Jewish Cornellians have a free travel opportunity to explore Israel on a 10-day trip organized through Birthright Israel and Cornell Hillel.
Birthright Israel is dedicated to sending Jewish young adults to visit Israel on an educational trip with the goals of strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities and connection with Israel, according to the organization. Each year, Cornell Hillel helps students travel to Israel through this program, sending over 70 Cornellians this summer.
The trip comes at a time when Cornell students are divided over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Birthright Israel itself has been the center of some protests at Cornell and other universities, with critics claiming that the program erases the experiences of Arab Israelis and Palestinians living in occupied territories. Cornellians participated in the program despite these controversies.
This summer marks the first official trip since the pandemic that Cornell Hillel has organized, according to Yehoshua Hooper who serves as Cornell Hillel’s Inspired, Active, Committed, Transformed Coordinator. Hooper is responsible for sending students on Birthright and Israel engagement on campus.
“It’s really important [to visit Israel] for Jewish identity; it’s the cornerstone to Jewish education,” Hooper said. “Birthright is the beginning of a journey for many people to connect to something that is bigger than themselves and to become part of a community.”
Cornell Hillel sent students across Israel divided into three groups at the end of May and beginning of June. Students explored various parts of Israel, including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the north and the Negev.
Activities included hiking up Masada, swimming in the Dead Sea, visiting the Western Wall and exploring the markets and nightlife in Tel Aviv.
“We had a lot of mixed backgrounds with Israel: some had been many times before, some people it was their first time. But everyone really embraced all the experiences, which created a really special trip,” said Cornell Hillel Springboard Innovation Fellow Joanna Sherman, who was a chaperone on one of the trips.
Julia Kohn ’24 visited Israel for the first time on her Birthright trip. She decided to extend her stay until the end of July, participating in the Cornell Onward Israel program to complete an internship while deepening her connection to the country. During Birthright, her most memorable experience was sleeping in a Bedouin tent in the middle of a desert.
“In the desert, when you are all stuck in one place together, it is not exactly the easiest experience,” Kohn said. “But it’s very meaningful. We are so reliant on electricity and bedding and WiFi, so it really brought the group together to connect.”
Each Birthright trip not only contains people visiting Israel, but also a handful of Israel Defense Forces soldiers. The soldiers tend to be around the same age as the Birthright participants and provide a perspective of what it is like to serve in the army for three years post high school.
Dvir Muallem is a combat medic in a special unit that operates directed missiles. He participated as a soldier in a Cornell Birthright trip and was able to take part in all of the same activities as the Cornellians.
“Every time you look at a place you know with fresh eyes and with a fresh perspective, you learn new things about it,” Muallem said. “This experience taught me a lot about how the Israeli life should be managed, and I have enjoyed meeting so many new Cornellians.”
For Marlee Pincus ’24, one of the most important aspects of Birthright was engaging with the Israeli soldiers.
“Learning about Israeli culture through the soldiers and sharing our culture through slang words and things like that was really fun and meaningful,” Pincus said. “Having the soldiers with us made the experience so much better.”
Cornell Hillel intends to organize more Birthright trips for the winter and summer breaks of the next school year, allowing more students to experience Israel.
“I had a blast. I made the coolest memories and met the coolest people. Most importantly, I now have an idea of why Israel is important and what it means to me,” Kyle Goodman ’24 said. “Much to the delight of my tour guide, I’ve left with more questions than answers.”