A present for Israel’s birthday

What present do you buy a 65-year-old country?

Pessah gift basket  311 (photo credit: courtesy)
Pessah gift basket 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
What present do you buy a 65-year-old country? Over the years, the State of Israel has received many precious gifts: a hi-tech empire, a strong defense force, Nobel prizes, a list of remarkable individuals, and so much more. Choosing the right gift isn’t an easy task.
Mark Twain visited the Land of Israel in 1867. The famed writer saw many things. Milk and honey were not on the list. Twain concluded his visit with the following: “Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies... it is desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise? Can the curse of the Deity beautify a land? Palestine is no more of this work-day world. It is sacred to the poetry and tradition – it is a dream-land.”
Today, 150 years later, on our 65th birthday, I think it is safe to say, Mr. Twain, that we have come a long way.
A little confession: I absolutely love my job as CEO of Taglit-Birthright Israel, but I envy other CEOs like Apple’s Timothy Cook or Ferrari’s Amadeo Felisa – they can experience the products they make. I, on the other hand, will never be able to experience the free gift of a 10-day trip to Israel that we offer every young Jew between the ages of 18-26 in the Diaspora. They told me I was over the age limit.
Many times I try to imagine the feeling experienced by a young Jew from the US, India, or any one of over 60 countries from which we have brought around 340,000 participants, when they experience our product.
Do you know what an iPod, a Ferrari and a Taglit- Birthright Israel trip have in common? People who have experienced these products say they there are awesome, life-changing things.
Do you know where an iPod, a Ferrari and a Taglit- Birthright Israel trip fundamentally differ? The Taglit- Birthright trip is a product with a very short lifespan which is expected to have a lifelong impact.
And so I find it hard to fathom what a young individual may feel upon arrival and by their departure. However I do know what impact the free 10-day trip has had on them with regard to their connection to Israel – research done by Brandeis University shows that the trip increases participants’ chances of feeling very connected to Israel by 42 percent (!) by comparison with applicants who didn’t get to go on the trip. At least a third of our participants (over 100,000) have come back to Israel within five years of their trip. Altogether, the project has contributed about NIS 3 billion to the Israeli economy.
I suppose it is no wonder that the impact is so powerful – in 10 days, participants don’t only see a beautiful country with the most advanced technologies and fun night life (which even President Obama wants to try out, with a moustache). I think they feel the context in which the State of Israel was created. I think they realize it is a truly miraculous chapter that is being written in the mankind book of history.
They may not have all read Twain’s Innocents Abroad, but participants learn that what they experience today is only 65 years old. Before that, for over 2,000 years the place was similar to what Twain described. I hear how participants are in awe of the fact that a language spoken collectively over 2,000 years ago and which then “fell asleep,” has awoken. I see how they find it incredible that their people have a state of their own after thousands of years and it is a source of pride for them on the personal, communal and collective level.
I know what I want to give Israel for her 65th birthday. I want all those who haven’t yet experienced the State of Israel to be able to come on the free 10-day trip so that Israel and them can become lifelong friends.
Happy Birthday!
The writer is CEO of Taglit- Birthright Israel.