Students reflect on Birthright Israel as Hillel opens summer application

One experience connects three University of Maryland sophomores with little in common. Jacob Elspas, Hannah Lee and Isaac Solomon, despite having different majors and distinct personalities, all shared the experience of Birthright Israel. 

Birthright Israel is a free 10-day trip to Israel for any 18 to 26-year-old person who identifies as Jewish and is recognized as such by their local community or by one of the recognized denominations of Judaism, according to Birthright Israel’s website.

Maryland Hillel opened its application on Monday for summer 2017 Birthright trips, which will be held May 20-30 and June 4-15.

In the past year, Elspas, Lee and Solomon went on previous Birthright trips; Elspas in summer 2016 and Lee and Solomon in winter 2017.

Lee, a sophomore community health and psychology major, encountered criticism of the trip before signing up.

“A lot of people say, ‘It’s just so you either move to Israel one day or raise your kids Jewish,’” Lee said. “But in my experience, it helped me kind of get more in touch with my Jewish identity.”

Lee’s father is Catholic, and though she grew up going to synagogue, she described her Judaism as “an identity I always struggled with,” she said.

Elspas’ experience coming in was quite different than Lee’s. He had been to Israel before and knew he loved the country. Still, “I was kind of hesitant at first,” Elspas, a sophomore computer science major, said.

But Birthright turned out to be his favorite trip to Israel. “I’d been able to experience it in such a different way that I hadn’t been able to before,” he said.

Solomon, a sophomore economics major, considers himself Jewish, but not very religious. His idea of his own religious identity wasn’t at the front of his mind going into the trip. But religious or not, “It really does hit you spiritually,” Solomon said.

He told the story of visiting the Western Wall, an extremely sacred Jewish site in Jerusalem.

“When I first went up to it, I kind of just put my hands and my head on it, and just kind of felt,” he said. Then his friend, an observant Israelite, offered to pray with him. “That was just really powerful,” Solomon said.

Lee, Solomon and Elspas’ experiences are just glimpses of what people encounter on the Birthright trip.

MJ Kurs-Lasky, the Director of Student Life at Maryland Hillel describes Birthright as a chance for students to do all sorts of activities, “from hiking in several different locations, going to a place called the salad trail (greenhouses with fruits and veggies), seeing the historical sites, holy sites, spending at least one Shabbat in Israel to bond as a group.”

Bonding between attendees is a big part of why Maryland Hillel runs Birthright trips, and why students say the experience is so fulfilling.

Lee has seen at least one person from her Birthright trip every day since coming back to school. She said, “Because I did Birthright through Hillel, it added a lot of meaning.”

Students on the Maryland Hillel Birthright trip also sleep in a Bedouin tent, float in the Dead Sea, and hike the Masada fortress.

Not all Birthright attendees felt as enthusiastically about the trip as Solomon, Lee, and Elspas. “Lots of people say they wish we could’ve slept more,” Solomon said. Lee also described friends who enjoyed the experience less than she.

Despite how different their individual experiences were, all three Maryland students had similar answers to why other students eligible should sign up for the trip, all of which contained the words, “It’s free!”

“The trip isn’t really focused to push the religion. It’s to teach you to love the culture of the city.” Elspas said.

Lee felt similarly: “The people want you to experience their culture and love their country like they do. Whether you believe in it or not, it’s still amazing to see all of these buildings that are so old and have so much value to them, and to people who are religious.”



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