By Emily Briskman
Director, JUF's Israel Education Center
As someone who has had the pleasure of staffing four Taglit Birthright Israel trips, I know the excitement and anticipation close to 1,000 Illinoisans are feeling as we embark upon the summer 2012 season. Birthright is an intense journey of Jewish identity exploration, forging a lasting relationship with the land of Israel, and development of life-long friendships with Israelis.
No other trip can compare to the 10 days spent with a bus full of Jewish peers all seeking an answer to the question: What is MY connection to our Jewish homeland? The answers always vary drastically. After 10 days of in-depth conversations ranging from "What does it mean to be a Jew living in the Diaspora?" to "Is the Israeli army responsible for the safety of all Jews around the world?" to hiking in the Golan Heights, visiting holy sites, floating in the Dead Sea, and plenty of Israeli salad; 40 participants often end up with 40 different answers. A deep and personal connection to a land we as a people call home is essential to our continuity. As a former Hillel professional and now a Federation employee who oversees JUF's Israel Education Center I understand what a meaningful connection to the land of Israel can mean for individuals and for our collective future.
Birthright is often one of the first steps to entering the greater Jewish world. College age participants come home and are inspired to become involved in their Hillels or return to Israel on MASA Israel Journey. Young adult participants connect to Federations' Young Leadership Division or create their own initiatives. Thousands of Shabbat dinners have been made possible through Birthright Israel NEXT. But we all must remember that Birthright is a gift and wouldn't be possible without the generous commitment made by our community and others around the world. Our Federation alone allocates nearly $700,000 annually to make these trips possible. The Birthright Foundation, in conjunction with JUF, raised almost 2.5 million dollars from the Chicago community this year.
The investment in each individual participant truly makes a difference for us as a people.