By Elana Dure
Katie Hamelburg, a freshman Jewish studies major, traveled to Israel at age 17 with her high school class. At the time, Hamelburg knew studying at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel would jeopardize her chance of going on a Taglit-Birthright trip, but she made a conscious decision to go nonetheless.
Recently, however, a new and unexpected door opened for Hamelburg and the many others who attended teen travel programs to Israel.
Birthright expanded its eligibility for the free 10-day trip to include those who traveled to Israel with a program during high school.
In the past, the Birthright experience for young adults ages 18 to 26 only allowed those who previously went to Israel on family or business trips to join the experience. Young adults who already visited Israel though a peer trip after the age of 12 were considered ineligible for the fully subsidized experience.
“Now I’m able to take advantage of applying for this really cool opportunity that I never thought I’d be able to take advantage of,” said Hamelburg.
Jourdi Tobias, a Birthright intern at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life headquarters in D.C. and a senior business major at this university, said a reason why Birthright expanded its eligibility was to give more students a chance to become involved with Israel.
The trip aims to strengthen participants’ understanding and connection to Israel as well as motivate people to continue exploring their Jewish identities.
Maiya Chard- Yaron, the director of educational engagement at Maryland Hillel, supports the change and said people who went to Israel with a previous group can still greatly benefit from a Birthright trip.
“It’s a new set of eyes,” Chard- Yaron said. “[People] may experience Israel differently at different ages.”
Yael Gertel, the Jewish Agency fellow to Maryland Hillel, agrees that the experience is invaluable to all who may join. However, recruiters now need to pay extra attention to the ratio between those who’ve been to Israel and those who haven’t because this ratio determines the nature of the trip, said Gertel.
Birthright seeks to aggregate a varied group of participants for each trip and this rule change will enable the experience to become even more diverse and include people from a wide range of backgrounds.
The overall reaction to the switch has been positive and full of excitement, however some do have their doubts.
University alumna Erin Rhode said Birthright might not be impactful for those who already went on a teen tour program. Rhode went to Israel for the first time with Birthright last January and said the trip defined Israel for her. Because other trips create definitions of Israel as well, Rhode said those newly eligible may compare the Birthright trip to their past experiences and not appreciate it as much.
Hamelburg, however, thinks Birthright will not be a comparison to her past Israel experience but rather a worthwhile addition.
“Just because I’ve seen some of the sites before doesn’t mean I’m not going to be able to take away from the experience,” Hamelburg said. “Having seen them will be able to add to my experience because going with different Maryland students from entirely different backgrounds and different connections to Israel will make me get a lot out of this trip in different ways than I was able to with my high school.”
Lauren Cohen, a junior mathematics major, also thinks Birthright will be an entirely different experience than the one she had as a Diller Teen Fellow in high school. While the Diller Teen Fellow program focuses on leadership building and community service in Israel, Birthright enhances different aspects of the country such as its sites and culture.
Jaclyn Weisz, a senior biology major, agrees Birthright is a special opportunity for everybody, despite having gone to Israel or not. Having participated in Birthright herself, she Weisz encouraged newly eligible participants to cherish the moment.
“If you get chosen to go on Birthright,” Weisz said, “don’t turn it down because it’ll probably be the best 10 days of your life, including the 24 hours you’ll spend on the plane.”