Taglit/Birthright Israel may change 20 SDSU student lives forever
SAN DIEGO –For 20 Jewish students at San Diego State University, there’s much to look forward to after finals, Chanukah and the New Year. A free Taglit/ Birthright Israel trip to Israel, January 6-18.
Hillel Director Jackie Tolley, a veteran of seven such trips, will lead 14 women and 6 men on the sightseeing and education tour on which the SDSU students will share a bus and quarters with students from the University of Wisconsin, led by Hillel Israel Fellow Nilli Glick.
To qualify for the free trip, a student had to have a Jewish parent, be between the ages of 18 and 26, never have taken a peer-group trip to Israel before, and, because there were more applicants than spaces, have his or her name drawn from a hat.
Although the choices for itineraries vary, every Taglit/ Birthright Israel trip is supposed to incorporate certain components. These include a visit to the Kotel (Western Wall), to a Holocaust-related site (usually Yad Vashem), an historical site, and an arts and culture expeience.
The SDSU/ University of Wisconsin group will visit Safed, Golan Heights and the Kinneret, Bei’it She’an, Masada, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, the Beit Guvrin Caves, Tel Aviv and Jaffa during their whirlwind trip. They also will “spend a night at a Bedouin encampment … visit a nature reserve … and have a Shabbat in Jerusalem,” Tolley said.
From her experience on the previous trips, Tolley said she knows some of the unprogrammed interactions may be the most impactful.
For example, she said, the students will be joined during part of the trip by off-duty Israeli soldiers who are their same age and who will experience the sightseeing with them and tell about their lives.
From these several days of traveling together, Tolley said, some wonderful friendships between American students and “their Israeli soldiers” form, sometimes resulting in invitations for visits to the U.S. or return visits to Israel.
The trip also creates deep friendships—sometimes even romances—among the American students traveling together, Tolley said.
The last Hillel trip she went on brought together students from SDSU and the University of Miami (Florida). “For one young man from San Diego and a young woman from Florida, their romance is still going,” she confided.
Romances are not all that uncommon, says Tolley. Recently the Wall Street Journal reported upon a study of Taglit/ Birthright Israel students who traveled under the auspices of Brandeis University. The study found that Jewish marriages had resulted from such trips—a development sure to gladden the hearts of those who worry about Jewish continuity.
Tolley said although the sightseeing keeps the students busy, there is also time for reflection on the journeys about such weighty topics as how does the students’ perception of themselves as Jews change—if at all—by being in a country in which Jews are in the majority instead of the minority?
Furthermore, said the Hillel director, “besides connecting students to Israel, these trips really help to strengthen students’ Jewish connections.” Some students may consider immigrating to Israel, but for the majority who remain in America, the trip nevertheless may be formative.
“It helps them to ask themselves some of the important questions like ‘what role will Judaism play in my life? What will my Jewish life look like?”
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.