Taking a trip with an organization called Birthright Israel has almost become a rite of passage for some young Americans with Jewish heritage.
More than 600,000 young people have taken free Birthright trips to Israel since the program was founded 18 years ago. "In Jewish tradition, 18 has a special meaning: It means chai. Chai means life," said Birthright Israel CEO Gidi Mark in an interview with "Get Outta Here," the AP Travel podcast.
Anyone age 18 to 26 with one Jewish parent may apply to take a Birthright trip. Participants come from 67 countries but nearly three-fourths are American. Most trips involve 10 days of sightseeing around Israel, with 40 participants from abroad accompanied by eight Israelis, mostly soldiers and students.
"They see a lot of sights," Mark said, "but the trip is an internal trip." He said most participants are not religious, and "for many of them, it's the first chance to be exposed to what it means to be Jewish."
In the past, families worried about safety on the trips, but, said Mark, "what we see in recent years is that Israel is considered sometimes more safe than many areas in the U.S., let alone in Europe."
Birthright Israel is not without controversies. Critics say the organization glosses over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One Birthright donor, billionaire Michael Steinhardt, made an obscene gesture at protesters outside a recent 18th-anniversary celebration in New York. Business mogul Sheldon Adelson, a mega-donor to U.S. Republican causes, announced a $70 million gift to Birthright at the anniversary gala.
But Mark said participants hold a wide variety of opinions about Israel and the conflicts in the Middle East and they're invited to "express whatever they feel. At the end of the day, everybody is entitled to have their own opinion."
The organization has increased options for niche trips in recent years, adding LGBTQ trips, trips for people with disabilities and trips with a focus on various professional fields. A few trips have also been added for those ages 27 to 32.
Mark said "hundreds if not thousands" of marriages — and babies — have resulted from relationships formed on Birthright trips.
One highlight for many participants is spending a night in the Israeli desert. "Most American Jews live in big cities," Mark said. "For many of them, to stay a night under the stars in full darkness really connects them to internal places that they were never aware of. ... It has allowed them to meet with themselves."