Birthright trips for Israelis: sounds crazy, but it works
June 5, 2012 | Atara Beck - Israel Correspondent
TEL AVIV – Young Israelis have grown accustomed to seeing their peers from the Diaspora visiting here on Birthright Israel and similar trips financed by philanthropists, and many have been wondering why they, too, should not be entitled to a similar experience.
That feeling of having missed out on a tour that introduces young Jewish adults to their history here in Israel might seem strange, given that the Israelis grew up here, studied the bible and prophets as part of the school curriculum and probably travelled throughout most of the country.
Yet it is a lack of connection to their Jewish roots in the land of Israel, notwithstanding their upbringing here, which inspired National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau to found Eretz Nehederet (Hebrew for Wonderful Land) in 2006. The purpose of this educational initiative is to address the alienation of many young Israelis from their Zionist heritage.
Modelled on Birthright Israel, this not-for-profit organization has subsidized day trips throughout the country for more than 100,000 people from all walks of life.
Last October, a successful pilot program – named Matnat Shichrur (gift upon completion of military service) – took post-army youth on an educational and fun journey across the country. Following its success, another trip took place in May; it included 21 men and 11 women who had all served as combat soldiers.
“It’s the Israeli kids who have really earned this trip,” Linda Olmert, executive director, said in an interview with the Jewish Tribune. “They need this reconnection at least as much as their counterparts do, which is a paradox because they live here. They visit the places but don’t know what they’re seeing. They see flowers and trees, but no history.”
Olmert, who made aliyah from Toronto in the mid-1970s and worked at Camp Ramah for several years, among other leadership positions, has always been passionate about informal Jewish education, North American-style.
The group spends 10 days with a “superior, young guide – someone they could identify with and who doesn’t make it all seem old and passé, like old songs,” she explained.
“At the start of the trip, they’re all there for a good time. But at the end, they talk about values and commitment.”
Visiting the north, for example, they discussed the prophetess Deborah, who served as a judge in that area, and a discussion about leadership and the role of women in Judaism ensued.
“The story took place 3,000 years ago,” Olmert said. “There are actually things that we can learn from it that are relevant to the 21st century.”
They visited Hebron and Ma’arat Hamachpelah (Cave of the Patriarchs), “but not for political reasons….
“The museum of [nearby] Kiryat Arba has the most incredible artifacts from the First Temple period. Nobody discusses politics; I won’t let them. What I want them to learn about is their Jewish heritage, and that’s it.”
“The program challenges you,” Itai Elmulaim, 21, told the Tribune. “They don’t tell you what to think, but they take you to people and places that really inspire you. Even stories from the bible – we heard them when we were very little, but this was a big reminder of where we came from.”
Jerusalem native Tali Nathan, 22, agreed.
“The program made us realize how special the state of Israel is just because it’s the Jewish state.”