Yonatan Millo

Twenty-nine Yale students and seven of their close friends and family members spent winter break exploring the country of Israel and their own Jewish identities on an 11-day Birthright Israel trip organized by the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale.

Birthright Israel is an organization that seeks to bring together Israeli and diaspora Jews and “connect the two parts of the tribe” by funding 10-day visits to Israel, said Yonatan Millo, the Slifka Center’s director of Israel Education and Engagement and organizer of the Yale trip. The organization funds winter and spring trips, organized by local communities and college campuses, for 18- to 26-year-olds of Jewish heritage.

“It’s the first time, I think, a lot of people get to talk about their Jewish identity and its place within the Jewish collective,” Millo said.

The students’ travels covered a wide range of the country, which is slightly smaller in land area than the state of New Jersey. The trip began in the north of Israel, around the Sea of Galilee, where participants saw the border with Syria, visited the holy city of Tzfat and toured a kibbutz, a collective agricultural community. From there, the students attended a Birthright “mega-event” to meet other Birthright groups and listen to a speech from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Students later visited the Negev — a desert in the south of Israel — where they hiked up Mount Masada at sunrise and spent a night in a Bedouin tent.

The Yale group also spent time in Jerusalem, where students visited sites such as the Western Wall, the Holocaust memorial and Mount Herzl. In Tel Aviv, they got a glimpse of Israeli innovation, nightlife and the plight of African refugees.

While Birthright trips have a universal general structure, the Yale trip was supplemented by a series of speakers and discussions designed to challenge the students intellectually, Millo said.

“I think the other trips are more Israel 101. We kind of do Israel 101, but we’ll do 201 along with it,” he said. “We built a specific itinerary to fit that.”

Students heard from people like Nadav Tamir — an Israeli diplomat and a past policy advisor to former President of Israel Shimon Peres — who spoke about the modern political climate in Israel. Speakers such as Avraham Infeld, former president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and David Friedman, a Kaballah artist, also shared their insight with the travelers.

Alyssa Fagel ’20 was initially worried that the trip might “glorify” Israel, but she was happy that her experience included “well-informed” voices that offered opposing viewpoints. Fagel also said that her time in Israel gave her insight into her Jewish identity.

“I always have had trouble separating the Jewish religion from the Jewish culture,” Fagel said. “I think the trip really did a good job showing that you don’t need to be religious to be Jewish. It didn’t necessarily make me feel more religious, but it made me feel more attached to my ancestry and my culture.”

While Simon Mendelsohn ’20 said he enjoyed the trip overall, he thought that the range of perspectives presented “could have been more balanced.” Additionally, Mendelson said he thought the trip lacked a religious perspective, a view that he said is particularly important to him.

For Alison Futter ’19, the trip gave her a more nuanced view into the “gray area” of issues in Israel.

“I didn’t walk away with set conclusions,” Futter said. “I walked away with a desire to investigate and to educate myself more on certain issues, and not to just accept what I hear in the media or from anyone else.”

Birthright Israel was founded in 1999.

Asha Prihar | asha.prihar@yale.edu

Asha Prihar served as managing editor of the News during the 2019-20 academic year. Before that, she covered community service, Yale's professional schools and undergraduate student life as a staff reporter. She is a senior in Silliman College studying political science.