As soon as they heard about the October 7 Hamas-led massacre in southern Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza, many Jews all over the world had the same reaction. “What,” they wondered, “can we do to help?”
Those who could, donated to the war effort or packed boxes to ship to the soldiers. Others searched desperately for flights to Israel — the vast majority of airlines canceled all flights to and from the Jewish state as soon as the war broke out — so they could help on the ground in the country’s time of need.
Birthright Israel, known as Taglit in Hebrew, was one of the first organizations to offer volunteer opportunities after the war began, with a group of volunteers arriving in November of 2023. So far, over 1,000 Birthright volunteers have come to Israel, paying for their own flights and mainly working in agriculture. Interestingly, the vast majority had taken part in one of Birthright’s 10-day Israel programs for young adults in the past. And apparently, that short sojourn in the Holy Land had created an unbreakable, emotional bond between the participants and the country.
When we asked a number of volunteers, graduates of the Birthright program, why they had left their comfortable lives to pick strawberries and pack crates, they all said more or less the same thing: “Israel needed me. It wasn’t a choice. I had to come.”
Amanda Cetina didn’t sleep for 48 hours after hearing about the Hamas terror onslaught on October 7, which saw 1,200 people brutally murdered in southern Israel, most of them civilians, and another 253 abducted to the Gaza Strip.
Soon afterward, Cetina learned that her childhood friend, tank commander Omer Neutra, had been taken hostage by Hamas terrorists. The graduate of two different types of Taglit programs, during which she strengthened her bond with Israel, Cetina was part of a volunteer group that shook grapefruit off the trees and proudly collected 20 tons of produce for the farm.
Hannah Taxy took a Birthright trip when she was 21, forging, she says, a relationship with Israel that otherwise might never have happened. Now, at the age of 36, she couldn’t stop crying when she heard about October 7. She was so distraught that she couldn’t work, she couldn’t focus on anything. And every time she saw a picture of tiny Kfir Bibas, captured by terrorists, she saw the face of her own baby. As soon as possible, leaving the baby with her husband, Hannah rushed to volunteer in Israel.
Natalia Gutman made the exhausting 24-hour journey from Uruguay to Israel to pick oranges. She and her volunteer group prepared sandwiches for men and women at the front line, visited wounded soldiers and propped cucumbers up in the fields. “I don’t know how much we really helped, but all of the Israelis we met said that just the fact that we had come had improved their morale,” she told us.
What was it about the classic Birthright program that had made an impact so strong that its graduates were among the very first volunteers to arrive in Israel?
The standard Birthright trip consists of up to 40 young Jews from the ages of 18 to 26, who are led by both a tour guide and at least one educator specially trained to accompany the groups. Eight Israelis — soldiers or post-army — join the group for five days, a great addition to the trip that results in long-lasting friendships and a very special connection to Israel.
Since its foundation in 1999, Birthright has brought 850,000 young Jews from around the world to the Holy Land, with the aim of connecting participants with their Jewish identity, Israel, and the Jewish community in general.
While many of the participants join just to “win” a free trip to Israel, says Gia Arnstein, Birthright’s vice president of education, “that’s just the starting point.” During their stay, she says, they step out of their comfort zone into a safe, controlled environment where they can express themselves and experience a sense of belonging. In fact, while waiting in line at the airport in New York prior to their flight to Israel, before the trip even starts, several feel an unusual sense of unity and protection. For some Birthright participants, this is the very first time they have ever been surrounded by other Jews.
As far as we know, not only was Birthright one of the first organizations to bring volunteers to Israel after October 7, but it was also the first to reinstate its program during the war. Thus Birthright brought two groups to Israel in January. The group we joined for a few days consisted of 18 young people mainly in their early 20s, from Canada, New York, Ohio and Minnesota, who made a conscious decision to take the trip despite the ongoing war (others who had registered for the trip last year backed out with the full consent of the trips’ organizers).
Much of the trip followed the regular Birthright program, with a climb up the snake path at Massada, snorkeling along the coral at the Almog Nature Reserve in Eilat, a sunrise hike amid the Eilat mountains for a look at the borders with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, strolls and eats at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, a swim in the Dead Sea, a jeep trip in the desert and a tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center.
But the logistics for this trip were complicated, to say the least. Ordinarily, the group would head north, to the settlements and sites on the Lebanese and Syrian borders, pay a visit to historic, picturesque Safed and explore ancient archeological sites. They would visit the settlements in the western Negev — next to and near the border with Gaza where the hellish invasion took place. No, on this wartime trip, the youths spent several hours in Hostage Square, talking to families, listening to the songs and participating in solidarity circles. They visited Schneider Children’s Medical Center of Israel, hearing from the doctors who are treating returning hostages there. In these trying times, dancing with women at the Western Wall and reciting the Shema Yisrael prayer there with soldiers will, one expects, doubly reinforce their bond with Israel.
One day, the group picked peppers, spinach and tomatoes at the Bein Ha’shitin Farm in the Arava Desert, which was direly in need of field workers. Not only did the group find it great fun, but they ended the day knowing they had done something truly worthwhile for Israel.
Yael Goodman, founder of the running tour company RUN JLM, spoke with the group one evening and described what it felt like for Israelis as we learned the horrors of October 7. She explained about nearly 200,000 displaced Israelis who had lost their homes and livelihoods or whose towns and settlements were under constant shelling by Hezbollah terrorists. Anxious to find a way to help the evacuees, Goodman began a special initiative in which she went to the hotels and hostels where whole families are living in little rooms, and encouraged them to come for a run. She bought them running shoes and special running skirts suitable for religious women. Running in a place where you know you are safe, says Goodman, can be fantastic therapy for people who have lost everything. So far, Goodman, and other volunteers she has recruited, have run with over 100 displaced people.
Birthright programs center around fostering the participants’ Jewish identity. Asking the group to rank a large number of Jewish values was one subtle method of getting them to talk about being Jewish, an activity that ended in passionate (but respectful) arguments that continued throughout the trip. “Being Jewish today” was the theme of discussions dealing with the newly burning issue of antisemitism in their home cities and states — talking about what they brought with them from home, what they will have to cope with when they return, and what it means to be Jewish in the world today.
At the tail end of the trip, participants talked about their personal highlights and about how much they loved “chilling” with the Israelis who accompanied them during part of the tour. Comments ranged from, “Everyone has a place here,” to “I got a sense of belonging,” and from, “I wasn’t really connected to the past. Now I want to learn more,” to “This was only my first trip here — I will be back!”
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
Are you relying on The Times of Israel for accurate and timely coverage right now? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel eleven years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel