“I hope you’ve all been doing the hanky panky,” Sheldon Adelson said to us, over the microphone. The superannuated gambling-industry billionaire, financier of right-wing vanity candidates and causes, was onstage in an enormous auditorium somewhere outside Tel Aviv: a stout little figure, well groomed but vaguely unhealthy-looking, telling us all, through wet lips, that we ought to be fucking.
Everyone in the audience laughed. Partly it was funny when an old person said a thing like "hanky panky" when he meant "fucking," and partly it was funny because the young people truly had been doing a lot of the hanky panky.
Sheldon Adelson's interest in our copulatory opportunities was not a gag. It was as serious as his well-publicized hawkishness on the question of Israel's national security, and to the same end: He was addressing us as young Jews brought in from dozens of countries, by the thousands, to experience the Jewish nation firsthand—to see Israel, to feel Israel, to bond with the Israeli experience on the most intimate and personal level. To let Israel into our pants. Not for nothing are these biannual tours called "Birthright": God, or an organization acting on God's behalf, wanted us to be fruitful and multiply in this land.
Later that night, on the bus back to our hotel, our trip leaders informed us that the rooms could be co-ed for our final nights. “Orders from the higher ups,” they not-joked.****
How did I find myself with hundred of other Jewish young adults, being urged to consummate my relationship with a foreign country? I was raised Jewish. But not Jewish Jewish. My parents had a sort of pick-and-choose approach to our Reform Judaism. My mom was raised in a small town on the border of Mexico, hers the only Jewish family for 90 miles. My dad was born in Romania and raised Orthodox, but for the last 30 years he has been deeply committed to skipping services for bacon cheeseburgers.
Like virtually all Jews I knew, we could opt out of the Torah and the treif and stay in it for the culture and the closeness. We didn’t keep kosher; I had a Bat Mitzvah. It’s true that most Reform temples come with those expanding doors to make room for the extras, like us, who only attend services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What I remember most about temple isn’t wise words from our rabbi, but that one time this girl Harmony flashed her boobs to two friends of mine in the back of a Temple Emanuel coat closet.
That was Jewish enough for Birthright. Each year, the various companies and organizations that operate under the Taglit-Birthright Israel umbrella bring thousands of Jews between the ages of 18 to 26 from all over the world to Israel for a free ten-day trip. The goal, the Birthright website says, is “to change the course of Jewish history and ensure the continuity of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and solidarity with Israel via an educational trip to Israel for Jewish young adults around the world.” Their “hope is that our trips motivate young people to continue to explore their Jewish identity, support for Israel, and to maintain long-lasting connections with Israelis after their trip has ended.”
As long as you have at least one Jewish parent (or have converted) and have never been to Israel on a previous organized tour or educational trip (personal trips are fine), you’re eligible. Since those first trips in 1999, Birthright has brought in more than 340,000 Jews from 59 countries.
Taglit-Birthright Israel accredits the participating organizations and sets the logistical, educational, and security standards for them. Some of these sub-groups have themes of their own—niche trips, they’re called, catering to specific interests and hobbies. Into skateboarding? There’s a trip “specially offered to people who board.” Food, fashion, hip hop—each theme dictates the way you will see Israel. I don’t actually know anyone who’s gone on a niche trip, but I'm thrilled they exist. I chose one of the more popular trips, through Israel Outdoors via Israel Quest, which involves just enough time in nature that you can people you spent ten days hiking desert terrain, while offering no real deterrent to any of the indoor kids and their (my) inhalers.
Over the years, Birthright has cultivated a very careful and precise reputation of being a complete and utter shit show. Many friends and relatives enthusiastically relayed their Birthright experiences:
"It’s like, the most fun thing ever. I swear, I mean I’m still best friends with everyone on my trip.”
“It’s JUST like camp.”
“It’s fucking crazy. I was hammered the whole time. Seriously. It’s just so awesome.”
From that, I was expecting a Spring Break foam party at the Wailing Wall. For free.
Group bonding began almost immediately. Some were traveling together, others were alone. Everyone was open to meeting new people but cliques formed easily and quickly, because that’s what cliques do. Exhausted and jet-lagged, I became friends with two girls—both of whom I believe I will stay friends with for a long time—because we were dressed similarly. “We have the same jacket,” I said shyly. I forgot how strange it is to be alone and meeting new people. Three hours later, after trust-fall ice breakers, I loved each and every goober aboard our bus.
I had also heard that if you marry someone you meet on your trip, the organization pays for your honeymoon to Israel. This is completely true. Unfortunately for the grand plan, I already have a boyfriend—a lapsed Catholic one, yet. We joked for weeks about breaking up before the trip so that I could find my soulmate. When I got there, everyone single on the trip immediately became very busy sitting at the back of the bus playing Never Have I Ever and stealing each other’s hats.
Birthright’s application process is competitive. Every applicant is eventually assigned to a trip but most are wait-listed the first time they apply. Despite multimillion-dollar donations, the participating organizations often lack funding and have strict cutoff numbers. Fortunately there’s no cap on the number of times you can apply, so you just repeat the process until you’re in.
When you pass the initial application stage—a questionnaire and a brief essay asking you why you want to go and what it means to be Jewish—you are given a phone number to call and spend at most 10 minutes answering questions from a bored-sounding interviewer:
Is one or more of your parents Jewish? Yes. Do you consider yourself Jewish? Did you belong to a synagogue growing up? Do you belong to one now? Yes, yes, no.
It turned out most of my answers didn’t matter. As long as Birthright understands you’ve got at least one Jewish parent or you’ve converted, and that you can plunk down the $250 deposit (or have qualified for the deposit scholarship) you’re good. And the organization seems to favor the halfies and the non-practicers—without a religion or with half of one, these are the people Birthright can woo. The goal here is to motivate young Jews to “explore their Jewish identity,” especially those who never had one to begin with.
It took me three tries to finally get approved. Because I’m 26, I’m on the cusp of aging out; kind of a now-or-never situation.
Every group includes, along with the international population of variously undercommitted Jews, a select few locals, young soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces. Some have completed their conscripted service (two years for women, three for men) and are enrolled in universities around the country; some are simply on leave. As an incentive, the soldiers get several class credits by joining a Birthright trip.
But they're also doing it for fun. The soldiers aren’t on the trip to protect us, they're there to party, to flirt and hook up, to make friends. Because everything on Birthright is done with a specific purpose, though, really they are there to illustrate that there is no no real divide between us—the 22 to 26 year-old American Jews—and them—the 22 to 26 year-old Israeli Jews. And of course we aren’t particularly different, beyond the fact that they were raised knowing that no matter what, they would enter military service when they turned 18.
There was Mor, 22, who—while modeling possible outfits for the next day's 5 a.m. hike (one t-shirt had a puppy on it wearing headphones that said in glittery letters, “music is everything.” I obviously picked that one)—told me she had plans to come to New York to work in fashion when she had completed her service. Yinon and Boaz, 20 and 21, were still serving, though I never knew exactly where they were assigned. Boaz got so drunk on our last night out with them, he had to be carried out by two guys on the trip.
My two favorites were Lulu and Hila, both 20, whose military obligation had assigned them to something that sort of resembles escort services, without the servicing. When soldiers get sick or injured or go on leave for an extended period, the IDF sends in young (usually pretty) women to entertain them. They plan activities, they send cards, they visit, depending on what they need most. Lulu and Hila were gorgeous and fun, two best friends with the same long, thick hair, tight jeans, and stiletto boots. One of our trip leaders, an Israeli who was living in the U.S., rolled her eyes at them. “See, even Israel has JAPs.”
The night in the tent, we'd all heard, would be the sexual apex of the trip. It came right at the halfway point, in a sort of Bedouin-style tent hostel in the Negev desert. The tent was huge—it had to be to accommodate all of us in it together—and we fanned out to plot our sleeping spots for the night. I felt old, because I was on this trip, and also because I had a boyfriend at home and had no intention of getting freaky-deaky in a sleeping bag.
I had heard so much about this night from past participants, it was like watching a prophecy unfold. We slugged cheap vodka around a bonfire while a 20-year-old Israeli played the acoustic guitar and sang the wrong words to a Jason Mraz song. The air was crackling with sexual tension. The whole thing eventually came to a boil in a curly-haired cauldron of writhing hanky panky. Everyone around me seemed to be either snoring or getting fingered. I had downed just enough Nyquil and vodka slurpees to keep the noises to a foggy din and wake up my worst self the next morning.
I was cynical about visiting the Wailing Wall. A good friend had gone on Birthright two years ago. She loved it—no one doesn’t love it—but she told me that the visit to the Wall in Jerusalem was one of the strangest experiences she’s ever had. The spirituality of it, she said, is crammed so violently down your throat that you don’t feel anything at all. She felt totally disconnected and alienated, she said. She told me that everyone on the trip cries, but that their reactions felt so forced, so expected, the only thing she could manage was an eyeroll.
As we passed through security at the wall’s entrance, we were given scraps of paper and pencils. “Write a prayer for the wall,” they told us. The “prayer” could be anything: a wish, a dream, whatever we felt like rolling up and sticking in the stones alongside a million other tiny notes. I don’t believe in God but I am superstitious, so I carefully wrote down the names of each family member and a little request addressed to no one—to Whom It May Concern, I guess—to protect them and keep them healthy and safe.
Gathering at the top of the steps after the metal detector, Yaier, our militant tour guide, showed us the photograph of the Three Soldiers. He explained that the iconic image of three paratroopers at the Western Wall was taken at the moment of reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, following the Six Day War. As he talked, I picked at the grass growing out of the steps and tried to ignore the woman sobbing a few stairs behind our group.
We were given a meeting place and 45 minutes. The Wall is segregated—men pray to the left, women to the right—which has been the center of enormous controversy for years. A brilliant friend of mine who lived in Jerusalem for several years was arrested protesting the separation, and I was so proud of her as she recounted the unfairness of the IDF security that arrested her. But when I walked to the women’s side, every negative feeling I had wrapped so tightly around me immediately vanished. There were women of all ages everywhere. Mothers and grandmothers, babies, children, teenagers, tourists, locals. They covered their heads and shoulders; they wore jeans and smacked gum. And there at the base of the wall, overwhelmed by exhaustion and surrounded by women I didn’t know, I began to cry.
Aesthetically, the wall is a marvel. Ivy and moss grow in patches all the way to the top. Birds come to perch and pick at the small spaces edged in between different sized stones. All of them fall on a sort of beige-grey-green gradient, but no stone is the same color as another. Also, it has this interactive element—the birds, the women shuffling and gathering three deep along the bottom searching for the perfect spot for their prayers—that makes this big hunk of stone seem alive. Some women davened and covered their faces, but most just observed the wall.
I sat in one of the white plastic chairs set out and thought about my family as I watched two sisters run around. For me, it wasn’t a religious experience, but fuck if there wasn’t some very strong juju radiating from those stones, from the women there in front of them. Like how people who believe they’ve seen a UFO must feel at Roswell. I thought about what an Israeli, a co-worker actually, had said to me: What no one understands is that Jews have nowhere else to go. They fought when they had to because if they had had to leave again, after World War II, we would not have survived.” Geographically, the ocean is on the other side. There is literally nowhere to go. And as I sat and took in this hulking piece of history, I was struck by how permanent everything felt. That Israel is a country that isn’t going anywhere. And then I felt two things: enormous relief and gratitude.
In addition to a dress code (shoulders covered) and the gender separation, you’re technically never supposed to turn your back to the Wall. No IDF security guards are going to hurtle themselves at you if you do it (though they will if you are a woman attempting to pray with men), but again, with my family’s names stuck in there, I wasn’t interested in taking any chances and I slunk away in reverse. Katie, the friend I’d made to whom I had grown the closest on the trip, was standing near the exit looking at the wall one last time before leaving, and we hugged and said we loved each other and that we were so happy we went.
“I never want to leave,” she said.
Birthright is prepared for this type of visceral response. Every round-trip ticket to Tel Aviv Birthright buys comes with a built-in extension policy. No matter how late you change your mind, you can call El Al and extend your trip for a mere 50 bucks. When you’re already across the world for free, it’s an enormous perk to have the flexibility to stay longer for next to nothing. The trip ended on a Friday morning in Tel Aviv, the country’s most bar-crawly, decadent city. The rules of Shabbat on Saturday don’t apply as rigorously as they do in Jerusalem, so it’s just another weekend in a big city by the sea.
Our trip leaders were staying, and they promised to take us all out. The Israelis too, promised to introduce us to all their cool friends, to take us to the cool clubs. Phone calls were made, slowly at first. The “coolest traveler hostel!” was discussed, and one by one, most of my group began to extend their stay. Out of the 41 people in the group, me and four others were the only ones who did not extend. The rest were set up for however many more days of drinking, hanky panky, and the gorgeous landscape of the country all while surrounded by people who understand you, who want you there. Or at least, who seem to.
“Aren’t you staying?” Lulu asked as I hugged her goodbye. “I got us bottle service at this club and we’re going to party all night in Tel Aviv. You have to stay! It’s so important,” she laughed, “that you change your flight and stay.”
Image by Jim Cooke.