Rabbi Dave's Thoughts about Life

OU Israel Free Spirit Birthright Update

December 16, 2009


NCSY has partnered with the Jewish organizations Aish HaTorah and Yeladim Netivot to organize 12 Birthright trips to Israel this winter, with various programs catering to young adults from across the United States.

OU Birthright, also known as Israel Free Spirit, composes five percent of Taglit-Birthright’s winter trips and offers young adults ages 18 through 26 a unique and authentic, spiritually oriented Jewish experience in Israel. The 12 trips, beginning on December 16 and continuing until late March, are designed to educate, inspire and accommodate a spectrum of participants.

Having multiplied from only one bus a mere three years ago to 12, the OU Israel winter program received more than 1,500 applications for only 480 spots and success rates are at an all time high, said Rabbi David Felsenthal, Director of OU Alumni Programs and Director of Israel Free Spirit. He explained that word of mouth has served as the best promotional tool for the trip. This method works when former participants speak highly of their experience, “We have lots of excited fans,” Rabbi Felsenthal said. “Students always say that their lives have been transformed.”

The Israel Free Spirit program features customized trips for many types of participants: the regular trip for non-observant college students; the Chizuk program for Orthodox students on secular campuses; and the Twelve Step program for adults who have recently overcome substance abuse issues. Trips leave from New York and Los Angeles and include students from many cities including: Portland (OR), Miami, San Diego, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh.

It’s no surprise that such positive feedback has been received for the trip. “We tend to run this trip in a very real way,” said Rabbi Felsenthal, who prefers to be known as “Rabbi Dave.” “It’s not watered-down Judaism. The program is structured for students who want to learn, to grow, to respect Judaism and learn to love it.”

All aspects of the trip maintain OU standards regarding kashrut and Shabbat observance in public, but all one-on-one learning opportunities, along with prayer, are optional, allowing independence for the participants. “We offer opportunities but do not force anyone, but they are looking for something and that’s why they’re here,” said Rabbi Dave, who plans to accompany five or six of the trips which will be in Israel simultaneously.

College outreach professionals and NCSY advisors from both America and Israel join all of the OU Birthright programs as advisors. NCSY employees and 30 volunteer recruiters across America also worked to organize the trip.

Israel Free Spirit aims to offer unique religious experiences that connect participants with their Jewish identity, Rabbi Dave explained. “Since many participants never had a bar or bat mitzvah, the trip has a ceremony in which they receive Hebrew names and pick a Torah portion with which they connect,” he said. “They also learn to read Hebrew and learn other subjects in fun ways, like stopping for a water break during a long hike and having a Torah discussion.”

The trip also features unconventional tourist experiences that facilitate interactions with Israelis. Instead of simply taking the participants to Sderot, for example, the participants visit Sderot, meet the residents and learn about real life there, under the constant threat of Hamas rockets.

Along with genuine experiences, Israel Free Spirit aims to impart genuine values as well. According to Rabbi Dave, the most important aspect of the trip is V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha (“Love your friend like yourself”), a principle which unites people of various Jewish denominations and breaks down barriers for interpersonal interaction. It also helps trip participants to understand that Orthodox Judaism can be a “normal part of life.”

At the end of the program, participants are encouraged to extend their trips in order to further build personal connections with the Jewish land and the Jewish people. Many choose to stay in Israel to spend time with family, do more touring, volunteer, or, as 11 percent of the group does, to study in yeshiva or seminary. There are post-trip programs and Shabbatons in America, which help maintain this generation’s Jewish pride and continued connection with their fellow Jewish people, noted Rabbi Felsenthal.

While the winter trips are underway, 18 to 26 year-olds can sign up for OU Israel Free Spirit early update lists for summer programs at www.israelfreespirit.com.