Tales from a Birthright reject

Soon, Israel will welcome hundreds of college students and young professionals for the “trip of a lifetime.”

Taglit-Birthright (photo credit: Courtesy Taglit)
(photo credit: Courtesy Taglit)
As the Jewish community recalls the winter Birthright season and prepares for the hectic summer season, the time has come for reflection. Soon, Israel will welcome hundreds of college students and young professionals for the “trip of a lifetime,” the promise of a life-changing experience in the Promised Land. Many have already applied, dutifully checking boxes on questions such as “Do you read Israeli newspapers?” or “Do you celebrate Jewish holidays at home?” By now, everyone knows the basics of a Birthright trip: felafel and shwarma, the Old City, camel rides in the desert, a sunset hike up Masada. But less often discussed is the process of actually making it onto the list for the coveted trip. For trips in the summer of 2012, there were about 37,000 North American applicants for 18,000 spots, and there is no reason to think that the numbers will drastically change in 2013 – in other words, half of the applicants will trek, dripping with sweat, through Nahalat Binyamin in Tel Aviv this summer, and half will not.
Birthright recently turned 13 (mazal tov!) and has morphed into the popular kid, the attractive, athletic, smart and friendly student whose lunch table is always crowded with admirers, the recipient of countless sleepover invitations, Valentine’s hearts and extra movie tickets. It comes as no surprise that Birthright is now facing the inevitable challenges of popularity, including the contentious dilemma: “Whom will I invite to my party?” If a Birthright trip is considered the social event of the year (akin to a birthday party, bat mitzva or quinceañera), but within the limited budget of financially cautious benefactors (i.e., parents), how is the guest list picked? Who chooses which of the Birthright applicants are most suited for a trip? What measures are in place to ensure fairness and equality when choosing participants? The trip providers are the ones who plan the itineraries, whittle down the participants and run each individual trip. With Taglit-Birthright as the umbrella organization, participants can pick their trip providers (some of the most well-known are Hillel and Young Judea), which offer trips geared toward the LGBT community, or culinary-themed trips, or ones that incorporate arts and music. Through certain providers, the Taglit-Birthright trips employ a firstcome, first-served policy. As long as you get your name into the online system the second that trip registration becomes available, you’ll be considered in the order that you pay your deposit. Of course, those who make the cut still have to endure the barrage of questions ensuring their Jewish heritage and eligibility, but once they “pass the test,” they are on the trip.
AT MY university, though, where the Birthright trip was run through Hillel’s provider, the process of picking Birthright participants had nothing to do with the order in which you signed up. Instead, potential trip-goers sat through group interviews in which they were quizzed on their connection to Judaism and what they wanted to get out of the program.
For my interview, three of us sat in an ornate living room in our Hillel building, with two interrogators – I mean, interviewers – facing us. We answered their questions deftly and with the proper amount of wit, modesty and self-assurance, conscious that we should come across as model students even while we were competing against one another for spots.
The purpose of the interviews, in theory, is to ensure that the applicants are being truthful on their applications. According to Birthright, anyone is eligible for the free trip to Israel if they are Jewish (if not religious, then not practicing any other religion), are between the ages of 18 and 26, have not lived in Israel since the age of 12, and have never traveled to Israel on an organized trip (with some exceptions). If the applicant has applied before, s/he receives priority on the next application.
Those official criteria do not really narrow down the playing field, since the vast majority of applicants fall into those categories (there are some stories about Messianic Jews and born-again Christians who try to join the free trip to Israel, but they are usually discovered pretty quickly).
I failed. Somehow, my answers were less than satisfactory to the two young Hillel employees sitting across the room. Somehow, I was deemed not right for the trip that winter, and so I was put on the dreaded “wait-list” while my friends and classmates went shopping for long skirts and sunscreen. The other two girls in my interview, incidentally, were accepted.
I RECENTLY spoke to several Jewish students from well-known universities around the country, employees at collegiate Hillels, and an administrator at Hillel’s Birthright department, asking them about the guidelines for the interview process. Many answers were positive, citing appropriate criteria such as an interest in Judaism, social suitability, excitement about the trip, curiosity and intellect. I was told that the interviews are often used to make personal connections with the students and to make sure they fit the criteria for the trip. The trip provider then accepts any applicable students who have paid the deposit in time.
Each year, universities that run their Birthright trips though Hillel change their priorities regarding who gets in. Depending on the year, colleges might want freshmen and sophomores, who would then become more involved in Hillel for the next few years, or they may want to preserve a 50-50 gender ratio, et cetera.
And there are always “VIP” students whose last names or family connections all but guarantee them a spot.
It is understandable that a college Hillel might have its own changing priorities, but where does this leave those of us who didn’t qualify for special treatment? As a non-Greek, non-freshman and non-VIP, though a dedicated Hebrew student and member of a number of extracurricular groups, I was seemingly unwanted.
ABOUT ONE month before my school’s trip, I miraculously found myself off the wait-list and experienced my own trip of a lifetime. After growing up in a decidedly WASP-y, Colonial-era town, arriving in the Jewish state felt like an oasis, a place where I was surrounded by people like me. The grisly image of a wartorn and miserable society that my liberal college had painted was quickly replaced by the image of religious Jews and Muslims walking side-by-side through the Old City. We heard from the mouths of Israelis – rather than Americans who had never visited the country – about their disappointment in the government, their arguments for and against the two-state proposal, and their passion for their country.
From the Sea of Galilee to the Negev, I truly felt that I belonged among the sabras. Birthright had done its magic, granting me a renewed sense of my own Jewish heritage and Jewish future.
Eighteen months later, I was again bound for Israel for a post-graduation summer internship. That summer internship turned into the decision to make aliya. In August of 2012, I assigned up for health insurance, received my teudat zehut (identity card), and started working in Jerusalem. Earlier this year, exactly two years since my Birthright trip, I voted in Israel’s elections. I am the only participant of my trip (so far) to have made aliya, and the only one to have joined the trip from the wait-list.
This “Birthright reject,” as someone quipped about me, has become an aliya success story. The trip definitively solidified what I foresee as a lifelong relationship with Israel, and it scares me to think that there are hundreds of “rejects” in every Birthright season who remain on the wait-list and fail to embrace their Judaism.
RECENTLY THE Brandeis Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies released its 2012 report on the impact of the Birthright phenomenon. The findings aver that Birthright participants are more likely than the non-participants to feel connected to their Judaism, to want to marry another Jew, and to celebrate Jewish holidays (once the first Birthright alums reach their mid-30s, I’m sure there will be revealing statistics on whom they actually do marry). In other words, Birthright really does work and it really is changing the way young Jews think about Judaism and Israel.
Unfortunately, in this post-Madoff world of Jewish philanthropy, Birthright’s funds are not enough for every interested Jewish young adult to travel expense-free to Israel. Financial restraints demand a Birthright selection process (a decidedly uncomfortable term), and with it, greater transparency about the process.
What was once a simple mission – to encourage Jewishness in young adults – has degraded into disparate agendas, subject to the whims of competing trip providers or college campuses. Even Hillel employees acknowledge that the hierarchies and bureaucracy surrounding the trips are complicated and inefficient. The major issue is that Birthright has become too big, with too many splinter groups in the form of trip providers.
If Birthright can fairly and consistently ensure a selection process for all of its trip providers, I will gladly continue to support what it is at its core: an exceptional and amazing program that changed my life. As it reaches adulthood, Birthright must be mature enough to look in the mirror, acknowledge its amazing achievements and redefine its long-term goals. Without a transparent methodology, the biggest educational phenomenon in 21st-century Diaspora Jewry runs the risk of adopting a “queen bee” meanness, thereby excluding an equally valuable portion of the community.
If certain applicants must be “rejected,” let it be by a universal, thoughtful and purposeful process – not arbitrarily. ■ The writer is a research assistant at Shalem College in Jerusalem. She graduated from Brown University in 2012 with majors in Judaic Studies, Classics, and Medieval Studies, and she made aliya in August 2012.