With the summer Birthright Israel trip season drawing to a close, Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta staffed three Atlanta Community Birthright Israel Trips uniting young people for 10 days of exploration, education and fun.
Doug Ross, Birthright Israel Foundation local leader and national board member, broke down some of the myriad opportunities for trips to the holy land.
“Each year Atlanta sends about 800 young people who call Atlanta home on Birthright trips,” he said. “Within that umbrella, … there are college trips and trips through Hillel and Chabad, but, … the Federation staffs three trips each year from Atlanta, each of those includes 40 participants who call Atlanta home.”
Those community trips are specifically designed for participants between the ages of 22 and 26, which Ross explained was an important age to reach young Jews in Atlanta.
“These are people who, for the most part, have finished college,” he noted. “Many of them are in the beginning or intermediate stages of starting careers, and if you go on a trip with similar young people who have decided that they’re going to stay here in Atlanta, there’s a different sense of cohesion.”
He wasn’t the only Ross to have some experience with Birthright. His son, Jacob, was among the staff members for one of the summer trips this year, his first time on staff.
“I had lived in Israel for five years, so I was definitely very familiar with it,” Jacob said. “I hadn’t been back in a year-and-a-half, so I thought of it as a free trip, but I got so much more out of it than that.”
Ross explained that he had developed a certain numbness to Israel after having spent so much time there, but seeing 40 people who had never been before experience it for the first time opened his eyes.
“The trip really rejuvenated me. I remembered what I loved about Israel the first time,” he said. “I could see it daily as people said, ‘I finally understand Israel now.'”
Federation President and CEO Eric Robbins noted that the Atlanta area trips offer not only the complete Birthright experience, but also “the lifelong gift of local community connections.”
“Each trip builds an itinerary that forges new bonds to modern Israel and builds connections to eternal Jewish values, and our Atlanta busses are designed to create cohorts that can continue building their community when they return home, including microgrant funding from Federation to help alumni create and host their own events, such as Shabbat dinners, Passover seders, and Chanukah parties,” Robbins said.
Even as a staff member, Jacob Ross felt that those connections would last.
“Last Friday we had our first reunion dinner at Chabad Intown,” he said. “About 25 of us out of 45 showed up and it was great. I’ve seen people in the last month as well, at bars and just around town, so I’ve definitely kept in touch with people from my trip.”
He added that he could see the change in participants wanting to be more active in the community while on the trip.
“Meeting people from your own community on the trip and spending 10 intense days with them definitely builds strong bonds,” he said. “A lot come from backgrounds where they never had a Shabbat dinner before or never had a bar mitzvah. It forges a really strong connection.”
Cecelia Borgman, former Federation Birthright Israel Fellow, has staffed three trips in two years and said she enjoys seeing community created, “both on and off the bus.”
“Through Birthright Israel, I have grown closer to my heritage, Judaism and our Atlanta Community,” she said. “From speaking with my participants, I know that they have been deeply moved by the experience as well.”
While the Atlanta community trips are currently only open to 22- to 26-year-olds, Doug Ross explained that the 18 to 26 age range for Birthright is an area of experimentation.
“This last year, we’ve launched a pilot program, which was supposed to be modest at first; we budgeted for 400 places for the 27 to 32 age range,” he said. “Within 48 hours of opening registration we had 5,000 applicants from around the United States. … We didn’t want young people to age out of the program and some of them were.”
The future of that program is still up in the air and largely dependent on funding, he said.
To learn more about the Atlanta Community Birthright Israel Trips, contact Harper Landau, firstname.lastname@example.org.