By Maayan Hoffman
Some 2,000 young adults who thought they had missed the chance to travel on Taglit-Birthright Israel when they turned 27 – the regular program is for individuals 18 to 26 – are getting a chance to experience the touted 10-day free trip to Israel.
This summer, and again in October and November, Birthright is piloting a series of trips for people between the ages of 27 and 32. The organization opened these missions up to its 25,000 past applicants who had not participated in a Birthright experience for one reason or another. According to Birthright CEO Gidi Mark, some 6,000 people applied in three days.
The decision to run these pilot trips was made after Birthright underwent a strategic planning process last year that examined areas of potential growth for the organization, Mark explained.
One suggestion among many that came out of the planning process was to increase the age of Birthright to 32. He said this is partly because young adults today take longer to make life decisions, such as their career path or who they will marry, so they are still malleable and able to be influenced in their early 30s.
“These people are very close to the 26-year-old participants of 18 years ago when Birthright started,” Mark said.
More than 650,000 18- to 26-year-old people have participated in Birthright since its inception. At 2010 study showed the predicted probability of in-marriage for married non-Orthodox participants of Birthright was 72 percent compared to 47 percent for married non-Orthodox nonparticipants.
Birthright is testing various models for the older program.
For example, some trips will be seven days and others the traditional 10. Participants will be able to stay in rooms with two or three roommates. On some trips the organization might charge a nominal fee. Also, they are monitoring what kinds of Israelis – soldiers, young professionals, for example – should be included as part of the trip. At the end of two years, Birthright hopes to have gathered the information it needs to run successful missions.
Phillip Wilson-Camhi, now 33, from New York participated in the May pilot trip. He said the experience reconnected him to his Jewish heritage.
“My grandfather was obviously a Zionist and proud of his Jewish heritage, but he was also an atheist and believed that all of the traditions were just a way of reminding us to act the way we should as humans,” said Wilson-Camhi. “Being in Israel reminded me that being Jewish is really about community and how we should treat our fellow human beings.”
For Wilson-Camhi, the best part was visiting the Kotel in the evening.
Amanda Whitton from North Carolina traveled in May, as well. She said the trip showed her “there is so much more to the country than its conflict.”
But she found it challenging to have such a rich, cultural experience and then to return to the United States where people “wanted to know my opinion on the conflict in the Middle East, when I wanted to tell them about the culture and the people.”
She said, “I had always thought people are just people the world round. Ask questions, meet everyone, talk to strangers, you’ll have such a richer experience.”
Mark said Birthright believes that every Jew has a way to connect to his or her Jewish identity, though the methods for connection change overtime. This newest pilot, he said, is an example of Birthright’s commitment to test new approaches.
“We understand that if we do not change, we stand to lose hundreds of thousands of young Jewish people,” he said.