With his wedding two weeks away, Scott Price didn't have extra funds laying around to go to Israel. However, when he found out that he could go for free, he and his fiancé jumped at their chance. "It was a great opportunity for us to go to Israel together," Price said.
At a time when Israel's tourism is severely suffering, Price was one of 2,800 people to go to Israel gratis, courtesy of Birthright Israel. Birthright is an umbrella organization which is the result of a partnership between the Israeli people and government, local Jewish communities, and leading Jewish philanthropists. It provides funding for the trip and sets up the basic guidelines, such as standards and security policies.
It is by these guidelines that the more than 20 privately owned Birthright Israel trip organizers must operate. The final result is a 10-day trip that provides young adults with the opportunity to directly experience Israeli land and culture in the company of their peers. The only criteria are that the person must be between the ages of 18-26, Jewish, and must never have been on another peer educational trip to Israel.
While students have a slew of trip organizers to choose from, with each offering a different perspective or focus, a group of local Los Angeles students chose Oranim, one of Israel's leading travel companies, to host their trip. The trip promised to enable young adults from the United States to "interact with Israeli young adults in order to see how their mindsets are, and be able to discuss political and social situations," said Mickey Zoldan, North American representative for Oranim. As a result, the organization hopes to improve the weakening connection between Israel and young adults around the world.
However, while there is no better time than now to express Israeli patriotism, it isn't surprising that security concerns continue to rise among the students, as well as their parents. "My parents discouraged me," said Daniel Goldstein of Woodland Hills, who left for his Birthright trip on Dec. 26. "My mom said to go at a better time, even though she knew there might not be a better time. I kind of understood her concern."
Trip organizers like Oranim say that they understand these concerns as well, and that they work with Birthright Israel to commit themselves completely to the safety and security of their travelers. Every Oranim tour group is accompanied by an armed paramedic, and buses are strictly allocated. The tours do not travel to or through areas of the West Bank, Gaza or East Jerusalem (other than the Jewish Quarter of the Old City). Recent Birthrighters said that they felt perfectly safe once in Israel. "I tell everybody ... I felt safer walking down the streets in Tel Aviv than I have ever felt on any street in Dallas or L.A.," said Liza Berger of Dallas.
Despite the situation in the Middle East, coordinators are very positive about the future Birthright's trips. "It was the most amazing time of my life," Berger told The Journal. "I don't think any other experience will come close."
For more information on Oranim or Birthright, visit www.Israel4Free.com or www.birthrightisrael.com .