By Matt Levine
Spencer Dobkin, a junior journalism major, has dreamed of going on Birthright Israel ever since he heard about the program at a young age.
“Who doesn’t want to go on a free trip to see meaningful places, meet new people, and learn things about Israel,” he said.
Birthright, a free 10-day trip to Israel, takes Jewish students all over the country to explore and develop their religious identities.
Whether or not a participant has been to Israel before, Birthright provides a valuable experience for all.
Junior Evan Silbiger, a public health science and pre-dental major, has been to Israel many times but still attended Birthright this summer.
“I love the country, the people, the food, and it is a safe place to go, especially as a Jew,” Silbiger said. “I felt that it would be more meaningful to go with my close friends from school and my fraternity (Tau Epsilon Phi) brothers.”
The 10-day trip is a nonstop tour of the country, featuring all of the historic and meaningful sites. Highlights include meeting with an artist in Tzfat, touring the Old City and visiting the Western Wall, celebrating Shabbat, enjoying Jerusalem’s nightlife, riding camels, hiking Masada, floating in the Dead Sea and strolling through Tel Aviv, according to Maryland Hillel. Hillel often organizes these trips for students at this university.
“Going to the Western Wall was a highlight of the trip because of how sacred it is,” Silbiger said. “Also, climbing Masada at 3 a.m. to watch the sunrise was an experience that I’ll never forget.”
Dobkin agreed. “A highlight of the trip was hiking Masada and watching the sunrise over Jordan,” he said.
Beyond the touring, Birthright educates participants about modern and historical Israel at each of the sites.
“I learned a lot about what is going on in Israel, its culture, the people, places and religion,” Dobkin said. “You really can’t learn this much unless you are there.”
Many who attend are so changed from the trip that they become advocates for the program.
“I would recommend it because not only is it free, but people want you to experience Israel, one of the coolest countries in the world,” Silbiger said. “It was built from nothing and they want you to see how far they’ve come.”
Because Maryland Hillel facilitates some of the trips, many students at this university often go together. Whether traveling with old friends or meeting new people, many bond over the shared experience back in College Park.
“I got closer with a lot of people from UMD that I wasn’t close with before because we went on mixed buses, and all of us returned home with more of a connection to our religion,” Silbiger said.
Many students also return to campus with knowledge about Israel and new mindsets about religion.
“When students come back from Maryland Hillel trips, our staff serve as resources for students to continue their exploration of what Judaism means to them,” said Stephanie Bekerman, the Birthright coordinator at Hillel.