JERUSALEM, Jan. 15 (JTA) — Leah Friedman, a petite college senior with a small silver stud in her nose, stood with a friend at the top of Masada, where, she had just learned, ancient Jews collectively committed suicide to prevent the Romans from killing, raping or enslaving them.
With the rest of Friedman’s Birthright Israel group on the other side of the ruins and no other tourists in sight, the mountain they had climbed was strikingly tranquil that sunny Monday afternoon.
“At home when you watch the news, you imagine Israel is a desert like this,” Friedman said, gesturing toward the peach-tinted Judean hills on one side and the blue-gray Dead Sea on the other, “but with people with guns everywhere.”
Last winter, Birthright won headlines — and the admiration of previously skeptical Jewish officials — as thousands of young people, many of whom had little previous involvement in Jewish life, returned from their free 10-day trips talking earnestly about Israel and their search for spirituality and God.
This fall, it again captured headlines as many wondered whether the trips would even take place against a backdrop of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Birthright officials had planned this year to double the winter launch to 10,000 young Jews, including 7,500 from the United States. But just as they were sending out acceptance letters, the Palestinians’ “Al-Aksa Intifada” erupted, scaring away prospective Birthright participants and tourists from around the world.
In the end, despite thousands of dropouts — mostly from the United States — Birthright is bringing more people than last year: between 8,000 and 9,000 young people, of whom some 6,000 are American. Another 1,500 are Canadian, with the rest from the former Soviet Union, Europe and Latin America.
The first trip departed in late December, and trips are running through February, with the bulk of travelers arriving in the past three weeks. Approximately 30 organizations are running tours under Birthright auspices. The programs are moving ahead with full travel itineraries, albeit with strategic alterations.
Despite rumors that Jerusalem’s Old City and Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall would be off-limits because of security concerns, most groups are going there, but with certain restrictions as to when and precisely which areas.
Routes are checked daily for safety with the Israeli Department of Education’s “situation room.”
Lengthy detours are often imposed. Groups that had planned to travel to the West Bank limited their schedule to Israel proper. Some tour providers imposed strict sign-in policies for free time.
Dialogues with Palestinians — such as a meeting some Birthright participants held last year in Jericho with chief Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erekat — and visits with Israeli Arabs in the Galilee were quietly dropped, or replaced by exchanges with Druse or Bedouin, who are considered less antagonistic toward Israel.
The changes could also be felt in the participants themselves. Almost all the American students that went — many of them taken from the 17,000-person waiting list, which ultimately was depleted — did so despite their own misgivings and warnings from family and friends.
Like last year’s participants, most have limited Jewish backgrounds, many are from interfaith families and many are dating non-Jews. Like last year, there were spontaneous Bar Mitzvah celebrations — many had never had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah — and eruptions of tears at the Western Wall.
And like last year, participants say they are seeking spirituality and roots, talk of feeling “at home” in Israel, pledge to return for longer stays and describe the trip in superlatives. Like last year, they have a reverence for Birthright’s founders, philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman.
Yet those who came this year appear to be slightly more intrepid than their predecessors. Many speak of a yen for adventure, and a desire, after hearing so much about the region in the news, to gain a better understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I’m pro-Israel, but trying to figure out at what expense,” said Erik Rice, a 26-year-old high school teacher from suburban Detroit, as he munched on pita and tahina in a Bedouin camp.
Rachel Kleinman, a 26-year-old grant writer who was standing in a Gilo elementary school down the block from the site of Arab shooting attacks, said she had come to explore her Jewish roots but “also to learn about the situation here.”
A few wondered whether Birthright is simply a propaganda effort to bolster support for Israel.
Rice mused that the donors might have an “ulterior motive.” Sam Feldman, a sophomore at Oberlin College in Ohio, said some of his friends opted not to go “because they didn’t agree with Israel’s policies, and just coming here is making a statement.”
But most said the programming was politically balanced, with speakers and tour guides from the left and right sides of Israeli politics.
Unlike last year’s participants, who largely were ignored by the locals, this year’s crop was welcomed by Israelis desperate for tourism and the kinship of other Jews.
The pilot on an El Al flight carrying hundreds of Birthright students made a special welcome announcement, suggesting that the new visitors “will maybe come back to make aliyah,” using the Hebrew term for immigration to Israel.
At least half the souvenir shops on the Ben-Yehuda mall advertised 50 percent discounts for Birthright, or Taglit, as the program is called in Hebrew.
Heightening Birthright’s local visibility is the fact that the Israeli government last year pledged to pay $70 million — about one-third of the program’s cost — over five years. Both candidates for prime minister in Feb. 6 elections spoke at Birthright events.
For some participants, including a number who sported nose rings, belly rings and tattoos, going on the trip carried a sense of bravado.
“I’ve been to almost every other country in the Middle East except Israel. So this wasn’t a big deal to me,” said Jordan Miller, a junior at the College of New Jersey who has served in the U.S. Navy. “Machine guns are nothing new to me.”
One woman on Miller’s bus joked that after all the security warnings, she was eager “to see some bullets flying so I could say I was in a war zone.”
Others acknowledged that they were nervous, but comforted themselves by saying that the media exaggerate conflict and the trip would have been canceled if it were truly dangerous.
In the end, many came because they didn’t want to sacrifice “the chance of a lifetime.”
Lauren Cohen, a double bass player studying at the Oberlin Conservatory, said she didn’t know whether she would ever be able to afford a trip to Israel on her own.
Friedman, too, said she had considered canceling, especially since her father was “kind of pleading” with her and her Catholic fiance “pulled up the State Department Web page and showed me the travel advisory.” But one day at work, she said, “I thought how I would feel if I stayed at work.”
“I needed to do this,” she said. “This is the greatest gift of my life.”
Of the scores of participants interviewed from a variety of programs, however, all said they felt safe once in Israel.
(JTA staff writer Julie Wiener’s trip to Israel was sponsored by Birthright Israel.)