With passports in hand, Jewish students flooded into Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. They may have looked like eager-eyed tourists, but the Knights were there to reconnect with their roots.
Taglit-Birthright Israel, a free 10-day trip for 18- to 26-year-olds, has attracted more than 400,000 Jewish young adults over a 17-year period. From floating in the salty waters of the Dead Sea to praying at the 2,000-year-old Western Wall, participants are given the opportunity to explore different facets of their heritage.
“Every place we went to had a historical significance,” said junior Jared Bees, who arrived home from Birthright a few weeks ago.
The legal studies major traveled to Israel with Central Florida Hillel, a Jewish organization at UCF that takes students on biannual Birthright trips.
Over the past year, Hillel has seen a 56.5 percent increase in the number of students who participated in the winter Birthright trip, from 23 to 36, and a 162.5 percent increase in the number of students who participated in the summer Birthright trip, from 16 to 42, according to Hillel records. Due to limited spacing, 12 of the 54 applicants were waitlisted for this summer’s trip, which took place from May 12 to May 22.
Hillel engagement associate Danielle McKinstry said Israel’s rich history comes to life on Birthright. From her experience as a Jewish educator and Birthright staff member, McKinstry said Israel becomes more tangible to students who have the opportunity to walk the streets of Jerusalem for themselves.
“It gives college students a chance to see that Israel is a real country,” McKinstry said. “Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and all of these places they’ve learned about throughout their Jewish education exist in real life — in brick and mortar, in blood and sweat — not just in history books and Jewish texts.”
McKinstry said the 10-day trip has a lifelong impact on students. It has encouraged Knights to become more involved in Jewish life on campus, apply for student leadership positions at Hillel and book flights back to Israel, she added.
In winter 2015, then-freshman Lexi Goldstein traveled to Israel for the first time on Birthright. She said her experience not only strengthened her connection to Israel and its people, but prompted her to take a two-month marketing internship in Israel this summer.
“It’s your birthright as a Jewish person to find a connection to the land of Israel,” Goldstein said. “I’ve always been a supporter of Israel, but through Birthright, I formed a personal connection. My trip this summer is just going to be one of many trips to Israel.”
Rising sophomore Rafi Layish was one of the 42 students who went on Birthright in May. He trekked through Israel with other students and six Israeli soldiers who stayed with the group for the duration of the trip.
Although he had visited the country on four separate occasions, Layish said Birthright was a unique and memorable experience.
“It reinforced my connection to Judaism,” Layish said. “I want to go back as soon as I can.”
On the heels of his return from Israel, Layish began painting a mural on a wall at the Hillel center, located at the NorthView apartment complex. The vibrant artwork will depict Orlando on the left side and Israel on the right side, indicating that distance does not hinder the connection between Jewish communities.
Andrew Max, the Israel engagement coordinator at Hillel, said Layish’s project and Goldstein’s internship are prime examples of how Birthright helps to inspire and empower Jewish college students.
“Birthright really does make an impact,” Max said. “Students come back, and they want to be involved. They want to be engaged.”
Shana Medel is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Email her at ShanaM@CentralFloridaFuture.com.