Growing up in an interfaith family, Michael Kramer did not actively think about his Jewish identity. With his living grandparents being Christian, he spent more time understanding those traditions than those of his Jewish side.
The same held true for the first half of his time at Washington University in St. Louis. But then, his junior year, the now-senior decided to take his Birthright Israel trip with the Wash U Hillel.
“I identified most with the ‘discovery’ part,” he says. “It wasn’t making a new connection, but the discovery of an inherent one.” He calls the trip his “gateway” into Jewish life on campus. Now, he is active in Hillel and gets together regularly with other members of his Birthright Israel group for Shabbat dinners.
Since the free 10-day Birthright Israel trips began in 1999, more than half a million young Jews have participated, many of them using Hillel as their trip provider. And while the Birthright Israel trip can be a game-changer in many immeasurable ways, its impact can also be quantified.
“The bottom line is that participation in Birthright Israel changes the trajectory of Jewish engagement across the board,” explains Len Saxe, a professor and researcher at Brandeis University who has been studying the impact of Birthright Israel since it started.
“It has changed a generation,” Saxe adds. “Where it was a generation that was unlikely to have visited Israel, [but] now over half of young Jews have been to Israel.”
The impact, in ways both measurable and immeasurable, can be seen whether alumni took their trip with Hillel last year or a decade ago.
David Krisch attributes his current Israel advocacy to his Birthright Israel trip with Penn State Hillel in 2007.
A year after returning from Israel, Krisch attended the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference. He published an Israel related article in The Daily Collegian a year after that. In 2011, Krisch held educational sessions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for New York Law School’s Black Law Students Association.
Now, as an attorney in New Jersey, Krisch continues advocating for Israel. He has co-hosted a Support Israel Shabbat, went to an event at the Israeli Consulate and met Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer. Krisch returned to Israel in July 2016 on the two-week fellowship program known as Chevra.
“Because of Birthright Israel, I had the foundation that I need to connect wholly and completely with Israel,” Krisch said in an interview this past summer. “Not just as a sightseeing tourist, but as someone who had been there before, who could now fully grasp the political, religious, historical and geographical realities of Israel. I could interact with Israelis on the street (Jewish and Arab, soldier and civilian) and fully absorb the profound importance of Israel being the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people.”
One of Saxe’s Birthright Impact studies from 2009 showed that Birthright Israel participants were 22 percent more likely to belong to a synagogue, minyan or other Jewish congregation, and were nearly 30 percent more likely to attend Jewish services at least once a month. Other students report returning to campus with a newfound passion for Jewish leadership.
“Little did I know, Birthright Israel would not only lead me to finding a faith identity that feels right, but it also has transformed me into a leader in my campus Hillel,” says Sarah Pozzi, who wrote about her transformation for Hillel International’s blog. The University of Delaware junior, who grew up in an interfaith family, now recruits other students to take part in Birthright Israel as an intern at her Hillel.
Talia Lerner, a Florida Atlantic University student, meanwhile, had a life-changing moment at Mount Herzl, Israel’s military cemetery in Jerusalem, during her winter 2013 Birthright Israel trip with her Hillel. After she returned, Lerner began to participate in Owls for Israel, FAU’s Israel advocacy group run by the campus Hillel.
When she joined, there were around four people in the club. But after playing a key role in planning the Owls for Israel conference, 150 people attended. Thereafter, Lerner became president of the group. Now a senior, she aspires to work for an Israel advocacy organization after graduation.
Isabella Volfson also testifies to the transformative power of the Birthright Israel experience with Hillel.
“I thought, ‘Whatever, it’s a free trip to Israel. It won’t be life changing, that’s such a cliché,’” says Volfson, a sophomore at the University of Iowa who went on a Hillel-led Birthright Israel trip the May after her freshman year. “And then I got back and it was, well, life changing. It’s not a cliché.”
The trip allowed her to decide what Judaism was going to mean for her and her life, Volfson says. Like Kramer, the trip became a catalyst to engage with Jewish life. Where before the trip, she would try to make a couple Hillel meetings each semester, now she doesn’t miss a Friday service.
“I think that beforehand I was aware of my Jewish background, but I didn’t connect to it,” she says. “And now I really feel it.”