Applications have opened for this summer’s Birthright Israel trip, organized by URJ Kesher, during which Lehigh students will embark on a trip to Israel with students from other colleges from the Lehigh Valley area.
This year’s trip will begin on May 25. To be eligible, one has to be between the ages of 18 to 26, have at least one Jewish grandparent and identify as Jewish, according to Rabbi Danielle Stillman. She said identifying as Jewish is an important aspect of the eligibility.
Dara Giglio, ’16, is president of Lehigh’s Chabad — a space for learning about Judaism — and the recruiter for this summer’s trip. She said students who wish to apply must write a few essays about their Jewish background. People with leadership skills and strong ties to the community are highly-qualified candidates, she said. The application will be available until all sign-up slots are filled.
In an email, Giglio wrote that she had received over 50 applications within the first week.
Giglio said Birthright Israel has been at Lehigh since 2010. Since then, there have only been small modifications, Stillman said.
Stillman said one difference this year is that it’s a joint trip with other schools in the Lehigh Valley, including Muhlenberg and Lafayette colleges.
“Birthright is a free 10-day trip to Israel for students to explore the Jewish people’s eternal homeland and its relevance to one’s Jewish identity,” wrote Rabbi Zalman Greenberg in an email, who will be attending his seventh trip this summer. “My role on the trip as a Chabad rabbi is to provide and enhance the inspiration of the experience in a fun and relevant way.”
In addition to the participants, approximately eight to 10 soldiers join the trip for a portion of the time, Allon Vitenson, ’17, said.
“Soldiers are there for connecting with other people our age,” Vitenson said. Along the trip, students become close with the soldiers and can ask them questions about their work, he said.
Stillman said students will be able to see the majority of Israel. Giglio, who went on the trip in 2013, the summer after her freshman year, said that she was shocked by the size of the country.
“It is similar to the size of New Jersey, so we got to see most of the country in 10 days,” she said.
Stillman said students who go on the trip visit Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Safed, the Dead Sea and the Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem. Greenberg said that students have the opportunity to tour, hike, kayak, shop and enjoy the nightlife in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
There are a lot of interesting and beautiful sites to see along the trip, said Sofie Coopersmith, ’16, who attended Birthright Israel last summer.
“One of the coolest things was to wake up at three in the morning and go to Masada to watch the sunrise,” she said. Coopersmith said it was interesting to see both the Masada and the Dead Sea, considering the locations are close in proximity.
Michelle Gorson, ’18, said that doing Birthright allows students to feel more connected to Israel, the Jewish community around Lehigh and around the U.S.
“One of the main purposes of the trip is to have some time set aside to think about Jewish identity,” Stillman said.
People are so busy that they don’t have the time to think about their identity, she said. The trip lets allows students to focus on their identity, and allows them to do so with other people. It is also an opportunity for family members in Israel to visit the students.
“It is a nice opportunity for people on the trip to connect with family in Israel,” she said. She said students sometimes meet relatives whom they have never met.
Coopersmith said one of the most memorable parts of the trip was getting back in touch with her culture and religion.
“At this age, you kind of lose that,” she said, adding that it was nice to reconnect with what it means to be Jewish.
Celebrating Shabbat is also one of the important parts of Birthright Israel. Giglio said her favorite part was celebrating Shabbat at the Western Wall in Jerusalem with other Jews from around the world.
Students from previous trips also have advice for new applicants.
Gorson advised students to go with an open mind.
“It gets tiring since you are literally doing things the second you get up to the second you go to bed,” she said. She encouraged those who attend the trip to enjoy it, because it is short.
Students who wish to learn more about Birthright Israel can contact Rabbi Stillman or go to www.gokesher.org.