By Lauren Shaw
College students are an extremely diverse population, but there is one word most can appreciate: free. And for Jewish college students, a free trip to Israel is actually possible.
Birthright, a popular program subsidized by the Israeli government and private donations, provides trips to Israel for Jewish students with the intention of strengthening Jewish identity, community and solidarity.
And though junior economics major Nadav Karasov published an opinion column in The Diamondback Jan. 30, glorifying the risqué adventures of his experiences, students are saying their Birthright experiences are far from the “winter lovefest” Karasov described.
In his column, Karasov compared the Birthright experience to a combination between “Exodus” and “Wet Hot American Summer.” Some of his thoughts in the column of the sexually tense atmosphere were reminiscent of an article in Tablet, a daily online Jewish magazine, titled “Hooking Up in the Holy Land.”
“Hiking mountains, visiting a Holocaust museum, floating in the Dead Sea by day and – as I discovered after the trip – threesomes in Bedouin tents, hash-fueled binges and libations galore by night,” Karasov wrote.
“It sounds like my trip was a completely different experience,” said sophomore journalism major Nicole Sakin, who went with Maryland Jewish Experience on a Birthright trip this past winter break.
Although every MJX trip, which is led by a rabbi who meets with participants before the trip, is unique, Sakin said. For Sakin, the trip was spiritual and filled with history. Being at the Western Wall for Shabbat was the most meaningful part of the trip, she and junior environmental engineering major Matt Warne said.
“Seeing Jerusalem for the first time was breathtaking — it’s hard to believe everything that has happened there,” Warne said. “I also loved seeing the Western Wall. You can’t describe the way it feels. I don’t think anyone on my trip was there for a different reason.”
And though University of Delaware sophomore Scott Levitt said he saw some similarities between his trip and Karasov’s description, parties at the Tel Aviv nightclubs didn’t overshadow the real purpose of Birthright.
“Regardless of the intentions every individual has on Birthright, opportunity for the young generation to explore Israel is the underlying key of the trip,” Levitt said.
Although Karasov said there were some flaws in the program, he also concluded that the trip was effective in allowing participants to celebrate their Jewish identity.
And even on a campus with as large of a Jewish community as this university has, Birthright provides new opportunities for students to connect, said Warne. Both Warne and Sakin said they are still talking with people from their trips.
“Everyone on my trip goes to Maryland, so I still see everyone,” Sakin said. “We meet at the MJX box on Fridays for Shabbos sometimes.”
At the box — the program’s house on Princeton Avenue — students often meet up for meals and Jewish study group.
Levitt said the most important part of his trip was being able to transition his experience from Birthright back to campus and become an active part of the Jewish community.
Students have other opportunities to travel to Israel, including study abroad, Akiva, HaMerkaz, The Jewish Learning Exchange, Essentials, Bizrael, Hasbara Fellowships, JEWEL, MEOR, Yameena Israel Fellowships and Mechina. But some of these programs are pricey and meant for specific genders or interest groups, while Birthright offers perhaps the most widely appealing offer — a free trip for both men and women that provides a broad overview of Israeli culture.
And along with MJX, Maryland Hillel organizes Birthright trips every summer and winter.
Karasov closed his column by advising other students to decide for themselves whether Birthright would be a worthwhile experience for them — a recommendation others echoed.
“If you have the chance to go to Israel, definitely do it,” Warne said.