After going on a Taglit-Birthright trip with 40 students from Johns Hopkins University last year, I traveled earlier this summer with 12 other student leaders to the West Bank with J Street U. Since then I've been reflecting on these two very different experiences.
Birthright helped to provide a stronger connection to my Jewish identity. After the trip, I began to take more Jewish studies courses and engage more with Hillel. I took an internship with Hillel's Peer Network Engagement Internship program and started organizing events.
I realize, though, that the Birthright model is not designed to instill a strong sense of responsibility in Diaspora Jews toward Israel. Rather, the program focuses more on fostering a general sense of connection. This often leaves students unable or uninterested in being the "ambassadors" that Birthright so often asks us to be back home.
Birthright prides itself on being apolitical, and, indeed, I learned little of substance about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have heard arguments for why Birthright does not venture into the conflict, and to an extent I understand why. The trip is targeting a broad-based group of people and there's only so much you can do in 10 days.
But I find it unsettling that Birthright takes tens of thousands of young, uninformed Jews to Israel without providing any real briefing or debriefing on pressing societal issues while all the while telling us to go home and "tell the truth about Israel."
We do fall in love with the land, with the food and with the Israelis we meet. We have energizing hikes and lots of fun. Yet Birthright does not prepare us to engage with legitimate and difficult questions back at our college campuses and in our communities.
A few weeks after returning home, I was telling some people about my trip. A peer asked my opinion about the fact that any Jewish person like myself from anywhere in the world can travel in Israel with ease, but there are Palestinians who have been living on the land for generations who must deal with burdensome restrictions of movement. I had no idea what to say. I didn't even know what checkpoints were.
"It's the Jewish homeland?" I replied meekly, frustrated with my own ignorance. Not only wasn't I able to defend Israel to people who challenged it, but I felt embarrassed and confused.
In contrast, while at times on the J Street U trip I felt uncomfortable by the Israel I saw, I left feeling deeply committed to its future. I saw Israel not simply as a place to which I wanted to return but as a story of which I wanted to be a part.
On the J Street U trip, we met with Israelis from Sederot and Netiv HaAsara who regularly face the threat of rockets from Gaza, as well as Holocaust historians from Yad Vashem, an Israeli scholar specializing in delegitimization issues, leaders of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, university students, settlers in Gush Etzion, human rights activists and Palestinian citizens of Israel.
We met with two-staters, one-staters and those who advocate for a constitutionally enforced binational state. We met with Palestinians and Jews living in the segregated city of Hebron. We wrestled with the role of Diaspora Jews. At the end of it all, we emerged exhausted, intellectually humbled and more motivated to work to help Israel. I still love Israel, but confronting the challenging parts of the country compelled me to have a much deeper sense of responsibility.
If those same students from last year ask me questions now about Palestinian freedom of movement, I'm not sure I would have all the answers. But I'm ready to seriously engage and grapple with the ideas.
I am not suggesting that Birthright start distributing talking points on the conflict during its trips. But I am recommending that it provide opportunities for participants to struggle and engage with Israel's real issues. Don't underestimate us. Then maybe we can come home and be responsible ambassadors.
Rachel Cohen, a graduate of Lower Merion High School, is a rising junior at Johns Hopkins University.