'My parents said it was my job and purpose to go to Israel'

First post-Oct. 7 Birthright Israel trip brings 17 participants; 100s more expected

In change to well-worn 10-day itinerary, participants harvest grapefruit and deliver groceries, hear testimony from survivors of Hamas’s murderous assault

Reporter at The Times of Israel

The first Birthright Israel group to visit the country since the massacres of October 7, touring with guide Duby Langberg of Tailor Made on top of Mount Tabor, January 2024. (Photo: Cat Korren)
The first Birthright Israel group to visit the country since the massacres of October 7, touring with guide Duby Langberg of Tailor Made on top of Mount Tabor, January 2024. (Photo: Cat Korren)

Inside a Tiberius hotel on the second day of 2024, the first Birthright Israel group to arrive since the October 7 massacres was greeted by displaced families from the country’s north.

Checking into the hotel with trip organizer Tailor Made, 17 American participants were welcomed by Israelis who were internally displaced following the Hamas massacres and tensions with Hezbollah. Some participants spent hours interacting with the families, said trip counselor Jared Waters.

“To see displaced Israelis engaging with participants and welcoming them is something I will never forget,” Waters told The Times of Israel.

“The participants are seeing everything first-hand, not on the news,” said Waters, who recruits students for Hillel International Birthright trips.

“This is a classic Birthright trip but also it’s wartime, so we are at a hotel with refugees,” said Waters, who will return to the US with the group on January 12.

The trip spent three nights at the Tiberias hotel, after which the itinerary called for Shabbat at Kibbutz Degania Bet near the Sea of Galilee and visits to Masada and the Dead Sea. The group will also visit the Western Wall and other sites in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Birthright Israel group in January 2024. (Courtesy)

Thirteen weeks after 3,000 Hamas terrorists infiltrated the country from Gaza and murdered 1,200 Israelis, Birthright Israel’s familiarly branded trip buses are again traversing Israel.

Despite war tensions, participants and staff interviewed by The Times of Israel said the experience is helping them process October 7 and its aftermath.

“In the US, the students don’t have the opportunity to be as open or express themselves as they would like,” Israeli tour guide Duby Langberg, 46, told The Times of Israel.

Later in the trip, the group is set to hear testimony from a survivor of the Nova rave massacre. However, the October 7 atrocities and ongoing war are daily topics of conversation, said participants and staff.

“You need courage to do this, to come here in a time of war, that is something that is amazing in my eyes,” Langberg said.

Langberg’s own Birthright journey, which began in 2015, is unique. After serving as a guard-medic on 15 trips, he obtained guiding credentials and staffed five Birthright trips before the war.

“This is a group that is into understanding and learning and connecting like no other group,” said Langberg, known for integrating flute-playing and meditation into his tours.

Since the end of 1999, more than 850,000 Jews from abroad have visited Israel on free, peer-based educational tours.

Participants on Birthright Israel trip organized by Tailor Made, January 2024. (Courtesy)

Each year, several thousand Israelis the same age as Diaspora participants join trip buses for several days. Often, Israeli participants are soldiers from the same IDF unit.

Waters and the group landed in Israel and met Langberg on Tuesday. The participants were the first of several groups set to arrive in the weeks ahead, said Noa Bauer, Birthright’s marketing VP.

“The decision to resume Birthright trips was made with careful consideration, putting our participants safety first,” Bauer told The Times of Israel.

The organization expects to host several hundred participants this winter, alongside beginning marketing efforts for summer trips and a return to thousands of summer registrants, said Bauer.

“Meeting the participants that just arrived proves the strength and the resilience of young Jews in the Diaspora as well as the trust in the Birthright Israel brand which we aren’t taking for granted,” said Bauer.

On account of Israel’s war with Hamas, trips will not visit the region surrounding the Gaza Strip. In past years, some Birthright groups visited experimental farms and Jewish National Fund sites in the region, including an underground playground that doubles as a bomb shelter in Sderot.

‘I was grounded’

Being in Israel during wartime has been indescribable, said several participants.

“I could not be more happy to be on the Birthright tour. Especially now. I see people’s eyes light up when they see us. It’s almost like we’re bringing them hope and it’s truly a beautiful thing to experience,” said Noah Isaac Solomon.

Noah Isaac Solomon with his brothers on Birthright, January 2024. (Courtesy)

“It is also an incredible feeling to finally see the land that my two brothers have served in the army to defend,” Solomon, 24, told The Times of Israel.

“Today we helped a farmer pick fruit,” said Solomon. “Suddenly things felt okay. Looking at the mountains, breathing the fresh air, helping the farmer. I was grounded,” said Solomon, a student at Atlanta Technical College.

Jewish parents of Birthright-eligible young adults express a spectrum of emotions when it comes to sending children to Israel during wartime, said one participant.

“I was worried that Birthright would have been canceled, but when we found out that Birthright wasn’t canceled my parents were extremely supportive of me going,” Sarah Kitchner, a student at Suffolk University in Boston, told The Times of Israel.

“My parents stated that it was my job and purpose to go to Israel and show my support,” Kitchner said.

“The immediate excitement for us when we first got off the plane at the airport truly made me feel welcomed in the country. Everyone started cheering and singing and all the stress and fear I had immediately disappeared,” said Kitchner.

Birthright participant Sarah Kitchner, January 2024. (Courtesy)

According to tour educator Landberg, the first three days of the trip felt like “a spark of light in a dark time,” he said.

For trip counselor Cat Korren, being in Israel after October 7 brought a “sense of awe” regarding the Jewish people’s response to the Hamas massacres and ongoing war.

‘To be with my people’

For Max Leibowitz, 23, coming to Israel has exceeded expectations.

“This is my first time here and it is exactly what I was hoping for deep down,” Leibowitz told The Times of Israel.

“A lot of my family and friends were very anxious for me to come around this time, but I couldn’t let that stop me. I’ve been wanting to come here to be with my people for a few years now since I really started to embrace my Jewish heritage and also the religion,” said Leibowitz, a student at Rutgers University,

By his third day on the ground, Leibowitz helped harvest grapefruit and deliver groceries as part of Birthright’s commitment to provide high-quality volunteer projects for participants.

“The activities we have been participating in have grounded me and truly given me a peek into the amazing lifestyle here in Israel that you can’t quite experience without being here,” said Leibowitz.

Birthright participant Max Leibowitz at the Sea of Galilee, January 2024. (Courtesy)

“The 17 of us on this trip support Israel and felt the need to come in this pivotal time to show our people that they are never alone, no matter how far away in the world we may be, we see what’s happening,” said Leibowitz.

As an Israeli citizen who recruits for Birthright trips in New England, Waters wants participants to share their experience as soon as possible, he said.

“I really want them to take away the experience of being in Israel during this challenging time,” said Waters. “I want them to bring it back to campus, I want them to tell the story of Israel to millions of people.”

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