Anyone who is Jewish or even has a Jewish friend has probably heard talk of “birthright”. The concept is that anyone of Jewish heritage inherits the right, merely by being Jewish, of a visit to the homeland of Israel, completely free of charge. This trip is sponsored by wealthy Jewish billionaires (many of whom had money tied up with Bernie Madoff, which lead to recent worries that the program might fail), who give money in the hope that you will reconnect with your Jewish heritage, keep Israel and Jewish issues in mind when voting, possibly move to Israel, and when all is said and done, meet a nice Jewish girl and make lots of Jewish babies. While you may think I’m joking about the last one, I’m dead serious: every person I’ve talked to has said that their instructors encouraged them to find a nice Jewish girl/boy.
The “chosen people” can redeem their God-given gift between the ages of 18-26. How religiously Jewish you are doesn’t matter. I have never been to temple a day in my life, was not Bar Mitzvah’d, and consider myself an not religious. My father was raised Jewish, but any Jewish traditions went out the door when he married my equally nonobservant Lutheran mother. We celebrate Santa Clause, and that is pretty much it. They claim that whether you are observant or not has no effect on whether you can go on the trip, and I found that to be true. I was truthful about how Jewish I was, and I got in, albeit after applying 3 times. And I’d estimate probably 35/40 of my trip participants were equally secular. However, that depends on the trip you choose.
This is the most confusing part of Birthright: There isn’t just one. The term “Birthright” is a generally encompassing term for the umbrella organization that helps to facilitate the free 10 day trip. They do this by giving money to numerous smaller “trip providers”. These can be University Hillels, or organizations that make it a business, like Mayonot or Israel Outdoors. Every participant must choose the trip provider most likely to provide the experience that aligns with their beliefs. There are some trips that are fairly religious, like Mayonot, that talk about god and spirituality alot, and then there are others, like Israel Outdoors, that are more focused on the Jewish traditions and Israeli geopolitical situation. I went on Israel Outdoors, which in addition to being secular, emphasizes outdoor activities, like hiking. All do a good job of helping the individual discover all the typical tourist attractions of Israel.
Safety: This was the biggest concern of my parents. Not once did I feel unsafe on the trip. They avoid the West Bank and all parts of Jerusalem except for the Jewish Quarter, almost to the point of paranoia. I went back and visited those areas myself, and it is perfectly safe. We had an armed guard traveling with us at all times (though his rifle did look like something out of my elementary school summer camp shooting range). The armed guard isn’t even necessary though when you consider that 90% of the places you will be visiting will be overflowing with Israeli soldiers armed to the teeth.
However, it is important to keep in mind that while things aren’t currently nasty, the slightest altercation can cause the region to burst up in flames. I traveled, independently and after birthright, through the Westbank (on my way to Jordan), the same area where some Palestinian gunmen murdered an Israeli family in their car a few months ago. Within the decade it was a very real concern to have a bus be blown up, even in notoriously liberal Tel Aviv. There is no telling how quickly the situation could degenerate, so you have to keep that in mind. However, I am young and stupid so I didn’t care , and I was 22 so my parents weren’t going to stop me.