As the winter trips approach, students from this university share their experiences from Birthright last summer.

By Benji Kaufman

Sara Berman, a junior kinesiology major rode camels with her friends at the Bedouin tents on her Birthright trip (Photo courtesy of
Sara Berman).

For many Jewish students, Birthright is a pivotal experience in their college years, but some students do not know what it is.

“For Terps, this is a chance to deepen their connection with their Jewishness and find community with each other, creating an inspiring and transformative experience,” said Dan Kling, the IACT coordinator at Maryland Hillel.

Kling works with students at this university to engage them with Jewish life on campus and emphasizes that people who embark on this amazing journey are given “the opportunity to travel to and explore their identity in Israel.”

Birthright Israel is a ten-day trip that gives Jewish young adults the opportunity to travel to Israel, visit historic landmarks and engage in outdoor activities. 

Ethan Selko, a junior finance major, grew up in Baltimore and was raised Jewish. He attended Hebrew school and went to a Jewish summer camp for ten years in a row.

Until this past summer, his only trip to Israel was when he was in middle school with his family.

Birthright was a positive experience for Selko. It was not until visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem that Ethan realized how different this trip was from any other trip he has been on. 

“Being at the wall was just a really important moment for me…I didn’t really have the ability to grasp that when I was in middle school,” Selko said.

Even though he had seen the Western Wall before, he felt empowered making his own decision to visit Israel.

He was grateful for the vacation his family took him on when he was younger, but being able to create his own experience in a familiar place made him more appreciative of the trip.

Birthright aims to take participants to places they might not have seen during past visits. Selko shared that he went to Sderot, a town right next to the Gaza Strip, where he heard about the experiences of the people who live there which contributed to one of the most “impactful” parts of his trip.

He says the ten-day trip is a “crazy” and “super fun” experience.”

On his Birthright Israel trip, Ethan Selko, a junior finance major, saw tanks and artifacts from both sides of the Syrian
border (Photo courtesy of Ethan Selko).

Sharing experiences with others defined Sara Berman’s trip on Birthright. Berman, a junior kinesiology major from Baltimore, says that traveling throughout Israel was meaningful. But, one Friday night, in particular, was the highlight of her trip.

“When we did Shabbat in Jerusalem, we were at a hotel, and [there were different] Friday night service options…my friends and I went to the service with one of our bus staff and we each just got to go around

and share about our own Jewish background,” Berman explained.

“I thought it was really cool that we can all just share our experiences with one another,” Berman said.

Berman was struck by how diverse everyone’s upbringings were. “Even though we all had very different backgrounds…Birthright was something that brought us together,”

Birthright takes people to historic sites and vibrant cities, but Berman emphasizes that above all, it brings people together and creates friendships that can last through their time at this university and beyond.

Like Selko, Berman gathered a group of friends to go on Birthright, but also “got to make all these new friends” who she now hangs out with at school all the time.

Alyssa Smollin grew up in Los Angeles in a strong Jewish environment and is a junior public health science major on the pre-med track. She said it was special to appreciate and experience Israel’s culture first-hand.

At 16, Smollin traveled to Israel but felt very confined to the experience her high school offered. She felt that Birthright provided more of a dynamic, unique experience in Israel.

She knew this trip was different and more eye-opening than her last when three soldiers, Liya, Sahar and Roya, joined her trip and engaged in conversation with students. 

Smollin loved how interested the three soldiers were in the differences between how the American government operates in comparison to how the Israeli government runs. 

She was curious about what soldiers go through on a daily basis but was both disappointed and interested by the fact that it is illegal for Israeli soldiers to share experiences of being in the army during their years of service.

Smollin emphasized that the soldiers had more questions for the participants than the participants did for them because of their lack of exposure to what Americans experience. 

“They were just really interested in how college was such an important part of our lives while they, after high school, went to the military,” Smollin stated.

Smollin lacked personal experiences meeting Israeli soldiers until talking to Liya, Sahar and Roya. The transition from in-class learning to first-hand encounters was very special for her.

She went on adventures in Israel that she had previously only heard stories about, like climbing Masada and paddle boarding in Tel Aviv.

“It’s nothing like you would have ever experienced in the U.S.,” Smollin said.

Smollin encourages everyone to go on the trip when the opportunity is available. 

“Anyone who experiences Israel will immediately fall in love with it,” Smollin said.

Smollin, a junior public health science major, during a surf lesson in Tel Aviv on Birthright (Photo courtesy of Alyssa Smollin).

Birthright trips aim to provide the opportunity to visit historical sites, to meet and connect with other people and explore the culture of Israel.

The next Birthright trip through this university is during winter break from January 2-12.


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