Claiming their birthright | July 12, 2013 | Pleasanton Weekly | |

Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - July 12, 2013

Claiming their birthright

Jewish youths travel to Israel for unique cultural experience

by Jessica Lipsky

Every year, thousands of young Jewish people travel to Israel to learn more about their religion, culture and heritage. Through the organization Taglit-Birthright, Jews between ages 18 and 26 can participate in a 10-day trip to the Holy Land for free.

Hebrew for "discovery," Taglit exemplifies the goal of the Birthright trip: a discovery of Israel and its people, discovery of one's personal connection to Jewish values and tradition, and connection to the larger Jewish community. Since it began in 1999, Birthright has sent approximately 340,000 Jewish youths from 62 countries to Israel through donations from philanthropists, the state of Israel, the Jewish Federation system, the Jewish Agency for Israel and alumni.

"We believe that the experience of a trip to Israel is a building block of Jewish identity, and that by providing that gift to young Jews, we can strengthen bonds with the land and people of Israel and solidarity with Jewish communities worldwide," Birthright's website states.

Hundreds of Jewish teens and young adults throughout the Tri-Valley and Bay Area have participated in the educational pilgrimage, organized by a variety of companies who cater to niche areas of interest. Participants can opt for trips that are orthodox, outdoors-focused, Hillel/student-centered or photography-focused, among others. By offering a variety of experiences, Birthright organizers hope to reach a whole generation of Jewish youths.

"It's important for Jewish youth to visit Israel to form a bond with the people and with the land. They hear so much on the media, they see things on television, online and they can often get a distorted picture of the politics and the social reality," said Rabbi David Katz of Congregation Beth Emek in Pleasanton. "To go to Israel shows them what is actually happening, revives their spirit, strengthens their identity and helps them understand where they fit in to a worldwide Jewish picture."

California High School graduate Jonny Grishpul went on Birthright in winter 2011 with a Hillel group. A junior at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Grishpul is active in Alpha Epsilon Pi, a national Jewish fraternity, and was also involved in college and high school Jewish youth groups. Despite his involvement, Grishpul considers himself more a spiritual Jew than a religious one.

"From my prior Jewish education, I kind of learned the underlying values and morals Judaism teaches and really agree with those. I find it important to keep Judaism in my life," he said. "I studied about Israel for so long -- I knew it from a book sense, had heard about it but I'd never been there."

Grishpul counted visiting Tsfat -- the home of Kaballah -- and climbing Mount Heron as highlights of his trip. While activities vary based on the trip provider, most Birthright participants visit the ancient fortress Masada, spend the night in a Bedouin tent, ride a camel, climb Mount Herzel and float in the Dead Sea. All trips visit important sites in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

"It was really meaningful to be in the place where your ancestors once stood and in the place where so much has happened; it just made a lot more sense," Grishpul said.

Twenty-six-year-old Sarah Buczek, a graduate of San Ramon Valley High, traveled to Israel in January 2011 with an outdoors program. Although she went with the intention of further developing her Jewish identity, Buczek said she realized she was more religious than many of her peers, but much less so than Israelis she encountered.

"I just realized that I'm OK with being a 'culture Jew,'" she said. "At first, when I came home from Israel, I felt like I needed to practice Shabbat and be more intense about Judaism, but living in the U.S. it's OK to feel that way."

Israeli society is much more conducive to traditional or orthodox Judaism, she added.

"It's a lot easier to hold Shabbat, to not work," Buczek noted. "As opposed to here where to get the High Holidays off of work or school is impossible."

Birthright participants are toured around by Israelis, some of whom are actively serving in the army, in addition to being dropped in the middle of Israeli culture. For Cal High grad Leah Yamshon, the realities of societal enforced gender separation in religious places such as The Western Wall were initially troublesome. Upon returning to the Wall at night on Shabbat, however, Yamshon changed her mind.

"The women's side was like a celebration and the other side is not like that at all. It was a very uplifting experience with a whole bunch of Jewish women, and I felt very united," she said.

A journalist and Jewish educator who has spent several years preparing teens for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Yamshon said she traveled to Israel already solid in her Jewish identity.

"I came there loving being Jewish and I left still loving being Jewish and it kind of reaffirmed that this is what I believed," Yamshon said, adding that she would like to return. "Israel is just so interesting because of where it is geographically. It's just kind of cool to be around this really neat culture for a week and it made me want to hold onto the faith even more when I got back."

Others, such as Pleasanton resident Lee Burg, left Israel a little disenchanted. Burg, 26, went on Birthright in 2006 and said he came home feeling less connected to his Jewish identity.

"It was an overwhelming and divisive experience. It was nice to really get into it and know exactly how a lot of people are with their religion and pretty much make it their whole life, but it was nice to be able to say you don't have to be like that," he said.

Josh Gordon, a former San Ramon resident, said he expected Birthright to have a bigger impact on his identity as a Jew. Although Gordon left feeling more proud to be Jewish, he didn't feel more inclined to go to synagogue or celebrate holidays.

"It's a very endearing experience in a lot of ways when you go over there, especially old Jerusalem and seeing how much they have gone through," he added. "They're a very proud people over there, and it's pretty cool to be a part of that."

Responding to criticisms of Birthright being strictly pro-Israel or a means to sway participants in a Zionist political direction, all said they felt that trip organizers presented a fairly balanced view of the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. Buczek said she got a real taste for the Israeli way of thought when her group discussed politics with Israeli soldiers.

"I'm more aware now of why it's a very difficult location to have peace," she said. "Everyone was really nice but their perspective on Israel is that it belongs to them and that was a really weird thought to me, because I never thought of land as belonging to a certain religion. The idea of sharing it is not a concept that they even consider almost."

Burg said that while he understands both sides, he didn't want to get involved in political debate while on Birthright.

"I used to be on Israel's side just because it's all you know about. But once you start hearing about the other side and how everybody else thinks, everybody needs their own place to call their own," he said.

Rabbi Katz disagreed with the negative connotations of Zionism and said that while the trip is an arm of the Zionist movement in that it creates a bond between Jews and Israel, participants are wise to the political spectrum.

"Our young people know how to ask good questions, how to see both sides of the picture and understand the needs, desires and hopes of all the populations of Israel," he said.

Regardless of political orientation, all participants agreed that Birthright was a powerful experience and one that they would recommend to other Jewish youths.

"I wouldn't say I'm any more Jewish from going to Israel but I feel a lot more connected to my heritage and to my religion from going to The Western Wall and seeing thousands of years of history before my eyes," Grishpul said.

To learn more about Taglit-Birthright, visit


Posted by Bill Wahbe, a resident of Dublin
on Jul 13, 2013 at 8:16 am

I read your article "Claiming their birthright" with a heart was full of sadness and feeling of injustice.
I am a Palestinian-Christian born in Jerusalem. My family has lived in Jerusalem for many centuries. We are the early Christians who followed Jesus Christ.
I left Jerusalem because of the war. I am not allowed to return to Jerusalem because because I am not Jewish. Palestine is a melting pot of many tribes including Arabs and Jews. Jerusalem belongs to its indigenous people and not only to the Jews. The injustice committed by the Zionists against the Palestinians is not something to be proud of.

Posted by good for you Bill, a resident of another community
on Jul 13, 2013 at 1:37 pm

It took real courage to write what you did. I feel that there are at least two sides to every part of this conflict and when only the pro-Jewish side is ever endorsed people do not get the full picture.

The US has been so focused on the so-called rights of the Jews for so long that if any of us dare to question the settlements or the atrocities committed against non-Jews we are branded as antisemitic. I also question many of the crimes committed against the Native Americans by the settlers, does that make me anti-American? No, it makes me in favor of justice and equality rather than the taking of land that does not rightly belong to you.

Would the PW print an article in favor of settlement of Jerusalem by Palestinians? I think not.

Posted by Cholo, a resident of Livermore
on Jul 13, 2013 at 3:19 pm

The conflict between the Palestinians and Israel will NEVER END.

Nothing can stop the conflict.

Posted by jason sweet, a resident of San Ramon
on Jul 13, 2013 at 5:34 pm

This is an informative,interesting article on the wonderful Birthright Israel program. My children went on this journey years ago, and it firmed up their appreciation of their heritage and homeland. The anti-Israel BDS crowd is currently ramping up an email letter-to-the-editor campaign against the article ("Would the Pleasanton Weekly even consider carrying a cover article about the Palestinian right of return??!!" and no doubt many of then will rant about it in these Comments. There is of course no "Palestinian right of return" and even if there were, what has this got to do with the Birthright program,which is specifically meant for Jewish youth, and is just a brief tour and not an immigration for goodness sake. Let the "palestinians" fund their own Birthright-like program, because the free democratic country of Israel has thousands upon thousands of Muslim and Christian tourists each year,many of Arab background,and no will stop trips by youth of palestinian background.

Posted by Member, a resident of Walnut Hills
on Jul 13, 2013 at 5:55 pm

A wonderful article. I know many children in our community who went on Birthrite. For those who use these pages to rant about the Palestinians. They left in 48 so the invading Arab armies would have room to push the Jews into the sea. Of course, they're despondent that the promised act of genocide didn't happen. If they wanted to return, there is plenty of room for them in Jenin and Ramallah thanks to the Oslo Accords, which their leaders, however, fail to honor. The Palestinians are regrettably victims, but they are victims of the decisions of their own leaders who have not given up the dream of pushing the Jews into the sea. They had numerous opportunities to have their own state, but they refuse as long as there is a Jewish state in the region. They have milked the sympathy of the world and its charitable giving for too long.

Posted by JT, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jul 13, 2013 at 5:58 pm

There is nothing restricting non-jews from coming to Israel. However, if you go there with an philosophy that Israel does not have a right to exist you will not be met with open arms (nor should you). There are people of all different religions in Israel and they allow all to live there. However, if you go to the surrounding states like Jordan, they forbid Jews from living there. So Israel is inclusive while the other countries there are no different than the Nazi's where they want to eliminate the Jews.

The people form Israel cannot negotiate with the leaders of the Palestinians when the Palestinians say that Israel has no right to exist there and the Jews should be removed. You cannot negotiate with a government like that. When the leaders of the Palestinians accept the rights of the Jews to live there, negotiations can begin. Israel would like peace there but you cannot negotiate with people who say outright that you do not have the right to exist. That is a non-starter.

As for the birthright program, that is privately financed by an organization outside of the Israeli government, through donations, as a way to encourage Jewish people to visit the country and learn more. If there are other religions interested in this, they can finance this. Nothing stopping them.

I have family members living in Israel. They have before, and would still like to live side by side with the Palestinians. However, when the Palestinians started to kill Jewish people in Israel, for their own protection they had to put up fences to keep the aggressors out. The media today only mentions the self-defense of Israel, and words it like an unprovoked attack. After the Palestinians launch rockets over and over into Israel, at some point Israel has to do something to protect themselves. The United States would destroy any outsiders who bomb our land.

It also seems amazing to me that the neighboring countries like Jordan will not even let the Palestinians live in their country. And now that after the Israeli's have put a lot of time and work into converting the desert to a habitable place, something that was not done for many, many years/decades/centuries prior, others now want the 'improved' land of Israel. They did not want it prior to the state of Israel.

Posted by good for you Bill, a resident of another community
on Jul 13, 2013 at 7:13 pm

(Post removed by Pleasanton Weekly Online staff as irrelevant to this thread.)

Posted by Scott, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jul 13, 2013 at 7:42 pm

Kudos to the Weekly for publishing this article. My daughter is on a Birthright trip right now and it has been an eye-opening experience. Might be nice if just once some of the posters here who hide behind their member names could acknowledge a program that is educating our youth, providing them an opportunity to develop their own opinions about world affairs (if you'd actually read the article, you'd see the Weekly offered a variety of responses from past participants), and allowing them to see historical sites first-hand. I'm as strong a defender of free speech as you'll ever find, but kids visit this site too and recognition of their commitment to continuing their education beyond school walls is certainly warranted.

Posted by Jake in Jerusalem, a resident of another community
on Jul 14, 2013 at 10:21 am

It should be noted, for those who aren't aware, that the majority of "Palestine" is currently occupied by Jordan, on the East Bank. Some 80% of Palestinian land is now Jordan. What the Arabs want is both the East AND the West Banks. Thus there is now a FOUR-STATE solution in effect: Jordan, Gaza, West Bank are ethnically-cleansed and purely Arab territories, but they want Israel, too. No matter what tiny little sliver the Jews control, the Arabs will want that, too.

Incidentally, today's King Abdullah II of Jordan is named after his great-grandfather, Abdullah I, who named himself king of Trans-Jordan and was assassinated by the Palestinians for stealing their land. And none other than Yasser Arafat himself saw Jordan as Palestine. Everyone loves to forget that the first Intifada to Liberate Palestine (PLO, remember?) was on the Jordanian-Occupied East Bank of Palestine, back in 1970. In the single month that came to be called Black September of that year, Arafat and King Hussein managed to kill nearly 10,000 people, making infamous butchers like Assad, Qaddafi and Saddam look like pussycats. Arafat then correctly recognized that it would be easier to get land from the Jews than from Jordan, where Palestine really lies.

Learn your history! Don't be a "useful idiot" for the Jew-hating propagandists!

Posted by john, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jul 14, 2013 at 11:42 am

It would be better for the world if all these groups forgot about their heritage, history, cultures, and especially their religious beliefs.

Posted by John Larkin, a resident of another community
on Jul 14, 2013 at 12:12 pm


As a Christian married to a Jewish girl, raising 4 Jewish children in Jerusalem, it is easy to feel the emotions of the various commentators

Religion is for the good, surely each person who wants to share good values and beleives they are doing this for the general good

However intolerance and prejudice divides humanity and is not for the good, surely we need to move beyond our differences



Posted by Cholo, a resident of Livermore
on Jul 14, 2013 at 2:37 pm

(Post removed by Pleasanton Weekly Online staff as irrelevant to this thread.)

Posted by Mike, a resident of Highland Oaks
on Jul 14, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Always a bit disturbing to see what religion can do to people.


Posted by Thanks to Weekly, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jul 16, 2013 at 9:21 am

for the original article.
And THANKS to the posters who remind the world that the Arabs who now call themselves "Palestinians" could have their own program to send young people to Israel; or to Jordan, actually the area given to Arabs.
They divided the area, took the larger part, now want the rest.
Their motto is: From the River to the Sea.
You cannot bargain or reason with Terrorists.
These are the same people who hijack airplanes, and cruise ships, and murder innocent people at the Olympics. Now they send rockets into cities.
Arabs attacked the World Trade Center for no sane reason, and the people rejoiced in Gaza!

Posted by Mike, a resident of Highland Oaks
on Jul 16, 2013 at 3:06 pm


I am reminded of the saw about there being 3 sides to every story.