Over the past decade, Taglit-Birthright Israel has provided Jewish young adults with the opportunity to visit Israel at no cost. For many — more than 230,000 so far — it has been the trip of a lifetime: a chance to visit Israel for 10 days and make connections to their Jewish heritage and their Israeli peers.
This past summer, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Young Entertainment Division, which sponsors Birthright trips each year, created a special trip — dubbed the Showbiz Bus — designed for young L.A. Jews working in or studying for a career in the entertainment industry to visit Israel on a Birthright tour.
The trip overlapped with the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Master Class Workshop, a Federation-sponsored program that brings its students together with Hollywood and Israeli entertainment professionals. Guest lecturers for that program included, among others, David Renzer, head of Universal Music Publishing Group; Doug Frank, former head of Warner Bros. music division; Steve Schnur, worldwide executive for music and marketing at video game maker Electronic Arts; and Jonathan Littman, head of the television division at Jerry Bruckheimer Films.
During the June 16-28 trip, the Showbiz Bus group of 40 Americans and eight Israelis visited cultural sites including the mystical city of Tzfat, Masada, Yad Vashem and the Western Wall as well as Herzliya Studios, where “Israeli Idol” — the Israeli version of “American Idol” — is produced. They visited the ancient agricultural site of Sataf and a traditional Bedouin village, rode camels and slept in tents. They also participated in the Master Class Workshop screenings of Israeli films and documentaries at the Cinematheque in Tel Aviv.
Mara Simon-Meyer, the program’s director, says that the purpose of the trip was to have participants make connections between the Israeli and U.S. entertainment industries as well as tour the Jewish state. And the participants say that visiting Israel was a life-changing experience.
Tracie Karasik, a California State University, Northridge, cinema and television arts student, says she was most shocked by her reaction when she first saw the Western Wall.
“I burst into tears,” she said. “I felt something very spiritual there.”
Karasik says this trip was the culmination of her Jewish education, which she came to by choice when she was an adolescent. She says that it was not an easy journey for her to take because she had never before been so far from her family, but her mother and friends encouraged her to go.
“It’s surprising how at one point I was scared to go,” she said. “But then going and really having this experience of a lifetime and having the spirit of Israel come to my heart, it makes me feel like I want to go back again and again.”
Julio Hallivis, a 26-year-old working in film production, just finished his first feature film. Prior to the trip, he had been most excited about visiting Tel Aviv and seeing the city. In the end, though, he was most impacted by the people he met. Every Birthright trip includes Israeli soldiers, who apply for the program and are chosen by the Israeli military to join the tour bus.
“Interacting with the soldiers and learning about life over there and what they have to go through and that at 18 they have to join the army — that affected me the most,” said Hallivis, who was born in Spain and has lived in Mexico and the United States. “It’s so different from how I live.”
Alexandra Heller, a 26-year-old publicist, heard about the Showbiz Bus through a partner at her firm. She was similarly moved by the soldiers, particularly during their visit to Mount Herzl, Israel’s military cemetery.
“Some of them were younger than I am and they lost their lives. That [hit] close to home because I have numerous friends in the U.S. Army, but none have died yet,” Heller said.
She says she was struck by the passion that Israelis have for their country, and she didn’t want to leave once the 10-day trip was over.
The Showbiz Bus group met with filmmaker Laura Bialis, a former L.A. resident who made aliyah in 2007 and now lives in Sderot, a city in the Western Negev, which she describes as having an Israeli version of the Seattle music scene. The city is also a mile from Gaza and has been hit by more than 11,000 rockets over the last 10 years. Bialis is in the midst of making a documentary about Sderot as seen through the eyes of musicians.
“It’s a story of thousands of traumatized people,” she said, explaining that when there is a code red, people in Sderot have 15 seconds to find shelter. “Seventy percent of the kids here have PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. They’re building new bomb shelters all the time.”
Bialis says that she tries to help Americans visiting Israel see things from a new perspective.
Although Birthright doesn’t normally create customized trips like the Showbiz Bus, Federation’s Simon-Meyer says that they might consider having a similar program again, given the trip’s success.
Hallivis, Karasik and Heller all say that they hope to visit Israel again soon to see more of the country and to get to know more of the people.
The group has kept in touch with their L.A.- and Israel-based co-travelers through Facebook, and Heller says she has made lifelong friends through the experience. In late August, the Southern California participants had a reunion in Los Angeles, and Karasik created a montage of photos and images from their time in Israel.
“Ten days was not enough,” she said, “though it was a great gift to get to go there for free and have this experience.”