Israel is a young country with a flourishing modern culture. You probably already knew that, but it comes as a surprise to some Birthright Israel participants. Many of these Jewish young adults, aged 18-32, don’t give much thought to life in Israel or Jewish living. After the educational and experiential Birthright Israel journey, they enthusiastically embrace their Jewish roots.
“Unless you experience the vibrancies and the differences of the country, you don’t realize just how important the country and your heritage is and who you are culturally,” said Birthright Israel Foundation donor Sharon Socol. “You must be in the country to see it, to grab your Jewish identity.”
The long-term impression of the trip on Jewish American culture is natural and undeniable.
Pass the Shwarma
When in Israel, eat like an Israeli—that’s how it’s done on Birthright Israel. Rooted in regional and continental influences, with a dash of traditional Mizrahi, Sephardic, and Ashkenazi flair, the many flavors of Israel are a crucial component of the trip’s educational programming.
On your own Birthright Israel trip, you probably sampled many types Israeli dishes, from street food to sit-down restaurants. Did you gain any insight into the intricacies of Israeli cuisine along the way?
Jewish foodies feel especially at home in their homeland on Birthright Israel’s culinary niche trip. The itinerary for this delicious trip offers up the country’s cuisine as its main course. It’s such a yummy experience that in 2019, a group of American celebrity chefs, restaurateurs, and food personalities borrowed Birthright Israel’s recipe and organized their own, unaffiliated foodie trip.
Coming to America
When Birthright Israel alumna Molly Yeh returned from her culinary niche trip, she found herself inspired by every food she tasted. “I focused my time on learning and reading more about Israel as well as adding its flavor to my menu,” said Yeh, who is host of the TV show Girl Meets Farm on the American-based Food Network.
Whether for chefs, restaurateurs, or stay-at-home Jewish moms, Israeli food trends have begun to regularly influence how Americans cook and eat. The Food Network even recently welcomed its first kosher competitor, Shalom Yehudiel, on the popular food competition show Chopped.
“For me, it was the history and the spiritual energy that existed all around,” she said. “We were able to attend a brief music performance which elevated my spirit even higher and made me feel even more connected to Israel. I know there is some type of energy there—it’s a very powerful place.”
Israel is home to many talented painters, sculptors, craftspeople, writers, poets, filmmakers, and musicians, and Israelis are avid supporters of the arts in its many forms.
Of the several niche categories offered by Birthright Israel, the Art and Culture trip is one of the most popular. The group visits Israel’s vibrant cultural hubs, where participants are exposed to modern Israeli music, theatre and film.
Israel’s artistry and artists have had a strong influence on Jewish American culture. Some of Hollywood’s hottest stars, like A-listers Gal Gadot and Natalie Portman, were born in Israel. Netflix’s original drama about a Hassidic Jewish woman, Unorthodox, won eight Prime Time Emmys in September.
A Musical Legacy
Alumna Sabrina Karlin comes from a family with a rich musical heritage. Cantor and co-writer of “Hava Nagila,” her great, great uncle Abraham Zvi Idelsohn helped develop modern Jewish music. Her paternal grandma was a piano teacher. “As a professional dancer, I continue this musical legacy,” said Karlin. She hopes to one day work in arts administration in Israel, “helping artists bring their work to the public.”
We are fortunate to count cultured participants like Karlin among our more than 750,000 travelers since 1999.
When it comes to the modern aspects of Israeli culture, another unexpected surprise for many participants is the country’s innovative role as a start-up nation.
Since 2016, Birthright Israel participants have been exposed to the country’s technological and scientific breakthroughs during a visit to Birthright Israel’s Center for Israeli Innovation. The center showcases Israel’s entrepreneurial ecosystem in the areas of Medicine and Health, Science, Space, Transportation, Social Impact, Agriculture, and Safety and Security.
Alumna Julie T. called the Innovation Center “the biggest eye-opener of the trip. Regardless of religious or political orientation, it is impossible to deny that Israel is the light upon the world, be it through medical startups, innovation in irrigation, or defense techniques,” she said.
Wearing Many Hats
On the final night of his Birthright Israel trip, alumnus Daniel Winston was introduced to a techie venture capital investor, who spoke about his experience studying the Torah.
Up to this point, the idea of a progressive businessman living a religious life was an unexplainable contradiction for Winston. “I spent my whole life learning about two irreconcilable camps of people,” he said, “the smart ones who believed in evolution and science, and the religious fanatics who believed in G-d and shunned science and were implicitly wrong.”
Birthright Israel helped Winston realize the issue isn’t so black and white. “I’ve been studying Torah ever since, and my worldview has changed considerably,” he said. “I no longer envy those Chareidim with the black hats for their connection to spirituality, because I have my own.”
Diversity and Identity
Israel is a country of rich cultural diversity and, as you probably discovered, our Birthright Israel participants are just as diverse. The trip is open to eligible Jewish young adults no matter their background, beliefs, financial status, race, sexual identity, gender, or any other defining characteristics. We want participants to be themselves and make the trip their own.
Alumnus Corey Black didn’t think he’d be accepted in Israel because of his tattoos. “Before going on the trip, I imagined getting off the plane and being stuck at customs because of the way I looked,” he said. “Immediately when I got to Israel, I found a new understanding of Judaism. I knew I was accepted here.”
Alumnus Monroe Marshall might not have signed up for Birthright Israel if not for the fact that he was able to experience Israel’s LGBTQ+ culture. Even so, the trip changed his life in many ways beyond his sexual identity. “I came back to America feeling a connection to Judaism and Israel that I never imagined I would feel,” he said.
Birthright Israel Fellow Rachel Barnehama claims she discovers “a new facet of Jewish and Israeli culture and diversity” every time she visits Israel. “And every time I visit Israel with the program, it reaffirms my commitment to Israel and Judaism.”
An Israeli View
As a Mifgash (Israeli peer), alumnus Guy Richards has a unique outlook on Birthright Israel, but even he contends that Diaspora participants learn a lot about Israeli culture, including its society and security.
“They learned a lot about the different opinions in Israeli society and about the history and the complex security situation,” he said. “I think the most important thing the Birthright Israel group learned from us is about our dedication and commitment to the safety of our country.”
Richards’ favorite moment was at Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem, a market that’s close to his home. “I go to the market quite often, so I had lots of experience and knowledge to share with the group,” he said. “I felt like everyone had a great time, and I managed to contribute to their experience on Birthright Israel.”
Despite no connection to Israel upon signing up, the vast majority of Birthright Israel participants (85 percent) consider the trip a life-changing experience, and 74 percent return with a newfound connection to Israel. Did you?
At Birthright Israel Foundation, we aim to send nearly 50,000 Jewish young adults to Israel every year, but we can’t do it without your help. When you donate to Birthright Israel Foundation, it allows others like you to go on the life-changing trip to Israel, at no cost.
Even the smallest contribution can help send others like you on a life-changing religious, educational, and cultural experience.