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,Â 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
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 lovedÂ 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?
â€œThis whole experience â€” I love it,â€ Shira Prigat, one of eight Israeli university students who accompanied the American travelers, told me for myÂ Jewish Week article about the trip. â€œEveryone has been really excited about hiking. I’ve heard more enthusiastic comments about hiking than about clubbing, which really made me happy.â€
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 theÂ 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.
â€œI 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.â€
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 evenÂ 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.
â€œI 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 â€“ it’s a question of when I want to come back to Israel.â€
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.
â€œFor the first time in my life, I’m really proud to be a Jew,â€ 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.
â€œI 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.Â â€œI feel like with the relationship I’ve built here, I don’t want to leave you guys.â€
â€œI’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.â€