Students who have never floated in the Dead Sea, prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem or worked on a kibbutz have the opportunity to do so this winter when Cornell’s Hillel takes a group of students to Israel on a free Birthright Israel trip.
Jewish students, ages 18 to 26 who have never traveled to Israel on a peer educational trip, are eligible to apply to the program, which pays for University student groups to travel to Israel during the winter and summer.
“This trip offers a unique opportunity for students to explore Israel together as a community. Through fun, learning and community service, students engage one another in dialogue about Jewish identity and their relationship to the land of Israel,” said Judith Stauber, director of community programs for Cornell’s Hillel.
In the past, groups from Cornell have traveled to Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea, the Negev Desert, Masada, the Golan Heights and the Galilee region.
“For ten action-packed days, we traveled as much of the country as possible,” Stauber said.
Despite concerns about the Middle East conflict, Cornell’s Hillel decided not to cancel its Birthright Israel trips, although the decision came after careful consideration, according to Stauber.
“On a national level Birthright Israel and Hillel International decided to proceed with the trips involving hundreds of U.S. and Canadian students over the course of two months,” she said. “Cornell Hillel proceeded with the understanding that our participants had the option to withdraw if they felt uncomfortable with the current political situation.”
Many Cornell applicants decided not to go on last summer’s trip, according to Allison Friedman ’02, who traveled to Israel with the group from Cornell last June.
“There were plenty of people who did not go on the trip, and I’m assuming most of them chose not to go because of safety issues. There were supposed to be 40 people from Cornell going but only 13 of us went,” Friedman said.
In light of safety concerns, Birthright Israel officials take great lengths to ensure students’ security, Stauber said.
“Decisions for each Birthright Israel experience are made according to the particular political climate at the time, taking into consideration the full safety and security of all participants,” she said.
Many students who traveled to Israel on past Birthright trips were satisfied with the level of security the organization provided, according to Stauber.
“There was never a time when the students expressed they felt unsafe during the trip,” she said.
“Surprisingly, I never felt unsafe,” Friedman said. “We had two guards/medics with us for the entire trip who carried guns. They were there for safety reasons but they are standard on most tours in Israel.”
Jason Freedman ’02 said that, at times, he felt safer while traveling in Israel than he does in the United States.
The Birthright Israel program was made possible through a $210 million gift from a partnership of prominent philanthropists, local Jewish Federations and the Israeli government.
The founders created the program to send young Jews to Israel in part to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world.
“Philanthropists dreamt of the idea that it is the birthright of every Jewish student who wishes, to be able to travel to their homeland of Israel,” Freedman said. “It is not a religious experience, however. No one is forced to become religious. The trip is meaningful for all Jews regardless of the type of Judaism followed.”
Since the program’s inception, 22,000 students have gone on Birthright Israel trips.
The program pays for each student’s airfare, hotel accommodations, transportation and most meals.
“I encourage every Jewish student to apply for this trip. It is probably the most impactful and incredible experiences in my life thus far. It has helped shape my views of life and of Judaism,” Freedman said. “No longer do I feel that I’m not connected.”
Applications for this winter’s Birthright Israel trip can be completed online at www.hillel.cornell.edu. The deadline is Oct. 16.
Archived article by Stephanie Hankin