It wasn’t the beaches of Eilat or the Tel Aviv nightlife that stuck with Oliver Baron of Connecticut, a recent participant in the OU Israel Free Spirit Taglit-Birthright program. Baron, who works for HubSpot, a Google-backed start-up, said that he was surprised by what had the most impact on him.
“I know it sounds cliché, but touching the Western Wall and realizing that thousands of years of energy have flown through it affected me,” said Baron, 24. “Knowing that my ancestors prayed at that wall and that it was the foundation of all religions did something for me.”
Baron wasn’t the only one to be inspired on the OU Israel Free Spirit program. Since its inception 14 years ago, the OU has taken more than 12,000 young adults to Israel on Birthright’s life-changing program. This summer alone OU Israel Free Spirit managed 31 buses and took almost 2,000 participants on the emotional journey to the land of their heritage. This summer, OU Israel Free Spirit’s work was recognized by the national Birthright organization with a certificate of excellence.
“We’re proud of our trip organizers and we’re proud of working with such a wide-range of programs,” explained Matthew Ackerman, participant recruiting director at national Birthright.
Rabbi David Felsenthal, director of OU Birthright and OU NextGen, explained: “Birthright is one of the most significant, if not the most significant, positive movements to affect world Jewry in the last century. We are proud to be among the organizations leading the way.”
“We’re fortunate to have the ability to take Jewish individuals to Israel for the first time and to show them how truly amazing the land of Israel is,” added Penny Pazornick, associate director of Israel Free Spirit.
OU Israel Free-Spirit is one of the few Birthright organizers to maintain a full-time Israel-based educational director, Yael Tamari. Last year OU Israel Free Spirit was awarded an additional $28,000 by national Birthright to run a specialized program for outdoor enthusiasts in Israel. The program is also consistently rated the highest in participant satisfaction. Eleven percent of OU Israel Free Spirit participants opt to extend their Birthright trip in Israel, compared to a three percent average on other Birthright trips.
Scott Shulman, program director of OU Israel Free Spirit, credited his staff and the extensive network of Jewish professionals on college campuses who help direct participants to the OU program.
“Much of Israel Free-Spirit’s success has come due to the incredible diligence and resilience of the staff,” he said. “They’ve done whatever has been needed to put Israel Free Spirit in a position to function at optimal capacity and to also grow by leaps and bounds.”
As for Oliver Baron, he said the trip made him change the way he thinks about his faith and his heritage. “I wasn’t always proud to be Jewish,” he admitted. “But seeing those aspects of Israel, it made me really proud.”