By Brittany Britto, reporter, @brittanybritto
Applications for the summer Taglit- Birthright Israel trip are now open for students looking for a chance to travel to Israel to connect with their roots, whether it be for their first time — or second.
Though the fully sponsored and professionally organized trip for students of Jewish descent is known to tailor its trips for Israel first-timers, Taglit- Birthright Israel has continued the eligibility rule change that went into effect last winter, allowing more Israel second-timers than usual on its tour buses.
Due to the outbreak of war and conflict in Gaza over the summer, Birthright registration was low, resulting in Birthright’s decision to remove the cap intended to limit the amount of second-timers for the winter, Maryland Hillel’s Taglit- Birthright Israel Engagement Coordinator Ally Turkheimer said.
“What they normally do is they put a cap on the number of second-timers each trip organizer is allowed to take,” Turkheimer said. “For example, they will tell Maryland Hillel only 10 percent of our buses can have second-timers.” Turkheimer said the cap will also be lifted for the four Birthright trips happening this summer in May and June, where she expects an estimate of around 20 second-timer students.
According to the Taglit- Birthright Israel’s official website, the eligibility rules will still require students to be of Jewish heritage and between the ages of 18-26 prior to trip dates.
Students who who have lived, stayed or traveled to Israel for more than three months with a peer-organized group are considered ineligible for the Birthright trip as a way to preserve the experience for students who are not as familiar with Israel.
And while some may wonder how this change may affect the novice allure of the Birthright trip, freshman letters and sciences major and first-time Birthright participant Yaki Weingarten said the eligibility rule change had no negative effects on his trip.
“It didn’t really matter much,” said Weingarten, who traveled with Turkheimer and her staff on the winter trip. “And for the [second-timers], it was still a new experience because they were with new people.”
Weingarten, who has had his eyes set on Israel since high school, said that he noticed that some second-timer students knew more Hebrew, which was helpful.
Otherwise, Weingarten said students were too enthralled in their new surroundings to notice the impacts of the new eligibility rules.
“I was amazed that not even 24 hours ago, I was halfway across the world. I could barely fathom that,” Weingarten. “You see palm trees, and different architecture, and you do have a connection because you’re Jewish.”
In between diving into the cold waters of the Dead Sea and traveling north into the heat of the Israeli deserts, Weingarten said that bonding with Israeli soldiers was one of his favorite parts of Birthright.
“We had about five soldiers on the trip, and they were really integrated in the group,” Weingarten said. “Some of my friends still keep in touch with them.”
On each trip, soldiers join the Birthright trip for five days to participate in the program with students, Turkheimer said.
“It’s a great experience for our students and soldiers to see how similar and different they are from one another,” Turkheimer said. “They end up making everlasting friendships.”
Regardless of whether the students are first-timers or second-timers who are eager to return to Israel, Turkheimer said she works hard to deliver a new experience to every student.
Turkheimer said students also tend to find out more about who they are as Jewish individuals, how they want to continue on that path and be connected to the Jewish community at large.
Returning students make closer connections with the university and Maryland Hillel, and for second-timers the Birthright trip is just as rewarding, Turkheimer said.
“It’s kind of a special experience for each of them but in a very different way,” Turkheimer said. “A lot of [second-timer] students are looking for a different experience than the ones in high school. You get students that are trying to connect with their history and culture. We really try to tailor that experience for them.”