A local resident took part last week in the first Birthright trip to Israel since the Oct. 7 attacks, which helped give hope and strength to Israeli citizens while providing a once-in-a-lifetime experience for young American Jews.
Phillip Heiman of Reston, Va., was able to experience most of the typical Birthright trip, although this current iteration held several key differences from previous ones. Notably, the group had to avoid certain areas due to the current situation and they had one day of war-related volunteering.
“Our goal was to keep the skeleton of the Birthright Israel trip, so it entails a lot of [educational] modules inside of it,” said Noa Bauer, Birthright Israel’s vice president of global marketing, who added that there is an additional focus on the present circumstances pertaining to the events of Oct. 7 and the war in Gaza, which is something that Israelis want to talk about.
Bauer spoke about the changes on this trip and the logistics of getting it together. She added that there was an importance in being able to still provide a full experience for Birthright participants who may only be able to enjoy this trip once in their lifetime, while still ensuring that everyone was safe.
“Many of the participants that arrived in Israel are first-timers in Israel. Sometimes we have people that have been here some time when they were young or have some connections, but a lot of the people actually are here for the first time. So, they need to have the entire breadth of experience,” Bauer said.
She noted that besides the typical experience of the Birthright trips, there was a special learning experience that she and the trip attendees went through in the post-Oct. 7 landscape.
Bauer said there was a lot more emotion tied to this trip and attendees were able to experience a whole different world in Israel where they were faced with a reality where concerns over antisemitism were nothing like back home, among many other things they shared with their Israeli counterparts.
“People come here and feel safe, safer than they feel at home. That’s what most of them say, not because they feel safe or that because of their surroundings and their feeling being around Israeli Jews. One of the things that was an epiphany to me is that when they first landed, they said, oh, nobody’s taking off the posters here. It stays and they only take off posters if someone is back. This is not what I know from back home,” Bauer said.
This was a sentiment echoed by Heiman when reflecting on the trip, and he said that it was one of the things that made him realize just how important the state of Israel is for the Jewish people.
Heiman added that one of the things he noticed while on the trip was the overall positive mood of Israeli citizens, noting that they were frequently happy to see the Birthright group.
“They were very strong and very resilient. I noticed that in a time of need and war, people can be very strong. I noticed the importance of Israel, that was one thing I wasn’t thinking about when I was going there. Before I was flying there, I was like, why is Israel so important? And I found that out,” Heiman said.
Heiman said that it was a special feeling being a part of the Birthright group that gave the Israelis some hope and a greater sense of normalcy through their presence. Heiman added that even through there will never fully be a “normal” anymore for the country or its citizens, it was good to be able to show the support Israel has from abroad and it might be a sign that things are slowly starting to get better.
That type of future-oriented thinking is also on the minds of Bauer and the Birthright Israel team as they work through the process of putting together more successful trips like this one in the coming months.
Bauer mentioned that there were several encouraging programs outside of the Birthright trip like a volunteer program and a leadership program that they’re looking to bring people to Israel for.
She also said that there will likely be an Oct. 7 program in the future for the Birthright trips in the same manner that they currently have Holocaust education.
“I think Oct. 7 is going to be discussed forever. Maybe it’s not going to be in the same capacity [as now]. Hopefully, we’re not going to have the Hostage Square by the summer and things are going to be different in terms of the war. I’m full of hope for that. I hope that we’re going to be in a different situation, but I think the Oct. 7 event is going to stick with us,” Bauer said.
“Everyone wants to ask their questions about it and it’s part of the entire Jewish world right now, not only Israelis,” she said.