Does A Free Trip To Israel Really Change Lives?

Tomorrow, I head off with my husband to Israel with Birthright Israel: Mayanot, acting as the Rabbi and Rebbetzin of a group of young American Jews who will be traveling to Israel for the very first time.

10 days, 40 participants, 1 Land.

I’m stoked.

This is not my first encounter with Birthright Israel. Fourteen years ago, straight out of my first year of graduate school, I too received a free trip to Israel. It was the only co-ed, strictly-for-Orthodox-Jews trip Mayanot ever organized (I wonder why) and it was absolutely incredible.

Forty of us, traveling together, telling stories, singing songs, sharing secrets, sneaking out to pray vatikin at the Kotel (we got into so much trouble – it was totally worth it), exploring our Jewish identity and emerging adulthood in a place full of authenticity and personal relevance.

It was special. It was meaningful. Totally exhilarating.

But was it life changing?

I think about certain experiences I’ve had in my life, those one-off encounters that were so rich in inspiration and fulfillment. Spending a week on a mountain in Turkey, surrounded by butterflies, painting. That three hour conversation with the homeless man who slept on the corner of my college dorm that left us both teary eyed and so deeply connected. The time I wept uncontrollably, inexplicably, at the kever of the Rashbi’s son. The instant I felt my mother fall against my back, holding me tight, as she heard my son’s name announced at his bris — Reuven, for her father.

Moments, encounters, lapses of time that hold meaning. Places we travel to and through, literally and figuratively, that tattoo our hearts and souls with something we try to hold onto forever. But do they change our lives in real, sustainable, ever-lasting ways?

Birthright Israel spends over $50 million dollars a year on these heritage trips and since its inception, they have sent over 400,000 mostly unaffiliated Jews to Israel. That’s $50 million dollars dedicated towards bringing young Jews to the Holy Land with the hopes to engender lasting connections with the Land of Israel, its people, and Jews across the Diaspora (yes, I’ve been reading their website).

Yet what is the ultimate goal? Are we trying to turn young adults onto Judaism? Israel? Get a Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel? Hope they’ll return and join the IDF? Defend the country of Israel in their next conversation with a less-informed fellow American? Light the spark of the participants’ souls? Stop intermarriage? And if so, is 10 days of touring in Israel on jeeps, camels and rafters with a bunch of people you’ll likely never see again really what’s going to do it?

Think about what predicts a long lasting relationship. Is it a wild night on the town with someone you just met? An other-worldly 24 hours together in some obscure glamorous city (I’m thinking Before Sunrise, of course)? Or is it the accrual of small, predictable, coming-straight-from-the-heart gestures that unite to create a surfboard to ride the waves of life?

Isn’t our relationship with G-d, the Jewish people, and the Holy Land the same? Are we here to go on some “one night stand” with holiness, a brief brush with something so awesome, with the hopes of going steady for life? Is a free trip to Israel for 10 days really going to inspire the millennials of our generation, obsessed with #immediategratification and impressed with short-lived trends, to make long-lasting changes in their relationships with Judaism and Israel?

On Sunday, the fast of the 9th of Av, a day that commemorates the biggest tragedies of our Jewish nation, I sat with the printed list of all the participants that will be joining the Birthright Israel trip my husband and I are leading. I read their thoughtful and inspirational essays, talking about why they want to attend this free trip to Israel. To explore the roots of their heritage. Visit a country so intimately connected with their ancestors. See the places they only heard about in stories from their more observant relatives.

They are excited for their Birthright Israel trip because they never appreciated their Jewish identity in their adolescence. Because they’ve discovered a new spiritual identity in their twenties. Because they are searching for some sort of meaning. Because their grandparents survived Auschwitz and their dying wish was for their grandchild to visit Israel.

Because they heard this trip will change their life.

I called each one, introduced myself, told them how honored I am to join them on this incredible journey. Jew after Jew, brick after brick, building a bridge across that which we do not know and that which we yearn to know so deeply.

So does a free trip to Israel really change lives?

I’m about to find out.