Spiritual life for many Jewish students at Bowdoin is limited to Hillel-sponsored Passover events and Yom Kippur services in Daggett Lounge. However, over breaks, many students go on Birthright trips, which are organized by Taglit Birthright Israel, a non-profit organization that sends nearly 40,000 young, Jewish adults to Israel each year.
The program is designed to allow Jewish youth ages 18 to 26 to explore their connection to the Jewish faith and visit tourist destinations in Israel.
Birthright applicants are subject to strict eligibility requirements and those wishing to make the trip must be able to demonstrate that they have at least one Jewish parent or show proof of their conversion to Judaism. These stipulations are designed to prevent those without a real and legitimate interest from taking advantage of trip, for which costs are minimal—close to free.
Sunita Chepuri ’14, who made the Birthright trip in January 2012, spoke positively about her experience, during which she was able to see many different parts of the country.
“We started in the north, where we did some hiking and went to a kibbutz,” Chepuri said. “Then we came further south, went to Jerusalem and to the Western Wall, and to...Tel Aviv for a day, which was pretty cool; then went further south, where we saw the Dead Sea.”
Dan Lipkowitz ’14 says he had several reasons for going on a trip.
“Israel as a country is just a really interesting place; I wanted to be able to see the country and also experience the culture, and I thought it was great to have an opportunity—especially one that’s free—to do that,” Lipkowitz said. “Also, I grew up in a fairly religious household, and while I’m not as religious as I used to be, I thought it would be interesting to revisit my relationship with Judaism and that this was a good way to do that.”
Amanda Minoff ’15, who made the trip in 2012, said her choice was motivated by the allure of subsidized travel and the cultural relevance of the region.
“It’s just a really amazing opportunity that I don’t think anyone should pass up; it’s free travel to a very important part of the world...and a chance to get to the place—and to see and experience it—is really important,” said Minoff.
For some, however, the experience was not a wholly positive one.
Sophie Binenfeld ’17 described the Birthright experience of her sister, who reported feeling pressure from her Israeli counterparts to immigrate to Israel.
“They say that they want to offer us a cultural experience, but from what I’ve heard, they’re also trying to convince us to move there,” said Binenfeld.
Although the political climate in Israel is quite heated, most students interviewed said they felt that Birthright trips promoted fair and balanced discussions.
“Everyone—the Israelis, the trip leaders—were really open minded and down to have discussions,” Minoff said. “There were some organized activities where we had to come up with a plan [for a two-state solution], and even though we weren’t going to solve anything, it was interesting...to think about very real issues.”
Students said the degree to which Birthright engages local political issues seems to vary from trip to trip. Lipkowitz said that though he did feel that his trip endorsed a specific political agenda, he believes his experience was “kind of an anomaly.”
“What I’ve heard from most people is that they try to avoid the political aspect, essentially,” Lipkowitz said. “Mine, though, did offer political viewpoints, ones that I didn’t necessarily agree with because I felt that they might have simplified the Middle East conflict...It was kind of offering opinions on how much support you have to offer Israel and whether that connection is purely political or if it’s a part of Judaism.”