Each tour of Israel that Birthright-Taglit offers young Diaspora Jews free of charge features a long list of important religious and political sites.

At the Western Wall, participants learn about Judaism and the Temple that was once at its center; at the desert fortress of Masada they are taught of the terrible sacrifices made by its ancient occupants; and at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv they see where the Jewish state was established.

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But now a new and unexpected stop with no historical or religious relevance has been added to the list: Ra’anana, one of the main hubs of Israel’s hi-tech industry.

Thousands of Birthright participants gathered on Tuesday night at an auditorium in the upper-middle class suburb of Tel Aviv for the group’s semi-annual Mega-event. Earlier in the day, Birthright groups visited nearby software companies like Amdocs, HP and Microsoft to learn about the Silicon Wadi, Israel’s equivalent of the Silicon Valley. Participants met with management and heard lectures.

“Over the past few days we’ve connected participants with hi-tech companies in Ra’anana and Herzliya,” explained Birthright Director Gidi Mark. “We wanted to show Jewish university graduates from around the world the opportunities we have here.”

Incorporating Israel’s hi-tech companies into Birthright tours aims to connect participants not only to the country’s past and present, but to its future.

The initiative comes following the success of Start-Up Nation, a book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer that chronicled the “The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” and became a best-seller.

It also dovetails with the decade-long efforts by government bodies, especially the Foreign Ministry, to rebrand Israel as a hi-tech superpower, not just as a country of conflict and historical significance.

“We have lots of hi-tech companies here,” Ra’anana Mayor Nahum Hofree said at the Megaevent. “It’s something in the Ra’anana DNA I guess. Part of it is the number of Jewish immigrants we have living here who bring with them knowledge, energy and capital.”

While it’s true that Israel’s economy has made remarkable strides forward over the past two decades, critics of Start-Up Nation say the wealth created by the hi-tech business is unevenly distributed and concentrated in a relatively small area in Tel Aviv and its northern suburbs.

Ra’anana’s mayor, however, isn’t worried Birthright participants might be given an overly positive image of Israel’s economy from visiting his town.

“First we have to bring them here and show Birthright participants that we’re a normal country with parks and hi-tech industries and so on,” Hofree said. “But if you took them to Carmiel,” a peripheral city in the north with a lower standard of living, “they’d feel just as strongly about their experience.”

Back at the Megaevent, a group of Birthright participants from the Bay area spoke about their visit earlier in the day.

Linsey Sandrew, 26, was not overly impressed. As a former employee of Utopy, an Israeli-owned hi-tech company based in the Silicon Valley that makes software for call centers, she was already familiar with Israel’s hi-tech industry long before she came.

“It wasn’t that interesting,” she said. “I’d rather have been hiking somewhere.”

Elyse Braverman, 26, however, said she learned lessons that might be applicable to the digital E-card business she wants to launch.

“I actually enjoyed it,” she said. “I think it was nice to get an Israeli perspective of entrepreneurship and of the Israeli venture ecosystem. It was relevant to what I was doing.”

For Josh Constine , 25, the tour was like a day at the office. As a journalist for Inside Facebook, an independent news source based in the Silicon Valley covering the social network’s growth and development, Constine was uniquely qualified to judge the merit of the outing.

“It was interesting seeing someone in power give a high-level view of why Israel is important to the hi-tech scene and how it relates to the Silicon Valley,” he said.


The Stanford graduate had some criticism for the outing.

“Exposing Israel’s role in the hi-tech industry is important, but to me it felt too focused on promoting corporations rather than illuminating Israel’s small entrepreneurs who are making a real impact,” he said.

“Israel is a source of innovation and lower cost engineering talent,” he summed up, “it’s not India but it’s not Silicon Valley either.”

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