By: Erich Hiner
Edited By: Dave Talmage
When American-born Liora Horwitz traveled to Israel in 2009, she thought it would be a short trip. However, her tour took a deeply personal and permanent turn.
In 2003 she visited Israel with the help of Birthright, a non-profit that provides free Israel trips to young Jews. She returned to Israel in 2009 for a second time studying Judaism and became extremely attached to the people and the land. “I guess you could say I was searching for meaning,” Horwitz said. “I really wasn’t expecting to stay for long.” However, Horwitz decided to stay in Israel and describes her second adventure as a spiritual awakening. It was “like growing up,” she said.
Horwitz’s story is not unique. Thousands of young American Jews visit Israel every year and many decide to stay.
That is due in no small part to youth trip programs like Birthright and Israeli government-funded efforts. The Israeli government encourages foreign Jews to visit and settle in Israel with the Law of Return, a piece of legislation passed in 1950 guaranteeing all Jews the right to visit Israel.
Israel: Discovering a New Home
Many Israeli Jews are actually foreign-born. While over three quarters of the 7.3 million Israelis are
Jewish, almost a third of Israeli Jews were born in the U.S. or Europe, according to the CIA World Factbook.
oung Jews' collective discovery of Israel has been aided by the expansion of youth programs and government-funded efforts to attract Jews to the country. Many such programs are designed to promote Jewish unity or “aliyah,” the practice of moving to Israel to experience one's Jewish heritage. The Israeli government encourages foreign Jews to visit and settle in Israel with the Law of Return, a piece of legislation passed in 1950 guaranteeing all Jews the right to visit Israel.Israel also issues special aliyah visas to visiting Jews who express the desire to settle in the country.
Birthright is the one of the largest programs that helps young Jews visit Israel. It is often the first step toward citizenship.
On these trips, students take 10-day tours of Jewish cultural sites. The program started 10 years ago with 7,000 participants and expanded to 30,000 by 2010. The organization’s goal is to increase enrollment to 50,000 by 2013.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently called Birthright an important tool for strengthening global Jewish identity. About a third of Birthright's funding comes from the Israeli government, which pledged in January to provide $100 million to the program over the next several years.
Esther Abramowitz, a 20-year Israel resident originally from the U.S., coordinates all Birthright buses in Israel and has overseen almost 1,000 buses so far. She said Birthright provides young Jews with a great sense of community that is difficult to find in the U.S. “I hear it all the time. ‘I was the only Jew in my high school. I never knew what it was to be Jewish,’” she said. “Students realize that they’re not alone; they’re part of something larger than themselves.”
More Than A Religious Experience
While Birthright (which is officially non-religious) tries to get students in touch with Jewish culture, some of the contractors it works with prefer to stress religious identity.
Eli Deutsch is a lecturer and rabbi who works with youth trips. He was U.S.-born, but has spent the last nine years in Israel. He has worked with Birthright for two years. Many young Jews follow cultural norms without understanding their religious significance, Deutsch said. He strives to make them see that there is more to Judaism than rituals and customs. “There’s nowhere in the Torah that says ‘Thou shalt eat bagels and lox,’” he said. “Most Jews, from what they’ve heard of Judaism, is the ‘whats’ and ‘hows.’ Why should I have this in my life – that’s been left out of the picture.”
A Part of The Culture:
Israeli citizens who interact with Birthright participants sometimes witness the discovery process many visitors undergo.
Anat Hartmann, an Israeli native from Nazareth Ellit, was an Israeli soldier when she accompanied a Birthright trip in 2008. Hartmann said the foreign Jews she met felt “more Jewish” while in Israel.
“It’s the nation of the Jewish people,” Hartmann said. “I found it really exciting that people just want to be here.”
Other Israelis have made their livelihoods out of helping traveling Jews. Chaya Weisberg directs the women’s hostel for Heritage House in Jerusalem. She has seen many of them turn from being skeptical about Judaism to embracing Jewish religion and culture while on sponsored trips.
"There is something so dramatic and special about it that being exposed to it makes them want to connect to it,” Weisberg said. “It’s something deeper that’s very real.”
Birthright and programs like it are often just the first step for Jews seeking their roots in Israel. Many return for longer stays with programs such as MASA Israel, another program partly funded by the Israeli government.
After returning to Israel with MASA, many Jews decide to become permanent Israel residents with the help of organizations like Nefesh B'Nefesh. The program also receives funding from the State of Israel and helps acculturate foreigners. It helps them find places to live and work and is many Jews' final step toward living in Israel.
Many Jews who travel to Israel with state-sponsored programs decide to stay, and rising enrollment and expanded government support suggest the programs are having their desired effects.
For Jews like Horwitz, being in Israel means discovering what it is to be Jewish. For her, it all comes down to one central idea. “I feel at home with the people, the land … My soul wanted to be here,” Horwitz said. “Israel is home.”