(L-R) Yossi Witkes, Director of IsraeLinks, with trip participants Ariel Winter and Brandon Mond .
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Over the past few years, Jewish organizations have questioned how best to capitalize on the benefits of Birthright trips, seeking to follow up with participants and maintain their connection to Judaism and Israel.
Now the campus arm of Chabad has stepped into the fray by organizing its own Israel program based on Birthright’s follow-up model, taking several hundred college students to Israel every year.
Chabad on Campus International’s IsraeLinks program brings around 160 participants aged between 25 and 30 to the Jewish state each year. It has been conducting several trips annually since 2007, according to Yossi Witkes, the program’s director.
The idea behind the program, he explained, is to fill the void that exists between the rushed and hectic pace of a 10-day Birthright trip and the lengthy five- to 12-month work and study approach of the Jewish Agency’s MASA programs.
“We had a lot of students coming back and getting involved in Chabad and who wanted another level of Israel Jewish experience,” he said. “It’s a little more in-depth.”
Starting with one pilot group eight years ago, the organization now coordinates five such trips a year.
“It has an impact on students, every person in his own way. Some make aliya; some get involved in Jewish communities. The idea behind it is we want people to make a big jump in connecting to Israel and their Judaism,” he said.
Although Chabad is relatively Zionist for an ultra-Orthodox movement, it is generally not thought of as being involved in overt Israel activism. Witkes, however, said he doesn’t see the program as representing a “major shift” from the movement’s traditional approach.
“Israel is definitely a good place to experience Judaism,” he said, adding that efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state on Diaspora college campuses have impacted how students perceive their Jewish identity and that bringing them to Israel “helps them be proud and active Jews and representatives of Israel.”
While he admitted that those looking to join the trips – which have a long waiting list – are largely self-chosen from among those interested in deepening their connection to Judaism, he did say that he believes that there has been a reduction in intermarriage among those alumni who have tied the knot.
Participants study Jewish topics for three hours every morning before touring areas frequently skipped by busy Birthright groups looking only to show Israel’s “highlights,” he said.
Ariel Winter, a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin, said she particularly enjoyed spending a Shabbat in the mystic city of Safed and an afternoon spent milking goats at a farm.
“We got to observe and participate firsthand what a traditional Shabbat dinner was,” she said. “It was an incredible experience walking with our hosts through the streets of Safed’s Old City and hearing singing from all the homes. There was an overwhelming sense of community.”
“The trip showed me that I love to learn, and there is so much more I need to learn,” she added, adding that the experience had inspired her to increase her own observance of Shabbat and Jewish rituals.
The trip also helps re-energize those involved in the fight against BDS on campus.
Brandon Mond, a government major at the University of Texas at Austin, said the trip “definitely reinvigorated me to want to go back and redouble efforts in anti-BDS and pro-Israel activism.”