Lorne Klemensberg, a no-nonsense type with shaved head and goatee who seemed to be (like both of our North America tour leaders) Canadian, is vice president of our trip organizer, Routes Travel. He was the first person to address our Birthright Israel group with more than a cursory introduction or specific logistical instructions. Before touring Neot Kedumim, the biblical nature reserve conveniently located about 20 minutes from Ben-Gurion, he gave us The Talk about the rules, chiefly: no being drunk (a drink or two after 8 p.m. seems permissible) and no drugs. The rules seem grounded in practicality: Being drunk usually means being hungover, and a hungover participant slows down the pace of travel and hiking that, if Day 1 is any indication, is formidable (jetlagged, most of us went on a strenuous cave-crawl in the afternoon). And as for drugs, Israel’s laws are not of the progressive type one might expect from notions of Tel Avivians partying; rather, Klemensberg compared them to those of a “third-world shithole.” (A characterization more true than not.)
Beyond that, his talk gave a brief rundown of Birthright’s history, complete with mention of philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman. Klemensberg pointed out that we are here on their dime, and there is no way we are ever going to thank them—we are not expected to. It made me wonder why they have given so many millions to the organization over the years. The stated reason, of course, is to preserve and extend “Jewish continuity” by upping identification with Israel. I won’t quarrel with the statistics, which show Birthright has been a success in this. But looking around the 40 participants on the bus—most of whom, admittedly, I barely know at this point—I didn’t perceive too many people overripe to be converted. For the vast number of participants, I would guess, Birthright Israel is exactly what it says it is—an extremely fun, jam-packed tour of the Holy Land, and no more. Even the spiritual trappings: of landing in Israel; of learning of the prehistorical geology that separated the east bank of the Jordan from the west (which our tour educator Yoav demonstrated in the cave); of spending Friday evening at the Kotel. These could be, for many, a kind of religious tourism: one more aspect of the “fun.”
Or maybe it’s more? On the flight, I was recognized by a man who said he was friends with Chabad’s New York press representative. He introduced himself early on; about an hour before landing, he asked me if I would like to wrap tefillin. Well, of course. I said no, then realized, When else? I sought him out, found him, and we wrapped, and said prayers, and during a moment of contemplation I looked out at the clouds and anticipated my impending arrival.
I’ve been using the term “participant” to describe those aboard the bus, but the central question as we proceed, I think, is are we tourists or are we, in a much more active sense that goes to the root of the word, participants?
P.S.: The record should show that all expenses are not paid. $70 is collected at the U.S. airport for tipping the educator and driver; big bottles of cold water at the front of the bus cost 5 shekels (about $1.50, I believe); and lunch today, for example, was a very reasonable but still very existent 36 shekels (about $11 or so). Birthright Israel is an amazing deal financially speaking; and nor am I accusing the organization of false advertising. Just sayin’.
Related: Tablet Is Going to Israel [Tablet Magazine]