“This trip has been a transformative experience for many of them," said Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, Hillel director at Tufts University just outside Boston.
He was talking about the 80 Tufts and MIT students on the Birthright program who were meeting Israeli students and soldiers at the University of Haifa.
"Their eyes have been opened to their history, culture, and religion in a more profound way than ever before," the Reform rabbi said of the Americans, many of whom had never given their being Jewish a second thought or who had negative feelings toward the religion.
As though to bear out Summit's evaluation, Dan, a Tufts student who asked for anonymity, made a confession to one of the roundtable discussion groups into which the large contingent had divided.
"The religious seemed foreign to me," he said. "I couldn't stand them. I had more in common with Arabs and Ethiopians than with anyone religious. Then yesterday after we had been to the Kotel [Western Wall], I was in the men's room there, and in came these Hassidic guys, one on either side of me. Here in the urinals, it made them seem more real, more human than I had realized."
The group laughed during his story, but not at its telling finish.
It encouraged one of the female students to admit, "I knew I was Jewish, but as a result of this trip I know I am a Jew. I even feel a little less American now. I see my roots here [Israel]."
Adam Carles, a freshman at Tufts, seemed on a high from the Birthright experience. "It has changed my world since day one," he replied in answer to what he thought of this trip. On his way to one of the roundtable groups, he told of how had talked with Arabs and Ethiopian Israelis in Jerusalem. "We get in touch with all sides of an issue," said the Baltimore-born student who wants to major in peace and justice studies.
Ilya Kaplan, a Chestnut Hill, MA, senior studying computer sciences at MIT, and Jonathan Dworkin of Sudbury, MA, a sophmore majoring in economics at Tufts, shared a table in the cavernous hall of the University's Sala Student Center. Every ten minutes, they were joined by a different Israeli. In one case, the Israeli was a soldier, in another a high school senior from a religious girls school, and in a third round a university student.
The triangle discussions gave Americans and Israelis a chance to ask about each other. Jonathan was curious about religion, asking the Israeli boys whether they had a bar mitzva and whether they observed any of the holidays. Ilya wanted to know how his age group spent their free time. A similar scene was being enacted at some thirty other tables around the hall.
Yaacov, a sergeant in the Israeli Navy, later commented what a wonderful bunch he had met at the different tables. He said they asked him many questions. "It's good that they want to know about Israel and about Judaism", said the 19-year-old soldier, who does not wear a head covering identifying him as "dati" (religious).
It was the group's ninth day of touring, and the next day they were to leave for home. They had been exposed to the religious and historical sites of Israel. Their day at the University of Haifa introduced them, if they had not fully encountered it previously, to the diversity and complexity of Israeli life. The ten Birthright days seemed a short fix to get these youngsters committed to their Judaism, whatever the form, and to Israel.
"We will do follow-up work to get to know more whether this (program) has been effective," said Rabbi Summit. (And, indeed, a study by Prof. Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University, who is a member of the University of Haifa’s Board of Governors, later substantiated the generally positive effect of the experience.)
Perhaps a little bit of Israel is the syrum needed for commitment. When the participants in his roundtable group were asked to describe something good that had happened to them in the past week, Aaron, an MIT student, told his group, "I picked up some rocks in the Negev to put on my grandfather's grave."