Trek ties together present, past
Birthright trip opens Aggies up to Israel
Published: Monday, February 17, 2014
Updated: Monday, February 17, 2014 23:02
Two Jewish philanthropists, Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, once envisioned a program where young Jews would have the opportunity to explore and regain a connection to their ancestral past. In 1999, they realized this vision with the creation of what is now known as Taglit Birthright Israel, which offers the experience of a free trip to Israel.
Rabbi Matt Rosenberg of Texas A&M Hillel said there are 15 to 20 different providers of the trip and it occurs twice a year, with applications for the May trip opening soon.
“It has been found to be one of the biggest and most important aspects of the Jewish experience for young people,” Rosenberg said. “It can be a meaningful experience. It’s 10 days and includes the Old City [Jerusalem], the Western Wall, Tel Aviv, Holocaust museum, Independence Hall.”
Rosenberg said the birthright trip to Israel is a gift that provides individuals between the ages of 18 and 26, the chance to better identify with their Jewish culture, religion and faith. According to the Taglit Birthright Israel website, more than 350,000 individuals have traveled to Israel through their programs.
“During the time of the establishment of Israel in 1948, through the ’60s with the Six-Day War and the early ’70s with the Yom Kippur War, there is always a great connection between Americans and Israel, or American Jews anyway, and that kind of [had] been lost over the past two decades,” Rosenberg said.
He said the trip is subsidized by donors, organizations and the Israeli government — with the exception of a $250 refundable deposit, a departure fare to the airport and non-essential costs. He said the trip is valued at an average of $3,000.
Veronica Beskin, Jewish student vice-coordinator at Texas A&M Hillel, said she will lead the summer trip and said the primary prerequisite is that students have a Jewish background. She said Hillel was hoping to double the number of students it takes this summer.
“I have to have a pretty in-depth interview with each person and learn their history, if they’re the right fit, get their medical history and background,” Beskin said. “They don’t have to be religious or go to services.”
Jonathan Rahmani, junior kinesiology major, said his entire family is Jewish. He said seeing the physical history was what truly resonated with him while he was on his birthright trip in December.
“In America, we have 250-300 years of history, you know, where there are 150 [years] of that being in College Station, but when you get to Israel there are 2,500 years-plus right in front of your eyes,” Rahmani said. “When you are in the Old City you see remnants of different civilizations and everything is built upon what was previously there. It’s just a really cool place.”
Rahmani and Schneider said one of their favorite places to visit was Masada, a fortification and rock plateau. The terrain is very diverse from the northern to southern region, Rahmani said, and he loved seeing the variety it offered.
“Like you’re on the top of this mountain in the middle of the desert and you have the Dead Sea on one side and mountains on the other side and it was just absolutely gorgeous,” Rahmani said. “You just feel alive when you are there.”
Nate Pisik, sophomore international business and Mandarin Chinese major, said he went on a birthright trip through Mayanot, Israel, with students from the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center. He said visiting the Western Wall was a deeply religious and incredible experience for him.
“I was there with thousands and thousands of people around the world and all of us, some of us in different languages, all are singing different songs, songs that I grew up singing as a child,” Pisik said. “That unifying characteristic that we shared in that moment brought us all together.”
Pisik said experiencing Israel was something he felt was important to not just Judaism, but also to Islam and Christianity.
“I feel the significance of Israel is so outstanding,” Pisik said. “It’s almost a responsibility in my opinion to have that education and have that experience, to really learn about the history of my faith and the home of the Jewish people.”
Emily Schneider, junior agriculture communications and journalism major, went on her birthright trip through A&M Hillel in December 2013. She said she was able to become close with not just other Aggies, but students from different universities on the trip.
Pisik said he was glad he finally took the opportunity over the winter break.
“I’ve moved a lot my entire life, but being in Israel was the first time I felt at home somewhere, and in that way I felt very connected to the land,” Pisik said.
Applications through Hillel International and other partnerships will open 10 a.m. Wednesday.