Six Bowdoin students went on a 10-day excursion to Israel during Winter Break, and now they wonder why any Jewish student would not take a vacation like theirs.
After all, the trip is free.
As long as travelers are Jewish, between 18 and 26 years old, and have never been to Israel with a peer educational group before, the organization Taglit-birthright israel will pay for almost all travel expenses, including food, hotel, and transportation costs.
The Bowdoin students thought the trip was particularly interesting because they had been learning about Israel for so long.
"You go there, and you already know a lot about it, but you don't know what to expect," Casey Dlott '07 says.
For instance, Lowell Walker '07 says that he was expecting to eat bagels.
"Then I found out those were invented in New York," he adds lightheartedly.
On its Web site, Taglit-birthright israel says that it operates on the belief that it is every Jewish person's birthright to travel to Israel. The journey is paid for by the Israeli Government, North American Jewish Federations, and private philanthropists. So far, the organization has paid for over 120,000 people to travel to Israel.
Dlott and Walker were accompanied on the trip by Jeanette Goldwaser '10, Becca Van Horn '09, Shelly Goulder '07, Jordan Krechmer '07. In Israel, six students joined a group of about 40 American students from small colleges.
"We bonded with other people from schools without a lot of Jews," Krechmer says.
The group traveled around the country in a bus, and visited Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Golan Heights, drove along the Jordan Valley, took a boat ride on the Dead Sea, and slept in a Bedoin camp in the Negev desert.
"In one day, we saw Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan," Van Horn says.
They did not actually go to these countries, Van Horn explains, but they could see them from Golan Heights.
Although these students did not all know each other prior to the trip, they now eat dinner together every Thursday night. Judging from their irreverent comments and relaxed demeanor in a recent interview, they could pass for a group of old friends.
While they agree that the trip was valuable, they have no qualms about touching on its lighter side.
Van Horn likes the two rules that their tour guide gave them during the trip: "We are all family," and "Blessed is he who gave us elbows." She explains that the elbows are for nudging people out of the way if they get too close.
They all laugh about how people who go on the birthright trips often find romance.
But then one of them adds, "I guess we blew our chance."
Van Horn pulls a tattered, miniature notebook out of her bag that she took notes in during the trip. She flips through and exclaims, "Oh, I found the five pillars!"
She is referring to the five pillars of Judaism?memory, family, Mount Sinai, state of Israel, and Hebrew language?which were explained during a lecture on the trip.
Another student suggests that her favorite Israeli food should be the sixth pillar.
The students are particularly eager to share the knowledge about camels that they acquired in Israel. They take turns imparting facts about the animals: Their humps are fat, not water, their knees are double-jointed to allow them to get close to the desert sand, they drink their snot, and they urinate on their legs to cool themselves.
To sum up the value of the experience, Dlott says, "The bottom line is that it's a very worthwhile trip to go on."
If you meet the requirements of the program, "there's no reason not to go," says Walker.