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“When I grew up, when it came to Israel, every Jewish kid knew who the players were,” says Steve Eisenberg who recently led a group for Israel Free Spirit (IFS), the OU’s Taglit-Birthright Israel program. “They knew Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan,” he says. And they knew about “the wars” in 1948, 1967 and 1973. “What I’m seeing now is people who have no idea what Jews have been doing for the last 3,500 years,” he says. That’s the reason he has become passionate about leading IFS groups. In fact he has escorted 16 groups in the past six years.

In Summer 2013 and Winter 2013-2014 Israel Free Spirit had 55 groups. Of this total 31 groups came last summer and another 24 came during the winter.
Registration is underway for Summer 2014 trips. One of the unique features of IFS trips is that each group has 40 participants from the US and
eight IDF soldiers — contemporaries of the participants — for five of the 10 days. The idea of having soldiers in the group is to foster a relationship with real Israelis.

Israel Free Spirit is known for its “niche” groups. Business students come on “Bizrael” trips that enable them to see the Israeli economy at work and to meet government and business leaders. There are other groups for people in the arts and entertainment, there is a group that does volunteer work while in Israel, and there is a group for Jewish Alcoholics Anonymous.

There are two more groups that are most unusual. The Yachad group which came in early January included mentally and physically disabled young people. Yachad’s goal is Inclusion. To this end they want the disabled to be included in as many aspects of Jewish life as possible. This includes coming to Israel.

During the summer of 2014, Shlomo (Allan) Veingrad, a former member of the Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl team will lead an IFS group for those interested in sports.

“We’ll do almost anything to get more Jews to visit Israel,” says Yael Tamari, Israel Director of OU Israel Free Spirit/Birthright. Eisenberg explains that on any given trip about 60-70 percent of the participants have one non-Jewish parent. “The challenge with these groups is that the kids are ambivalent,” he says.

Meditating in the Negev

Josh Turkeltaub, 26, was in Eisenberg’s group. Originally from Scottsdale, Arizona, he now lives in Houston, Texas where he is completing Baylor College of Medicine. He is in the process of applying for a residency in internal medicine.

“Since my bar mitzvah I haven’t really stayed in touch with Judaism,” he says. “As I got older I became more involved with my studies and kind of lost my way.” He felt that coming on an IFS trip would be “the perfect opportunity to re-find my Judaism.”

What did he do during his 10 days in Israel?

“I went to the mikve in Safed and was re-bar mitzvahed on top of Massada,” he says. He also meditated in the Negev desert. “All of these experiences brought me closer to my Jewish faith. I have stronger feelings than ever before,” he says.

Meditating in the desert may sound more like a New Age experience than a fundamental Jewish one, but Turkeltaub saw it differently. “While we were meditating we thought about ourselves and the big picture of Israel and Judaism,” he explains. “I was sitting out there alone but in a group of other Jews. I was in the wilderness but I felt more attached because I had my Jewish brothers and sisters – my family – out there with me.”

After 10 days in Israel he says, “I feel very connected to this land. It’s kind of hard to explain,” he admits. “It’s an attraction. When I was hiking up Massada or walking around Safed, I felt this energy. I don’t know if it was in my heart or in my mind.”

“I really didn’t think I was going to feel this connection, but I’m very grateful for it. I’m loving it here.”

He explains: “I live in the South where people are very friendly. Being around a large Jewish population brings something different to the table. The Jews we met are very passionate. They want us to enjoy ourselves. They want us to make aliyah. They want us to understand how important Israel is to them.”

Overcoming Excuses

Maya Sederholm, 21, is from Houston, Texas. She will graduate from the University of Arizona this summer. She was in a group with Trent Gluck, 20, from Los Angeles, a senior who is a pre-med student at the University of California-San Diego.

Gluck admits that he always had an excuse not to come on Birthright, even though most of his friends had come. “I made excuses not to come until the timing was right.”

Sederholm thought coming to Israel would be like going to another foreign country. “But coming here is different from anywhere else,” she says. “We have connections to our ancestors here. We learned about the history of our people. This isn’t just traveling to another country. You really get a chance to connect emotionally.”

Gluck agreed. “Israel isn’t just another culture,” he says. “It’s the basis of my identity as a Jew. Being here reignites my Jewish identity.”

Being at the Western Wall on Shabbat was an “incredible experience” for Gluck. It was very different from what he is used to.

“Where I live in America there’s a small Jewish community and for everyone else it’s life as usual even on Shabbat. But Shabbat here is something I’ve never experienced before.”

When he saw the city of Jerusalem close down for Shabbat he said it made him think that “you can’t be fully religious and Jewish unless you’re in Israel. I was blown away by that. Your life revolves around your Jewish identity in Israel. Hey. You’re Jewish. So is everyone else.”

“One of the rabbis who spoke to us said that Judaism isn’t a religion, it’s a people,” Gluck says. “In the Diaspora, Judaism is only a religion. When you come here you realize that Judaism is a people. It’s so much deeper.”

Could you see yourself coming back?

“Most definitely,” he says. “Seeing a country for 10 days isn’t necessarily going to change your life. Some people have that ah ha moment,” while they are here, he says. But he thinks that “you need to experience Israel on a much deeper level.”

He plans to take a year off before starting medical school. “I’d like to come back about the same time next year and wander around.” The two major things drawing him back are the opportunity to hike part of “Shvil Yisrael” (the Israel National Trail) and “to hang out in Tel Aviv a little more.” Shvil Yisrael is about 1,000 kms/620 miles in length.

Sederholm thinks her IFS experience has changed her. “I want to stay more in touch with Israel activities,” she says. “To pay more attention to the news, get different points of view, follow Israeli politics.” She admits that before she came she was “detached” from Israel.

“I heard about the big things that happen here on Facebook or other social media sites but now that I know people who live here I really want to keep in touch. I feel more connected.”

Tefilin as Wireless Routers

Rabbi Eric Ertel, also known as “Rabbi E” works in kiruv at the University of California–San Diego, where Trent Gluck is a student.

He is a resource for the students on the trip. “I encourage them to approach me with questions,” he says.

He gives an example. At the Western Wall, one of the students came up to him and asked him to explain the tefilin he saw men putting on.

“It’s important to talk to them in a way they will understand,” he says. “I compared the tefilin to a wireless router: If you’re in a house and you don’t have a router or a computer to pick up the signal, you can’t make the connection,” he explained.

“It’s the same thing with spirituality. It’s out there. Tefilin are like wireless routers that pick up the signals,” Rabbi E says.

There were other experiences at the Wall.

As one young woman was walking away from the Wall on Friday night, she looked sad, Rabbi E says. “She told me she didn’t feel anything at the Wall. And then she started to cry.” He asked why she was crying. “Because I didn’t feel anything,” she replied. “That’s interesting,” he said. “You’re crying because you knew you should feel something but you didn’t.” He explained she was having an emotional reaction but didn’t know how to interpret it. He encouraged her to share her experience with the group at dinner that night and she did.

During the trip she also a bat mitzvah and chose a Hebrew name.

These are just a few examples of young adults who came to Israel on the OU’s Israel Free Spirit/Birthright trips recently.

More than 300,000 Jewish young adults from around the world have come to Israel as part of the Taglit-Birthright Israel initiative. What they have in common with the students interviewed for this article is that they all had an amazing experience in Israel. For some it was the beginning of a process will change their lives. Others experienced a connection or a deep emotional attachment.

10 Days. 48 New Friends. 1 Incredible Experience with Israel Free Spirit.

For more information and to register. Click here.