The Orthodox Union, in partnership with the Taglit-Birthright Israel Foundation, will be bringing an OU record 24 buses of young adults, 18-26, to Israel from May through August for the Israel Free Spirit (IFS) experience. For ten invigorating days, these young men and women will be whisked about the country with hands-on opportunities to learn their Jewish heritage, eat cultural foods, hike nature’s beauty and carve out their own bonds within their Jewish homeland. And the trip is entirely free.
The OU IFS trips have been running since before the initiation of Birthright Israel 10 years ago; this winter, an OU record 12 buses were sent. IFS missions continue to gain popularity, having built a reputation for providing top quality experiences. The trip focuses on educating the participants, and empowering them to make meaningful decisions regarding their Jewish identities and relationship with the land of Israel. Staff members work hard to create an atmosphere of respect and camaraderie for all attendees.
“The Israel Free Spirit mission emphasizes what living Jewishly in our homeland really means, and we have been reaching out to the full range of participants who are looking for their spirituality niche within the Birthright Israel family,” declared Rabbi Dave Felsenthal(also referred to as Rabbi Dave), OU Director of Alumni Connections and Israel Free Spirit, “The timing could not have been more perfect that we had intensified our recruiting efforts and been rewarded for them, as the Birthright Israel was looking to allocate more openings for participants.”
The theme of the trip is V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha (“Love your friend like yourself”). The goals of the trip are for participants to have fun, to fall in love with Eretz Yisrael and to break down barriers to strengthen ties with fellows Jews. Jewish participants are accepted between the ages of 18-26 from all backgrounds if they have never been to Israel on previous peer-led trips. Cream of the crop staff from Israel and America are the star educators of the show. Trip coordinators are able to develop tailor-made itineraries based upon the interests of the applicants—separate gender, Yachad (those with disabilities), Russian, secular, etc. Approximately 2,500 applications were sent in to fill the 920 spots available for summer 2010 trips. Groups are coming from all over America: New York to Wisconsin, Los Angeles to Ohio, Philadelphia to Florida and Indiana to Canada.
Friday night at the Kotel (the Western Wall) is always a program highlight, experiencing the welcoming of Shabbat among hundreds of Jews of all different backgrounds davening Kabbalat Shabbat and walking around the Old City. “People come on this trip because they are searching for meaning,” declared Rabbi Dave. “Students know that we take them to spiritual places, they meet spiritual people, and they will have a spiritual Shabbos.”
A special milestone, according to Rabbi Dave, is celebrated at Masada (the ancient Jewish fortress where Jews held out against Roman siege and a site of great national significance): “The Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony.” IFS participants who never had the opportunity to participate in their own Bar/Bat Mitzvah are encouraged to participate and to also choose a Jewish name if they do not have one.
The trip also features tourist experiences that facilitate interactions with Israelis. Instead of simply taking the participants to Sderot, for example, the participants meet the residents and learn about real life there, under the threat of Hamas rockets.
An incredible bond is formed through these experiences, from person to land, person to person and person to God. Participants are encouraged to extend their trip to learn or to volunteer.
“The Orthodox Union is proud to work with Taglit-Birthright Israel to provide young adults with this unique opportunity to connect with their Jewish identity,” declared Rabbi Dave. “The Israel Free Spirit team hopes to be able to continue expanding its message to as many Jewish students as possible with the Taglit-Birthright family providing resources for these Jews to return home. With Israel Free Spirit, a visit to Israel is not simply a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity for a birth right, but a gift for life.”