Back in October, 60 UCLA students learned that over winter break they would be going on the trip of a lifetime. They had been chosen from among hundreds of applicants to take part, virtually for free, in UCLA Hillel's Birthright Israel contingent. The Birthright program brings thousands of Jewish students to Israel for 10-day tours that encourage them to discover their own Jewish identity. The 1999 trip had received glowing reviews. But in December 2000, one-third of the UCLA slots were suddenly up for grabs.
The problem, of course, was the ongoing flare-ups of violence that have made some college students and their parents nervous about scheduling a visit to the Jewish homeland. UCLA Hillel, like the other participating chapters nationwide, did its best to reassure the travelers, taking pains to spell out the elaborate security measures that would be in place during their stay. Not everyone was convinced, but UCLA managed to fill a fair number of the vacated spaces with names from the waiting list.
Ultimately, 47 UCLA students made the trip. At some campuses, the high dropout rate proved to be an unexpected boon. The Hillel chapter serving Pierce and Valley colleges was originally entitled to 20 slots. When this group departed on Dec. 31, it had gained an additional 17 travelers. In all, as of the first week in January, some 5,100 young Jews from all over the world had made this winter's Birthright trip. Eight hundred of them hailed from California.
Marlene Post, chairman of Birthright Israel North America, acknowledges that many of the young people had serious concerns when they arrived. Some were additionally shaken when a car bomb exploded in Netanya just one day after their group had visited the city. But the Birthright format allowed them ample opportunity to discuss their fears, and the remainder of their stay in Israel showed them that life goes on. They were encouraged to speak at length to soldiers and others close to their own age, which showed them the stress under which their Israeli counterparts live. Post sees a major benefit in such personal contact: "You start to understand that you are really one people."
Birthright gave each of its participants two 10-minute phone cards, for phoning home in order to allay parents' fears. Many of the cards were put to use on the evening a planeload of UCLA and USC students touched down in Tel Aviv. Upon reaching their hotel, they were quietly informed that there had been a bombing in the city earlier that day. Rebecca Charmack, a USC grad student, was frightened enough to consult the group's rabbi. Later, she was able to be philosophical, recognizing that media reports can blow isolated incidents out of proportion.
Says Charmack, "I go to USC, in the middle of South Central Los Angeles, where there are shootouts and drive-bys every day."
As a new student, she was terrified of walking to her off-campus parking space; later she came to feel completely safe. So too in Israel. When the trip ended, she didn't want to go home, and she looks forward to a return trip some day.
Given that several violent episodes occurred while they were on Israeli soil, Birthright travelers could not resist a touch of gallows humor. Lisa Schloss of USC recalls that on a rainy afternoon in Jerusalem, everyone in her group was handed a matching umbrella emblazoned with the Birthright name. At which one wag quipped, "Oh, we're just one huge target now."
By and large, the students were well aware of how carefully they were being protected. USC's Garrett Shaw notes there was a soldier with a sniper rifle for every 20 students; when Shaw left the group briefly to get minor medical treatment, he was accompanied by an armed bodyguard.
Bill Golditch of UCLA admits that "a lot of the trip was like traveling in a bubble," a far cry from the experience of soldiers with whom he chatted. From them he learned the basic fact of Israeli life: "You really don't know what's going to happen from day to day." That doesn't stop Golditch from wanting to return. He's convinced that having visited Israel once, he knows enough not to be afraid.
Shaw, a USC senior, was able to take part in the Birthright trip because someone else had opted to stay home. Originally on the waiting list, Shaw had planned to use his winter break studying Spanish in Costa Rica. But when a slot opened, he didn't hesitate to come aboard. As he puts it, "I think Jewish solidarity is a major thing right now. Not only was I not nervous -- I was proud to go."
Sarah Talei, a USC junior, made the opposite choice. She pulled out of the trip a mere week before her schoolmates departed. Her decision was based on her parents' anxieties. They consulted an uncle based in Israel, who advised her to wait until the current cycle of violence had run its course.
Talei muses, "I hope I gained some points [with my parents] by not going." Still, she can't help having regrets: "The majority of people around me told me not to go. But my gut feeling was that nothing would really happen."
The Birthright returnees agree that despite the tension in the air, their trip was a superlative experience. In Golditch's own words, "It gives a whole new dimension to Jewish identity."