Yes to hummus, no to shwarma: Birthright launches vegan-themed trip

Pulver, who has led 32 Birthright trips so far, said he sees a real difference in this group of participants.

Vegan Birthright  (photo credit: RACHEL NEWBURY)
Vegan Birthright
(photo credit: RACHEL NEWBURY)
The idea of going on Birthright Israel was always in the back of Lily Drabkin’s mind.
“I never had a concrete plan; it was sort of something I’d do if I had free time,” she said.
But when she saw that there was a specialized vegan trip running this summer, she jumped at the opportunity. “I saw the vegan trip and knew that I had to go because being vegan is such a deep part of my identity and so is being Jewish, so I knew that meeting so many other Jewish vegans would be such an incredible spiritual experience.”
Drabkin, a 21-year-old university student, spoke to The Jerusalem Post Friday morning while making vegan halla along with the other 29 participants on Birthright’s first-ever vegan trip.
Of the 30 people who took part in the trip, 27 are vegan, two vegetarian and one a pescatarian. The trip, run through Birthright’s trip provider Mayanot, offered the group a unique Israel experience – preserving much of the traditional curriculum but adding in specially tailored content.
“There are the basics we kept in, such as Yad Vashem, Mount Herzl, a tour of the Old City,” said Ariel Pulver, the group’s tour guide who is himself a vegetarian, and has been leading Birthright groups for years. “But a lot of the things we put in are not like the average Birthright trip. Instead of visiting the Beduin in the South, where there’s mistreatment of camels, we’re going to be visiting with a vegan minority in Israel – the Black Hebrew Israelite population in the Negev and Dimona.”
The participants also visited a farm sanctuary, a vegetarian community center in Jerusalem and will have a vegan cooking class with activist and chef Ori Shavit.
The vegan trip, which Birthright hopes will become a regular occurrence, is just one of the many niche trips hopeful participants can now choose from. This summer also marked the first-ever trip geared toward the hearing impaired. And the wide range of specialized trips already available includes those geared toward medical students, lacrosse players, recovering addicts, hiking lovers, foodies, yoga practitioners and the LGBT community.
In 2012, less than 5% of participants on Birthright came as part of niche trips. Today, as Birthright is projected to bring close to 50,000 people to Israel this year – its biggest ever season – that number is closer to 20%, said Noa Bauer, vice president of global marketing at Birthright.
“We know that people are coming on niche trips because maybe they’re not as close to their Judaism and not as affiliated and are [instead] interested in this specific niche, but they’ll come and receive the whole product of Birthright Israel,” said Bauer.
She said the specialized trips are the brainchild of various sources, including trip providers themselves and outside organizations. The vegan trip was run in collaboration with the nonprofit group Jewish Veg.
“We’re looking for the next new hot things that are of interest to young Jewish adults or millennials in general,” said Bauer. “That’s how we come up with new programs.”
On the vegan trip, many participants were shocked to find out how vegan- and vegetarian-friendly Israel is. Vegans are estimated to comprise 5% of the population, making Israel the country with the highest per-capita vegan rate in the world.
“I’ve heard that especially Tel Aviv but Israel as a whole is just like shooting up in terms of veganism,” said Vanessa Massel, a 21-year-old participant from California. “We ate out in Tel Aviv and we stopped at a place and within like 10 minutes in either direction there were two or three vegan restaurants and a vegan bakery – it’s amazing.”
Drabkin said she’d also heard of Israel as a vegan hub, but never imagined what it was really like.
“It’s so much more welcoming than I could have dreamed,” said Drabkin. “In America, I’ve been living in some of the most vegan-friendly places and it’s nothing like here – it’s so much more.”
All the trip participants also seem to be benefiting from the chance to spend time with fellow Jewish vegans.
“I have some vegan friends, but usually I’m around a lot of non-vegans,” said Massel. “It’s been so wonderful to be in a group of people who don’t want to harm animals and that really show that in their eating habits and in their lives.”
Pulver, who has led 32 Birthright trips so far, said he sees a real difference in this group of participants.
“This is a group of people who are ideological, they’re trailblazers, they’re extremely compassionate to all of God’s creatures,” he said. “They care about all the issues, that’s one of the things that makes them special. They’re also the kindest group – they’re an incredibly kind group and they project a lot of love.”