Birthright trippers find visiting Israel during war is a unique and invigorating experience

Birthright’s current trips include all the typical highlights of the organization’s tours, including this jeep tour, but also offer opportunities to volunteer and bear witness after Oct. 7. (Oded Antman)

by Elana Sztokman

(JTA) – When Alon Fishman visited Israel in early January on a group trip, it wasn’t his first time in the country. But Fishman, 23, had never seen Israel like this before.

When his Birthright Israel group arrived at the Western Wall, they found it uncharacteristically empty, and the plaza featured a new memorial with the names of the 1,200 victims of the Oct. 7 attack. For Fishman, a native of Rockland County, New York, the muted visit was a poignant reflection of the times — and a powerful emotional experience.

“It was a blessing to have that space and time to reflect, and an opportunity I may never get again,” Fishman said of the experience of visiting Israel in wartime. “It made me understand not only how hard we got hit but also how we face these things, how we are still standing and come out ahead.”

Many participants traveling to Israel on Birthright Israel trips these days say the experience is unique and affirming at a time when many Jews around the world feel at a loss for how to respond to the atrocities of Oct. 7 and public displays of anti-Israel sentiment in their communities. In Israel, they say, they feel safe, embraced and a sense of belonging being around Israelis and fellow Jews.

“The friendships I made — it’s nothing I’ve ever felt before,” said Noah Solomon, 25, from Boca Raton, Florida. “The amount of Israelis who I met who now say ‘You are my brother for life, my friend for life, come to my house for Shabbat’ — it’s incredible.”

Over 400 Jews visited Israel in January on Birthright, which offers free 10-day Israel trips to Jews ages 18-26. Participants came from the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, France, and Russia.

When Gillian Zitrin, a 21-year-old Skidmore College senior from New York’s Westchester County, told friends she was going to Israel, many of them expressed surprise.

“There was a lot of concern from people — like, there’s a war happening, don’t go,” Zitrin said. “But I felt very safe and had such an amazing experience. I’m glad I didn’t listen to those people.”

Since November, over 1,200 Birthright Israel alumni have come to Israel to volunteer in the country. Seeing their enthusiasm as well as hundreds of new Birthright Israel participants come on the 10-day trip has been extraordinary and heartwarming, said Noa Bauer, Birthright Israel’s vice president of marketing.

She added, “Some may be concerned with safety or that they will miss the ‘real’ Birthright Israel experience but I want to assure them that safety is our top priority and we will not compromise on anyone’s gift of their free trip to Israel.”

Birthright’s current trips include all the typical highlights of the organization’s tours, including visits to popular sites and encounters with Israelis, but they also offer opportunities for participants to volunteer, bear witness to what happened on Oct. 7 and go beyond the headlines to learn about what’s happening on the ground in Israel.

Participants visit Tel Aviv’s “Hostage Square” to learn about Israel’s captives in Gaza and spend time volunteering on farms. They also hike Masada, swim in the Dead Sea, eat their way through shuks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, sleep in Bedouin tents and visit national sites like Yad Vashem. They currently do not spend time near the border conflict zones or in the Golan Heights.

Birthright Israel is booking trips now for the spring and summer both for traditional 10-day tours for Jews ages 18-26 as well as for volunteer-focused programs for Jews ages 18-40 who want to spend their time volunteering.

“We expect thousands of young Jews to visit Israel this summer,” Bauer said.

Fishman said that visiting Schneider Children’s Hospital, where he learned about how the hospital dealt with the historically unprecedented challenge of caring for children recently released from Hamas captivity, was one of the most meaningful moments of his January trip.

“It was a very deep, emotional day,” Fishman said, “seeing how much people cared, and understanding that this is what Israel is about.”

Zitrin said her trip helped equip her to better deal with challenges of being a representative of the Jewish community at home, especially on her college campus.

“The trip changed me,” she said. “I now connect more with Israel and understand the importance of Israel and I feel like I can now advocate in my community.”

Nate Lawler of Los Angeles, 25, said he’s always been a proud Jew: “I wear a Chai and star of David, I love being Jewish, and I’m unapologetically me,” said Lawler, who went to Israel in January. “But now I feel like I want to be more outspoken and I have better understanding to do so. When I see people attacking the Jewish community, I will stand up for what I love and what’s close to my heart.”

Most of all, Lawler said, he felt like he was among his people.

“I made wonderful friends. I never felt like I fit in so much in my life. It strengthened my feeling of being Jewish,” Lawler said. “When you’re in Israel, you are wrapped up in Jewish unity.”

Solomon said the trip made him reflect on his Jewish observance in a way he had never before considered. Solomon grew up in a religious household but stopped practicing as an adult. After spending Shabbat on a kibbutz during the trip, he said, he realized for the first time that Shabbat is not about restrictions but about connecting with community.

“I feel so much lighter. I can genuinely say that I enjoy Shabbat. That’s amazing for me,” Solomon said. “Just trying to talk about it I get choked up because I don’t have the words to describe the feeling. It definitely changed me.”

Since returning home, Solomon said, he finds himself turning his experiences over and over in his mind and wishing he could go back to Israel.

“I tell everyone I know that they have to visit,” he said.

This story was sponsored by and produced in partnership with Birthright Israel, which aims to give every young Jewish adult around the world the opportunity to visit Israel on an educational trip. This article was produced by JTA’s native content team.

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