Travel plans

Birthright Israel prepares for a smaller-than-normal, but still comparatively large summer season

Some 9,000 people are slated to participate in the group's 10-day trips to Israel, down from 12,000 last year, but still considerably better than most other Israel travel programs

Zoe Wolf isn’t scared that her first trip to Israel will be during a war. After all, she’s just made it through her first year on a college campus. 

“Without question, I will feel safer in Israel right now as opposed to on any college campus in America,” said Wolf, who just wrapped up her freshman year at Florida State University and is slated to participate in Birthright Israel’s 10-day trip to the Jewish state this summer. She pointed to the unprecedented levels of antisemitic and anti-Israel rhetoric on college campuses since the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks — including, at some schools, physical assaults —- and her personal experience with classmates posting anti-Jewish messages online.

“Since the war started, people constantly said to me, ‘Oh, Zoe, I know you had wanted to go to Israel but maybe you should wait,’” the international affairs and linguistics major told eJewishPhilanthropy. “But for some reason, I’ve never felt more of a want to go than during this harsh time. I don’t think Israel will feel like an unsafe, scary place. I’m expecting to feel connected. Most importantly, I expect to feel a closeness to the land.” 

Wolf is among the 9,000 North American 18-26-year-olds registered for Birthright’s standard 10-day trip — undeterred by Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza and the ongoing fighting along Israel’s northern border. The number of participants is considered low for Birthright, the largest educational-tourism organization in the world. Last summer, 12,000 people participated in Birthright’s original 10-day program. 

Still, the turnout is large compared to other types of tourism to Israel, particularly teen trips, some of which are expected to see a 90% decrease this summer.

In total, some 13,500 people will participate in a Birthright Israel program this summer, with 3,000 registered for the Birthright Israel Onward Volunteer Program; 1,400 for the Onward internships and fellowships; and 64 for the Birthright Israel Excel fellowship program.

While the summer months are usually Birthright’s busiest time, the group’s numbers have slowly begun to climb throughout the year. In November, just weeks after Oct. 7, Birthright brought 2,000 volunteers to Israel through its Onward Program. By January, another 1,000 participated in the relaunched winter session 10-day program.

Some participants are apprehensive about the trip — but are pushing themselves to go. 

“I’m a little nervous to go to Israel,” said Marlene Volovitz, who just completed her second year at University of Miami and is slated to go on Birthright through her school’s Hillel. 

“But my thought process of choosing now to go is that this is a moment where Israel needs support. So there’s no better time to go than right now,” Volovitz told eJP. “This will make me more connected to my community.” 

“We want them to visit the must-see sites, engage in open dialogues about the global surge in antisemitism within a secure environment, interact with Israelis and witness firsthand our society’s resilience amidst adversity, and having come to Israel with questions, they will leave with a deeper understanding,” the group’s CEO, Gidi Mark, said in a statement. 

Noa Bauer, Birthright’s vice president of global marketing, told eJP that the group has “been working on recruitment for a long time.” She noted that the volunteer program in particular has seen increased interest “because people see this as their time to give back.” 

Bauer noted that several tweaks to the itinerary have been made. Because of the security situation in northern Israel, programming in Safed and the Golan Heights have been canceled. She said Birthright is also adjusting to the uncertainty around airlines. 

For instance, after Air Canada suspended direct flights to Israel because of Iran’s missile attack last month, one Birthright group recently found itself spending a 10-hour layover in Europe. “So we did a Jewish heritage module there,” Bauer said. “We are flexible and find ways to get people to Israel in any way.”