It’s mid-day on a Tel Aviv beach, and a group of young, post-army Israelis are training dozens of eager American pilgrims in the ways of a dangerous, hotly contested Israeli specialty – “matkot” or beach paddleball.
Matkot and volleyball on the beach – and the Zumba class with free watermelon a few steps away – are part of Birthright Israel Tel Aviv, a highly promoted three-day effort by the organization to bring college students from North America and beyond to experience the lighter side of Israel – or whatever it is that Tel Aviv passes for these days.
The more than 5,000 students who took part in Tel Aviv Week last week were given a taste of the city’s nightlife, culinary scene, beaches and cafes. Along the way, they met with a series of Tel Aviv celebrities – people like former Big Brother host Assi Azar, model and TV host Galit Gutman, and celebrity chef Assaf Granit.
For attendees it was a chance to meet Israeli celebrities who did not attain fame by being generals or members of the Knesset, and for Israelis observing the interactions there was perhaps the chance to relish seeing cultural elites meet and talk to people who have absolutely no clue who they are.
“The 5,000 Birthright participants, aged 18-26, experience for themselves the central role Tel Aviv plays in shaping modern Israeli society, and the impact it has had...
The participants will be exploring the fields of hi-tech, fashion, culinary arts, dance, music, theater, photography and the energy that the city has to offer,” the organization said in a statement.
On Tuesday, a group of around 100 students were gathered at Habimah Theater in Tel Aviv to watch a performance by Mayumana – the Israeli dance troupe that combines dancing and percussion, in this case provided by plastic buckets, walking sticks, and flippers.
It would be a terrible place to find yourself if you were a hungover college student, but looking around the crowd of kids wearing identical Birthright T-shirts, they seemed well-behaved, enthusiastic, and sober.
It seemed a far cry from what I remember from the Birthright trip I took part in 15 years earlier, as a senior at the University of Texas at Austin.
It was my first time in Israel – first time abroad at all – and my friends and I took full advantage of the opportunity. Even a short stop in the holy city of Safed was a chance to get off the bus and grab a quick beer. While it was a very meaningful trip and helped instill in me a strong desire to return to Israel, looking back I’m somewhat surprised my friends and I weren’t deported.
Israel was a very different place back then, too. The second intifada was in full swing, and only a few months away from hitting its peak in the spring of 2002. It was not a place tourists were clamoring to visit and there appeared, to us, to be a sort of appreciation for tourists who were still visiting – especially young American ones on a free trip, flush with spending money for souvenirs.
There was also gravity about things that was probably linked to the fact that it was just a few months after September 11, and the uncertainty and fear which that horrible day instilled in young Americans like me was still very fresh.
I remember Tel Aviv from that trip as a fleeting blip on the radar – we only stopped there for an hour or two, just enough time to take a group picture on the beach, eat lunch at a restaurant on the promenade, pound a couple of beers and replenish the supply of vodka in our backpacks.
The rest of the trip was ruins and history, Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl, and what in retrospect seems like a disproportionate amount of time spent in the Golan Heights, a quiet place during the second intifada.
Like for my friends and me from that trip, Birthright has changed a great deal since December 2001, when it was only a year old. It has now sponsored more than 500,000 trips to Israel and 15 years after I took part, it’s very much a known commodity on college campuses.
It has enough name recognition to be the subject of blogs and articles decrying it as a “propaganda fest” or parodying its stereotype as a sort of “Jewish spring break” full of drunken hook-ups. It even inspired an episode of Broad City this past season, when the show’s two Jewish characters take part in a “Birthmark Israel” trip, complete with a plane full of young Hebrews chanting “Jews! Jews! Jews!” and a guide urgently trying to arrange in-flight shidduchim (matches) while the heroines attempt to fashion a tampon out of a pita and a kippa (it’s a long story).
As before though, there are also very many, perhaps even a majority of participants who grew up somewhat detached from Judaism or a Jewish communal life. Casey Levenstein, a 19-year-old Rutgers University student from Howell, New Jersey, said that she has mainly non-Jewish friends and like her friend Sasha Elizar, only had her bat mitzva on the trip, during their visit to the Western Wall.
She said that she came on Birthright because she loves sightseeing “and wanted to learn more about the place” and like Sasha, said she would love to come back to Israel someday. Neither talked about politics, and said that the conflict was really covered only in passing during the trip’s events.
Birthright CEO Gidi Mark told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that Tel Aviv Week is part of efforts to connect young Jews to contemporary, vibrant Israel, and not just the Israel of “Jerusalem of Gold,” Yad Vashem, and pioneers draining the swamps to build the nascent Jewish state.
“In recent years, we’ve learned that it’s just as important to connect people to their daily life and the future as it is to connect them to their past,” he said.
Mark is a firm believer that seeing contemporary Israel first-hand is enough to counter the image of Israel they may have seen in the media or heard from politicians.
It is important, he said, that they come and see for themselves, because “more and more of them are exposed to a shallow depiction of Israel on the political level, and this way they can feel that Israel is a place that they can feel a part of, and something more than a blackand- white picture, giving it more depth, more color.”
While countless organized Israeli trips – not just Birthright – have promoted tours that emphasized the conflict-free, user-friendly version of the Start-Up Nation, where beautiful, tanned Israelis eat worldclass cuisine in cities with perfect cellphone coverage, participants often can’t fully escape the conflict.
In one of the more glaring examples, in March, Vanderbilt student and US Army vet Taylor Force was murdered in a stabbing attack on the Jaffa promenade, while in Israel as part of a school trip.
According to Mark, things have returned to normal since the beginning of the “stabbing intifada” last October, and for the most part he believes participants are to a certain degree unaware of the security situation in the country. He also refuted the assertion that the trip subjects participants to a full-court press of Zionism meant to send them back home as driven pro-Israel advocates.
“We aren’t here to brainwash people, and we don’t believe that you can brainwash smart people like that,” he said, adding that donor Sheldon Adelson, a major patron of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and now a top supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential bid, has “never made any political statement regarding Birthright.”
Statement or not, in December 2011 Adelson told a group of hundreds of Birthright participants at a Hanukka event outside Tel Aviv to “read the history of those who call themselves Palestinians, and you will hear why [Newt] Gingrich said recently that they are an invented people.”
Adelson’s utterance gave credence to voices accusing the trip of being political.
Mark disagrees, saying that Birthright looks to represent “Zionism without quotation marks, and Israel without a censor.”
One thing that has changed Birthright over the past 16 years is social media, which was barely in its infancy back when the program launched. Nowadays, students can keep in touch with the rest of the attendees on their trip months or even years later, and can stay attached to events back in Israel through the Israeli friends they met on Birthright.
Mark used as an example an anecdote he heard from an Israeli soldier, who said that, when he left Gaza after a deployment during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, he had hundreds of messages waiting on WhatsApp, most of them from students whose trip he had accompanied on Birthright.
The connections forged by the trip remain the emphasis of the venture, according to Mark, who said that while in a past generation only around 12 percent of American Jews’ parents had visited Israel, the percentage in this generation – after 500,000 trips to Israel – is likely much higher. Those who maintain a close connection to Israel are less likely to intermarry and stray from the community, he added.
How many of those children will be raised in America knowing what matkot is, remains to be seen.