Boarding the E-train en route to my most recent international reporting endeavor, I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect. I was about to tag along with 40-some-odd American peers who were visiting Israel for the first time, not through the auspices of Taglit-Birthright Israel, but under the newly independent wing of Oranim Educational Initiatives. I was placed with the 25- to 30-year-old age group, the eldest of three different groups that Oranim founder, Shlomo “Momo” Lifshitz, was taking to Israel at his own expense.

Initially the largest Birthright trip provider, Oranim split with the huge umbrella organization this past June, following continued disagreements over registration numbers and Lifshitz’s commitment to vocalizing the message, “raise your children Jewish.” Eager to continue supporting the

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Oranim guide Yariv Ofer gives participants their first lesson on Israel, overlooking Jerusalem's Old City

message he deemed crucial to Israel’s future, Lifshitz decided to launch his own trips, with a particular focus on an older age group of young adults, many of whom no longer even qualified for the Birthright age maximum (no older than 26).

Waiting on line for security that Dec. 27 afternoon, I winced, as my ears picked up on some joking among participants as to whether or not they should be purchasing bottles of Duty Free alcohol before boarding the plane. Oh no, I thought — this is going to be the same alcohol-obsessed, sex-crazed frenzy that swept through the 18-year-old scene on my own trip 2.5 years before (I was 22 at the time). I loved my own Oranim Birthright trip back in June 2007 — in fact, it triggered an obsession with Israel that brought me back there five times since and will likely lead me to spend extended time there at some point soon. But as a reporter, I cringed at the thought of spending 10 days among cliquey girls and guys who were more interested in clubbing than seeing Israel.

Boy, was I wrong.

Sure, group members enjoyed lounging under the Tel Aviv night sky with a beer or two in hand and a hookah nearby, or dancing the occasional evening at a kibbutz pub or Eilat club. And don’t worry, there were enough matches made among these same participants that would render Momo proud. But their ultimate goal — to learn about Israel and take advantage of their free 10-day journey to the utmost. Why risk a hangover when there’s a rocky mountain climb the next morning?

“This whole experience — I love it,” Shira Prigat, one of eight Israeli university students who accompanied the American travelers, told me for my Jewish Week article about the trip. “Everyone has been really excited about hiking. I’ve heard more enthusiastic comments about hiking than about clubbing, which really made me happy.”

What I saw those 10 days was a mature group of mid to late 20-somethings, who were riveted by their tour guide Yariv Ofer, 38, a criminologist and IDF commander turned Oranim staffer, whose knowledge about Israel seemed endless and whose physical prowess could’ve propelled him up the Aggro Crag with a blink of an eye. At every stop — be it a muddy corner of the Mount Carmel forest or the wind-chilled outskirts of a Yom Kippur War bunker — the participants listened to Ofer intently, absorbing his discussions on Israeli history, culture and modern society, and asking questions that sparked countless debates to follow.

Ofer speaks to participants atop Masada

Ofer speaks to participants atop Masada

“I feel like this room is a melting pot of a wealth of intelligence and knowledge,” said Brandon Cohen, 26, on the last night of the trip. “It left me hungry for more.”

I’m in favor of sending Jews of all ages to Israel, which would be optimal if today’s Jewish community had unlimited financial resources. But after witnessing both my typically younger Birthright trip’s age group as well as the 25-30 group from Oranim, the difference in maturity between the two was astounding to me. Rather than coming to Israel on winter breaks from school, many participants had to take precious vacation days — some even unpaid vacation days — to come on this trip. Their time was precious, and they wanted to get the most out of their 10 days in Israel, willingly waking up as early as possible to maximize their cultural intake.

“I think I took in 50 percent more information than I would have if I had come when I was younger,” said participant Evan Ryan during the group’s closing session. “It’s not a question of if I want to come back to Israel – it’s a question of when I want to come back to Israel.”

His peer, 26-year-old Brad Goldstein, agreed, adding more recently, “Being older, and more mature, and having a better sense of world news, you can appreciate the everday struggle of being in Israel and seeing Israelis.” On the last day of the trip, Goldstein — who himself had come to Israel expecting little — organized a fundraising effort among his fellow trip members, collecting a grand total of 2,000 shekels ($500) from them for Oranim’s future free trip, an idea he said came to him in a hotel shower.

“The amazing leadership of Yariv made me want to share this experience with more people and do anything I could to help that happen,” Goldstein said, noting that he and his fellow group members wanted to do everything they could to make sure that these trips continue.

While $500 will hardly send an entire bus of future participants to Israel (a bus, Lifshitz says, requires $80,000, in comparison to Birthright’s price of $130,000), the money raised by these trip members is certainly a start, and a group of them are already planning fundraising events in the future, entirely independent of the Oranim staff. Oranim already has a host of successful long-term programs in Israel, but if the company wants its 10-day trips to survive independently of Birthright, it is certainly a wise business strategy for Lifshitz to focus his efforts on this older age group. In terms of attracting investors and philanthropists, they will not be competing with Birthright because they are offering an entirely different product — a different, but equally valuable product. If the funds are available, the two can exist simultaneously.

“For the first time in my life, I’m really proud to be a Jew,” said participant Adam Nolan, on the last full night of the trip, as the circle of participants shared their opinions in a small conference room at their Neve Ilan Hotel.

A few seats away, his cousin — David Pinsky — began tearing.

“I just broke out in tears when my cousin said that for the first time he’s proud to be a Jew,” Pinsky said about 15 minutes later, still sniffing. “I feel like with the relationship I’ve built here, I don’t want to leave you guys.”

And three weeks ago this coming Wednesday evening, the group parted ways at Ben Gurion Airport, most boarding an El Al aircraft back to New York, and some others sticking around the country a bit longer — either with their new Israeli friends or family members. But a flurry of Facebook wall posts, group get-togethers and e-mail chains continue to keep them in sync, as they try to figure out a way to help bring more people in their late 20s to Israel.
Staff members, particularly their leader Yariv Ofer — a veteran tour guide of trips past — said he was blown away by the maturity he saw among this group and hopes that this venture will not be the last of its kind.

“I’m going to go home tomorrow night with the feeling that I didn’t go to work,” Ofer said. “I went on a trip with a bunch of my friends.”

Sharon Udasin is a staff writer at The Jewish Week. E-mail her at sharon@sharonudasin.com.

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5 Comments

  • Welcome aboard, Sharon.

    Good post, and considering this site’s history with Birthright and Momo, very much in line with things we’ve discussed in the past.

  • excellent to hear that it has an impact on people who are truly in a position to take home the message of these birthright style trips to israel. i always thought that too many of the birthright participants were just coming for their friends and for the parties (and not just oranim). glad to see how a few years really make a difference. hopefully it can stay on long enough.

    • thanks to “themiddle.” and thanks to Roey for the comment — having gone on both of those trips, it was striking to see the difference in behavior/attitudes between the older participants and the younger ones. I mean, there’s definitely something to be said for sending college-age people to Israel because then you can attract them to the country while they still have plenty of mobility, before they are entrenched in a career. But as you said, many participants of that age seem to just go for the partying/friends aspect anyway. I already am already some people from this older group talking about returning soon to Israel, or even tinkering with the idea of aliyah.

  • … maybe now that these folks are older, the trip will now actually cross the Green Line – which is necessary to understand the situation, but became some sort of bugaboo for Birthright groups.

    I live just east of Rosh Ha-Ayin, and I will be happy to meet any group and explain the strategic/spiritual importance of where I live.

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