Community Birthright Trips Turn 10 Days in Israel into Lifelong Connections

February 5, 2015 | Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit

Dig out your suitcase and brush off your hiking boots, the 2015 Taglit-Birthright Israel season has officially begun. Now in its fifteenth year, “Birthright” as it is most commonly known in the U.S., has sent nearly half a million young Jews from all 50 states and 66 countries to discover Israel — the land, the people, the history and the feeling of coming home.

“For many young adults, there is a void of Jewish experiences between their bar/bat mitzvahs until they are under a wedding chupah, and this stretch of time can be as long as 20 years,” said Shosh Cohen Silberstein, NEXTGen Detroit’s Israel Experience Associate. “Taglit-Birthright Israel trips have become major milestones for Jews in their twenties and are often critical in keeping those who are active in Jewish life involved, and inspiring those who are unaffiliated to reconnect with their Jewish identity and community.”

The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s NEXTGen Detroit offers three community Taglit-Birthright Israel trips every year. The most recent trip, sent in partnership with Hillel of Metro Detroit (HMD), returned home on January 2.

“I specifically went on the Detroit community trip with the hope of forging friendships with people from the area. I came back with a family,” said Timothy Hertzberg of Ortonville. “I not only have a deeper connection to Israel after the trip, but I also feel far more connected to our local Jewish community.”

A variety of Taglit-Birthright Israel programs are available, from community to special interests trips. They all begin with a generous gift in the form of a free, ten-day trip and share similar itineraries with iconic destinations like the Dead Sea, the Kotel, Masada and of course, a camel ride. Important conversations about identity, history, politics and religion are key components of most trips. But not all Taglit-Birthright Israel programs are the same.

“The [Detroit community] trip was one jam-packed day after the other, and even with our busy schedule, the staff really helped us interpret and experience Israel in our own way,” said Lauren Mehringer of Ferndale. “I returned to Detroit with a huge group of new friends and a sense of belonging to my Jewish community in a way that I’ve never felt before.”

One of the most unique and important components of the Detroit community Taglit-Birthright Israel experience is the commitment to post-trip follow up, which works to answer the question that so many participants come back asking: “now what?”

“Before my trip, Birthright just seemed like a great way to see the sites in Israel,” said Liz McAlister of Detroit. “I never thought I would return to Detroit with this newfound excitement to further explore my roots and my faith, but I’m thrilled that I have, and I can’t wait to see where it takes me.”

NEXTGen Detroit has made Taglit-Birthright Israel programming a priority, recognizing that quality content and leadership on a trip are critical to creating meaningful experiences, and that post-trip engagement is what transforms a ten-day adventure into a lifetime of memories.

“In addition to a licensed Israeli tour guide, we staff our trips with local Jewish communal professionals who not only help with logistics and serve as educators, but most importantly are there to form real relationships with the participants,” said Silberstein. “Getting to know the group members individually allows us to help them plug into the Detroit community and stay connected to Israel and to each other in ways that are personally interesting and significant to them — be it Shabbat dinners, Hebrew classes, internships in Israel, a NEXTGen bar night or HMD programs.”

The 35 American participants, all from Metro Detroit or with ties to the area, were joined by eight Israeli participants from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s partnership region in the Central Galilee. Israelis and Americans traveled together for all ten days, spent a full day touring the partnership region and experienced a home hospitality night — features that are all special to the NEXTGen Detroit community trips.

“We got to see, feel and taste the land of Israel, and with the Israelis on our trip, we also got to know the hearts, minds and personalities of the people of Israel,” said Amanda Sweet of West Bloomfield. “Being together with our Israeli friends for the whole trip and then having dinner with them in their homes with their families, I really saw how much we all have in common. Some things are just universal, whether you’re a young adult in Central Galilee or Metro Detroit.”

While many trips have Israelis join for a short leg of the journey, Israeli and American participants are together for the entire time on NEXTGen Detroit community trips, allowing for a level of friendship to develop that just can’t be achieved in a few days.

“Touring Israel with my new American friends, I saw my country through their eyes, and I fell in love with it even more,” said Inbar Ribenzon of Jezreel Valley, Israel. “I feel that the partnership between our communities offers so much to both sides, and I know it has opened my eyes to all the different ways there are to embrace Judaism.”

Another component that is exclusive to NEXTGen Detroit’s community trips is the Detroit Mifgash, which brings the Israeli participants from all three annual trips to Detroit for a week-long program. Israelis reunite with their Detroit friends and together they see all that the Detroit community has to offer, from Jewish life downtown to Tamarack Camps.

“The bonds that are created on our trips are truly exceptional,” said Yoav Raban, Federation’s Outreach and Engagement Coordinator in Israel. “The Mifgash program really allows our Detroit and Israeli participants to continue to build on the powerful relationships that they develop in Israel, turning them into lifelong friendships and lifelong connections to both communities.”

“Before this trip, I had little to no connection with my Jewish identity, and I didn’t care to build one,” said Scott Mattler of West Bloomfield. “This experience has given me such a deep connection to Israel and to my cultural identity as a Jew. It really has been life changing. I urge everyone who can to take advantage of this amazing gift.”

Registration for the Detroit Community trips departing in May and June opens on February 3, 2015. Information about registration can be found at jewishdetroit.org/birthright2015, or contact Shosh Cohen Silberstein at silberstein@jfmd.org or 248-203-1483.16314014535_de85e48919_k

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