By Batya Rosner
To travel to Israel, or not to travel to Israel – that is the question.
Israel Free Spirit (IFS), the Orthodox Union’s Taglit-Birthright Israel program, provides plenty of reasons for answering in the affirmative, including a niche trip called “IFS Shakespeare in Israel,” July 11-22. This summer, a record 25 buses will bring 1,000 young adults ages 18-26 to Israel with flights that will leave continuously from May 20 through August 24.
The Birthright Foundation has named IFS the second fastest growing recruiter of its programs. IFS has been named the sixth largest trip provider within the United States; seventh in all of North America.
According to Rabbi David Felsenthal, Director of the OU NextGen Division and Director of IFS, “The Israel Free Spirit program is rooted in the pillars of Jewish learning and spirituality; service and relating to the Land of Israel; helping others; and a Shabbat experience that may be a first for many participants. Our vision is to share the magic of Israel with young Jewish adults of all backgrounds and interests and our basic philosophy of providing an active, spiritual and meaningful encounter in Israel unifies all our programs.”
According to last year’s IFS participant Jessica N., “I have always struggled with Judaism and coming to Israel. Now, after being here I can say that I understand Israel and the Israeli people so much more. The land is so beautiful and diverse. I feel lucky to have been here.”
Other IFS alumni have noted, “Even though I am not the most religious person, I really have had a spiritual experience and want to come back;” “It made Israel more of a concern to me as opposed to an abstractly complex issue that one reads about and discusses;” and “In all honesty, Israel Free Spirit's Birthright trip changed my life forever. I met people who have become lifelong best friends that I know will always be there for me. It has been a long time now and still I cannot stop thinking about the people on the trip along with the incredible activities. Israel was the best experience of my life and I would do anything to return.”
Advisors are drawn from staff of NCSY (the international youth movement of the OU) and college Jewish education professionals who share a passion for Israel and bring extensive background in informal Jewish education. The staff had intensive training in April, led by Yael Tamari of Israel, the program’s Education Director.
With the tagline “Maximum Experience, Less Fluff,” the basic IFS trip allows participants to travel to the Western Wall; climb the winding path to Masada; sleep in a Bedouin tent; visit the world-famous Holocaust museum Yad Vashem; float in the Dead Sea; and ride on camels. Simultaneously, through exposure to fascinating speakers and advisor-facilitated discussions, they learn more about the history, culture, technology, ecology and lifestyle of Israelis.
However, IFS goes beyond the basic trips to satisfy the needs of niche audiences.
According to IFS Program Director Scott Shulman, “We understand that there are always new relationships to be made on the recruiting end, and we’re eager and willing to work with just about every group and background to give them our trip experience. Furthermore, we constantly work on recruiting tactics and incentives -- continuously developing an excellent reputation among participants.”
“Shakespeare in Israel,” led by educator Miriam L. Wallach of Woodmere, NY, is based upon the Shakespeare in Jerusalem program approved by the Ontario Ministry of Education to provide an enriching literature experience for those who are academically minded and language arts savvy – an experience which involves plays, poetry, writing, English, and Humanities.
Participants will discuss literature that involves Jewish themes, such as the Merchant of Venice; be whisked to several literature-oriented establishments across Israel, such as the National Library; and analyze relevant texts to enhance the experience of key aspects of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program. For example, a visit to Yad Vashem may be introduced and concluded with a discussion based on a relevant book, such as Elie Weisel’s Night or Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Additionally, the curriculum will track the development of contemporary Israeli literature over the short history of the modern country.
Other IFS niche programs offered this summer include:
• “Taglit-Birthright Israel – Israel Free Spirit Single Gender” – Weaves extra time in Jerusalem, the other holy cities, and visits to graves to strengthen, awaken and satisfy the spiritual yearning for the land of Israel. The program tours inspiring locations and features local speakers, beautiful and challenging hikes, and activities, such as helping those in need.
• “Taglit-Birthright Israel – Israel Free Spirit JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others)/12 Steps” – led by Sharon Darack of JACS from June 4-14, to reconnect troubled youth with their Jewish heritage and to reclaim their role as active members in the community. Besides all the traditional highlights and sightseeing, participants will also visit recovery centers in Israel and speak with Israeli experts. They will also meet young Israelis who share the same addiction background, have recovered, and are now on a different track in their lives;
• “Taglit-Birthright Israel – Israel Free Spirit Yachad /NJCD” – led by Nicole Bodner, Program Director of Rayim Yachad (division for members ages 26 and older), from June 3-14, enables participants with a wide array of cognitive and physical challenges to experience Israel in a way in which they can learn from what they touch, feel, hear, and eat. The trip is designed as an introductory level program where Israeli history and culture are presented at a basic level; staff members are trained to respond to the needs of the group.
Yet the entire experience doesn’t end after ten days. The OU NextGen Division, which organizes IFS, hosts reunions; holiday packages; follow-up on college campuses; and monthly e-newsletters.
“Each IFS experience – with personal touches from start to finish; must-see destinations; Israel as the Jewish Homeland; spiritual exploration; and experiencing Israel off the beaten path -- explores the vibrancy of the Jewish people, history, and religion,” said Rabbi Felsenthal.
IFS alumna Talia B. declared, “The experience I had with Israel Free Spirit was empowering beyond words and really connected me with both Judaism and Israel. Friends turned into family on this trip and I am so thankful to have been chosen to travel to Israel and discover its beauty.”
To travel to Israel, or not to travel to Israel – with Israel Free Spirit, there is no question.
For further information on IFS and niche trips, visit the IFS website at www.israelfreespirit.com/.
OU | Enhancing Jewish Life