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By the end of Adon Olam everyone was singing. As the Taglit-Birthright Israel "Mega-Event" came to a close, four thousand Jewish college students from all over the world danced in the aisles of the Sultan's Pool stadium.
Most had never been to Israel before; most came simply for the free trip. And yet, once they got here, something changed. "I feel like it's my land now," said Shira Bellan, a participant from Winnipeg, Canada. "I actually feel proud to be Jewish."
Taglit was founded by philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Stendhart in 2000 to give Jewish students worldwide the "gift" of a free trip to Israel.
While some participants have strong ties to the Jewish community, most do not. Taglit aims at what marketing director Gidi Mart calls "the least affiliated in the Jewish people today."
A Taglit - Birthright commercial for US citizens of Russian-Jewish descent
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"The more detached you are," Mart says, "and the more your view of Israel comes from FOX news, the more effective the trip is going to be."
Taglit officials stress that the goal of the organization is not to make participants experts on Israel and Judaism. The trips only last ten days, not nearly enough time to gain a real understanding of the country. But Taglit is not about intellectual exercise. It is about emotional connections. "I think the overwhelming majority are deeply touched," Mart says. "We don't think they'll be all that knowledgeable after one time , but that it will deepen their thirst to come back, to learn more."
Taglit offers numerous versions of its trip through various trip organizers aimed to attract the widest possible range of students.
All go to a few sites: Independence Hall, the Dead Sea, Masada, the Western Wall ; but otherwise itineraries vary wildly. That's because it doesn't really matter what you show participants, says Adam Waddell, field coordinator for trip organizer Israel Outdoors. What matters is that they see Israel.
"Not given this opportunity, most will not make it here," Waddell says. "Most American Jews don't have enough connection to the land, to the ground here. But when they come here, they just soak it in."
The main thing is just getting them here. Before the organization was founded in 2000, only 12.5 percent of American Jews came to Israel for their first visit between the ages of 18 and 26, the lowest rate of any Jewish community in the world. Now, lured by the prospect of a free trip, over 40% do. Of these, eight percent will come back in two years and an estimated five percent will make aliya.
Studies conducted by Brandeis University researcher Len Saxe suggest that once back in the United States, Taglit alumni are significantly more committed to Israel and Judaism than peers who applied for the trip but did not go.
So Taglit advertises aggressively on college campuses worldwide, offering students a free ten-day trip to Israel, no strings attached. By the end of this summer, Taglit will have given this trip to over 145,000 Jewish college students over its seven year existence.
Most come back surprised by what they found. "I just thought I would meet people and have a good time," says Shira Bellan, the participant from Winnipeg. "I didn't realize that I would fall in love with Israel."