 different Birth-
right trip providers, participants are able to
discover what it means to be Jewish with
an array of trip options. Noa Bauer, vice
president of international marketing at
Birthright Israel, said trips range from high-
tech-focused to LGBTQ-focused to culinary-
focused.
"(The trip providers) have different
visions," Bauer said. "But at the end of the day
they give a very similar trip."
Common aspects shared among these
trips include visits to Jewish holy sites in the
Old City of Jerusalem as well as interactions
with Jewish Israeli citizens that are the same
age as trip participants. For trips consisting
of 18 to 22 year olds, this means their Israe-
li counterparts are members of the Israeli
Defense Forces, as two years of military ser-
vice for women and three years of military
service for men are compulsory after gradu-

ating from high school.
"(Trip participants) get to be in contact
with people their own age that serve the
country, which usually has a big impact,"
Bauer said. "And they keep in touch, that's
their connection to Israel."

LSA junior Natasha Dabrowski, a Birth-
right representative on campus, is a self-
proclaimed Hebrew school dropout, but said
her experience on Birthright allowed her to
connect with the Jewish faith on a more per-
sonalized level.

Bauer said there have been no major safety
concerns since the program's founding, other
than a few minor incidents of which she
could not provide details.
She added that the program has received
some negative attention internationally
through social media, though such criticism
has not been taken further.
University students have the chance
to travel on Birthright through Hillel, a foun-
dation on campus that provides program-
ming for Jewish students. Hillel provides its
Birthright trips through IsraelExperts, with
a focus on University students forming their
own experience and connection to their Jew-
ish identity.
According to Rosen, the University has
sent between 100 and 200 students on Birth-
right trips for the past threeyears. Trips
are led by one Hillel staff member, one stu-
dent staff member and one tour guide pro-
vided by IsraelExperts.
Assistant Director of Hillel, Davey Rosen,
said students who participate in trips through
Hillel are not steered toward one specific def-
inition of what it is to be Jewish.
"Michigan Hillel is a pluralist organiza-
tion," Rosen said. "We want students to expe-
rience different ways of being Jewish and to
make your own decision of what it means to
be Jewish, because we believe there are many
ways to be Jewish and Birthright also offers
that opportunity."

Courtesy of Austen Hufford
"While I don't consider myself the most
religious person, I do think that the lessons
learned through religion can shape how you
live your life and how you perceive others,"
Dabrowski said. "I take it through an educa-
tional perspective and as a basis for commu-
nity relations."
Students must go through an application
process in order to travel on a Birthright
trip. The first step is a general online appli-
cation through Taglit-Birthright, followed
by another application through the trip pro-
vider, then in-person interviews with Hillel
staff.
Rosen said the multi-step process is to
ensure students fit the Birthright eligibility
requirements and thatstudents are genuinely
interested and open-minded toward connect-
ing with their Jewish identity.
During the trip, students have the chance
to reflect on their personal connection with
their faith through spending time in the des-
ert and hikes up Masada, a plateau in South-
ern Israel that was the site of some of King
Herod's palaces and fortifications.
LSA junior Rachel Rickles said visiting
these sites was especially significant during
her trip.
"To be there where all this history had
taken place, it was a relatively unique experi-
ence for me," Rickles said. "Visiting the city
of old Jerusalem, that was something I had
been learning about in Hebrew school and

throughout my childhood and to then see it
in real life and see things come alive is really
special."
Hillel trips attempt to focus on the diver-
sity of the country of Israel during the 10-day
span. Rosen said topics such as environmen-
talism and what it means to be a part of a
national Jewish majority are discussed
throughout the trips.
"We don't shy away from politics,"
Rosen said.
While trips stay within the borders of
Israel and do not travel to the disputed
regions of the West Bank or Gaza Strip,
students do have the opportunity to inter-
act with people outside of the Jewish Israe-
li community.
Business sophomore Sam Klein said
he gained greater insight into the variety
of political divisions existing within the
country during his trip.
"I was able to hear from an alternate
perspective, one morning we had a talk
with a Palestinian living in Israel and it
was interesting to hear what it was like for
her," Klein said.
Rosen said students also have the oppor-
tunity to travel to the city of Sderot in the
Western region of the country. The city
is within a mile of Gaza and is subject to
daily rocket attacks, which have caused
13 deaths since 2001, according to BBC
reports. However, there have been no secu-
rity issues on Hillel-provided trips in its his-
tory.
He added that Hillel occasionally receives
questions and comments from University
students of Palestinian descent when adver-
tising Birthright trips on campus. While Hil-
lel advocates for open discussion on campus.
Rosen maintained that Birthright trips are
specifically designed for students of Jewish
heritage.
Dabrowski said the experiences on Birth-
right trips can help facilitate a more informed
discussion of the problems surrounding the
area when students return to the United
States.
"These issues are so complicated, you do
need a starting point so you have more of a
general background, whether that's through
a history class at Michigan or something to
understand the nature of the conflict, then
you can more understand the modern inter-
actions of people," she said. "I do think that's
something we can bring back to campus."
Rosen said Birthright trips aim to high-
light these complexities and continue to
spark curiosity and conversation about the
region.
"Israel is complicated, and beautiful, and
sad all at the same time." he said. "It would
be sad if a student thought Israel is perfect. It
wouldn't lead to a lasting, realistic relation-
ship."

' ' on the record
"While I would have preferred the decision to have
been made by Michiganders themselves or their elected
representatives, I'm happy that I and so many others now
have the same right to marry as straight Wolverines in the
state of Michigan."
- RUSSELL HAYES, LSA senior and chairman of the
University's chapter of the College Republicans
"I remind everyone of the lesson we learned from
Athletics: administrators might not have all the
answers."
- MICHAEL PROPPE, Business senior and CSG president
"The fact of the matter is, unlike what Newt Gingrich
would have you believe, Palestinians are not an invented
people and neither are the realities we are telling you of.
The occupation has real consequences, on real people,
with real lives. And our University's investments have
real consequences."
- YAZAN KHERALLAH, LSA senior and Michigan in Color

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Sister Cristina
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