Today, more than ever, Jewish students on college campuses need to connect to the Land of Israel, to the spirituality and holiness of the land. Eretz Yisrael pervades who they are. – Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov, Executive Director, Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies
At long last, the renowned Birthright Israel trips with Mayanot restarted this week.
Back in February 2020, Mayanot, one of the top providers of Birthright Israel trips, was on the cusp of running its 21st year of spring and summer seasons. One month later, Corona hit Israel and the US like a bang, slashing global tourism to its knees. As a consequence, thousands of 18-32 year olds missed enjoying the 10-day Mayanot trip they had excitedly longed for.
And then hope rose again, when after over a year of Corona, Israel was set to reopen gates to travelers. But as the conflict with Gaza broke out, the opening was delayed.
Finally, as of a few days ago – by this time feeling somewhat miraculous – the gates reopened, enabling Mayanot’s Summer 2021 Birthright Israel trips to go ahead. The first group arrived on Israeli soil today after an unusually challenging, often self-isolating, fifteen months.
The Birthright trip is led by the esteemed Rabbi Yonason Denebeim, Director of Chabad of Palm Springs, CA (who greets all arrivals with “Welcome home!”) and in partnership with Chabad on Campus at Tulane and the University of Minnesota.
“I guided the last Birthright Israel trip with Mayanot before the pandemic altered the world,” Rabbi Denebeim said. “Mayanot kept the wheels turning, so they could continue to provide authentic Jewish experiences, ensuring a positive Jewish future.”
The group’s arrival was feasible only by adhering to strict coronavirus travel regulations, following directives from Israel’s Ministries of Health, Tourism, and the Interior. With PCR testing on both sides of the Atlantic, serological testing and a brief quarantine period, Mayanot’s first post-Corona Birthright Israel group is now free to move about the Land of Israel.
The public health policy backdrop is worth it for participants and leadership alike. The fifteen-month void can now slowly start to be refilled, with plans to continue bringing in successive groups throughout the spring, summer and winter.
“There is something very meaningful about being on the first Birthright trip after all the craziness of the world. It feels very good and makes me super hopeful and excited for the future,” said Polina Neft, a participant from Pittsburgh.
“This is a real shehechiyanu moment for us,” Levi Margolin, Director of Operations, remarked warmly. “After months of endless uncertainties, it’s humbling to reach this moment. A moment of progress. A moment of healing. And a moment of rebirth.”
Rabbi Shloime Gestetner, Mayanot Dean, is overjoyed by Birthright’s return: “I thank our entire team, led by Levi Margolin, for persevering through the challenges of the past year – for making the dream come true again”
As is often the case with Birthright, the dream was realized the moment the group arrived, as one participant, Lexie Fox of Delray Beach, FL described, “When I touched down, I felt an instant connection.”