Bay Area students start packing as Birthright Israel launches free Holy Land trips

Who could pass up a free trip to Israel?

Certainly not Casey Hart of Oakland.

He's one of about 120 young Jewish adults from the Bay Area who will be going on all-expenses-paid trips to the Holy Land over the next six weeks as part of the ambitious new Birthright Israel program.

"When I first heard about it, it sounded like something way out there," said Hart, 24. "I mean, go for free to Israel? Are you crazy?"

It sounds crazy, but it's true. Birthright Israel, a five-year, $210 million initiative of mega-funders Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, is providing free 10-day trips to thousands of American and Canadian Jews between the ages of 18 and 26.

The only stipulation: No one who has already been on a peer-group trip to Israel is eligible.

With that and being Jewish as pretty much the only restrictions, it's not surprising there was an avalanche of applications, more than 13,000.

"This program is the most far-reaching philanthropic effort ever undertaken by the Jewish community," said Mike Papo, Birthright Israel's executive vice president and a former longtime executive in Bay Area Jewish communal service.

Birthright Israel, which operates out of New York, eventually plans to expand to include high-schoolers as young as 15, and to offer trips at different times of the year.

But for now, the sights are set on collegians, and on the initial cycle of trips that starts Wednesday.

They will include visits to historical and cultural attractions, with a wide variety of educational and social activities. Different trips will have different twists, such as one that focuses on text study.

The first group will be going with B'nai B'rith Youth Organization, one of 14 "trip providers" to which Birthright allotted a certain number of slots and put in charge of filling. The BBYO contingent is also traveling to Paris, although Birthright Israel is not covering that portion.

Other providers include organizations that are well-versed in running trips to Israel, such as Livnot U'Lehibanot, the Jewish Community Center Association and Shorashim Student Adventure.

Hillel: The Foundation for Campus Jewish Life, which is active on about 85 percent of U.S. college campuses, was allotted a whopping 3,000 slots.

Eighty of those spaces were given to the Hillels serving Berkeley, San Francisco and Silicon Valley, which chose students from U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State and San Jose State as well as Santa Clara University, U.C. San Francisco, Mills College in Oakland and several community colleges. Five spots went to Sonoma State Hillel in Rohnert Park.

Stanford Hillel isn't participating because its students are on a quarter schedule (as opposed to semester) and have to return to school in early January.

Hillel directors nationwide were besieged by applications for the trip, receiving about 9,000, according to Seth Brysk, San Francisco Hillel executive director.

Rabbi Rona Shapiro, Berkeley Hillel executive director, received 205 applications for 40 slots. Plowing through the paperwork and choosing the "winners" was a Herculean task that she and her staff were ill-prepared to deal with, she added.

"We eliminated people who had been to Israel on a recent or organized trip, and who weren't clear on their Jewish identity — people who were sort of Jewish and Christian that weren't ready to yet say, 'I'm a Jew,' — and people who didn't have the right motivation," Shapiro said.

Tabbing people's Jewish identity was a somewhat precarious undertaking, because part of Birthright Israel's raison d'être is to give unconnected Jews an opportunity to deepen their identity through an Israel experience.

"This trip targets students who don't have a strong Jewish background, who haven't been involved with Hillel or maybe not any Jewish organization," said Brysk. "Most of the students that are going are students we had never seen at Hillel before." Brysk received 50 applications for 24 spots.

Sixteen slots went to Silicon Valley Hillel in San Jose, where director Lindsay Greensweig received 37 applications.

The San Francisco and Silicon Valley groups will be traveling together to Israel from Jan. 5 to 16 and have already conducted three joint orientation sessions, including one last week that doubled as a Chanukah party. The Berkeley group is on the same trip.

The San Francisco contingent includes 11 Russian emigres. The Silicon Valley contingent includes the editor of the San Jose State newspaper and a residence assistant in the dorms. One-third of Berkeley's contingent are freshmen.

"Part of the trip's aim is to bring new students into Hillel," Greensweig said. "We're happy to have active leaders on campus who aren't right now active leaders in Hillel."

Some young people received spots through other trip providers.

Hart, for example, is one of three Bay Area residents who snagged one of 50 slots offered nationally by Livnot. A U.C. Berkeley graduate who is applying to medical schools, Hart is a prototype for the Birthright Israel experience. He has never been to Israel, he doesn't go to synagogue and he isn't involved in any Jewish organizations.

But he does have Shabbat dinner with friends once every six weeks or so, "and I'm kind of at the point where I'm looking for something more [spiritually] meaningful," he said. "That was the most appealing aspect of the trip."

Said Papo, the former executive director of the Koret Foundation: "If a profound and lasting experience in Israel is what it takes to cultivate an increased commitment to Judaism, then as a Jewish community it behooves us to send as many young Jewish adults to Israel as possible…They will not only connect with their Jewish heritage, but will be inspired to seek new Jewish experiences when they return home."

That isn't to say every Birthright Israel participant is a neophyte Jew.

Sagi Cezana of South San Francisco was born in Israel 21 years ago, became a bar mitzvah at Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco and was the president of a BBYO chapter in 1995. He is one of four Bay Area people going through Koach College Outreach, part of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Although he has visited family in Israel a few times, he hasn't been there in eight years and just couldn't pass up Birthright Israel's offer. After discovering the Hillel at his school, Chico State University, wasn't offering any spots, he scoured the Birthright Israel Web site — — and applied to "just about all" of the trip providers.

"I thought a free trip was too good to be true," he said. "I wanted to get to Israel any way possible."

The enticement of a free trip attracted almost too many people for Birthright Israel to handle. After the program was announced in August, nearly 10,000 applications flooded the office in September.

"Everything happened kind of last minute, and it was kind of disorganized," Shapiro said. "The information changed constantly and it's been frustrating trying to deal with that." As initially planned, "it was going to cost some money, then it came down as free. It got to be much bigger than expected, and national [Hillel] couldn't say no. But we were doing it without the proper staff."

Still, most people believe that the kinks will be ironed out and that free trips to Israel will start to replace paid and even low-cost excursions offered by Jewish organizations.

Dana Hoffman, the San Mateo-based director of BBYO's Central Region West, thinks Birthright Israel will get stronger and offer more spots. In turn, more agencies will either work through Birthright Israel or respond to the competition, seek funding so they can match Birthright Israel's offer, she said.

"I think free trips to Israel are the wave of the future."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.