By Jake Lucas
BU News Service
BOSTON — Sam Hoffman boarded a plane to Israel without knowing anybody in his 40-person group.
But when he left the country 16 days later, Hoffman, a Boston University student, had made a spate of new American friends from colleges all over the city, created a tight-knit relationship with an Israeli solider and formed a new appreciation for his Jewish identity.
In a city riddled with college campuses, Boston students don’t often mingle between schools. But Birthright trips, sponsored by BU’s Hillel House in combination with an organization called Taglit-Birthright Israel, offer free, 10-day guided trips to Israel for Jews ages 18 to 25.
“The whole idea behind the birthright trip is to connect them to their Jewish identity,” said Doron Karni, vice president of international marketing for Taglit-Birthright Israel. The non-profit organization gets a third of its funds from the state of Israel, said Karni. The rest, he said, comes from philanthropists.
Taglit-Birthright Israel, based in New York, was formed in 2000, and since then has had 400,000 participants, including 42,000 in 2012 and 15,000 from the Boston area alone. The organization offers a range of travel, from programs sponsored by colleges, to trips geared toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“There’s a lot of thought about how those 10 days are built,” said Karni.
BU’s program associate for Birthright Israel, KateLynn Plotnick, explained that although many schools in the Boston area offer trips sponsored by their on-campus Hillel, other schools, such as Boston College and Simmons College, don’t have such programs. Larger schools that offer trips allow students from smaller schools to go with them. BU is among the nine schools in the New England area that do this, and it takes many students from other schools in Boston.
Hoffman, a BU student, said there were a few students from other schools in his group, including the Berklee College of Music and MIT.
For Hoffman, the first few days of the 10-day trip were, as they always are, cliquey. Then, half way through the trip, eight members of the Israeli Defense Force joined the group of American college students. That part of the trip is called Mifgash, or “encounter,” and it is meant to help build lasting connections that are a central part of Birthright trips.
Hoffman said he still keeps in touch with the students from other schools that were on his trip. “It’s the best part of it,” said Hoffman, a sophomore in BU’s College of Communication. “I think everyone felt really connected over it. By the end of our trip, we all realized how close we’d gotten.”
This opportunity to mingle with other college students is especially interesting for BU students, who are known for not voyaging outside of the immediate areas surrounding BU’s campus, sometimes called the “BU Bubble.” Scott Waxenbum, a BU sophomore in the School of Management, said he understands the attitude behind the “BU Bubble.”
“BU’s a pretty big school, and there are plenty of people here,” he said. “I could understand if you went to a smaller school why you might want to branch out a little bit, but I feel like BU is kind of a self-sustaining community.”
Waxenbum, a member of Sigma Apha Mu fraternity at BU, is going on a BU-sponsored Birthright trip over winter break with a few of his fraternity brothers.
Max Brand, a second-year graduate student from MIT, went on the same trip as Hoffman and said the same is true for other schools in Boston.
“Boston is a pretty small city and it has so many schools in it, but a lot of them don’t interact, or people are so busy that they don’t get the chance to go to other schools,” he said.
MIT offers its own school-sponsored trip, but Brand went with BU to be with his sister, a junior in BU’s School of Management, and got to know students from BU and other schools. A student from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, who also went on the trip with a sibling, is now his girlfriend.
Recent Simmons College graduate Sharon Ramot went on a Birthright trip with BU the summer of her sophomore year and said she still keeps in touch with the people she met on the trip. Through them, she even made friends with students from Northeastern University after she got to Boston.
A major part of Birthright is geared toward trying to allow young Jews to see Israel in a different light than the political battleground it is usually portrayed as. Every trip includes a visit to the country’s economic capital, Tel Aviv, with the goal of showing off Israel as a high-tech, up-and-coming start-up nation.
The recent turmoil in the country has only made this more difficult. Waxenbaum said many of his friends and family are concerned for his safety.
“A lot of people have told me I’m crazy and I’m going to get hit by a rocket,” he said. “I just tell them that they are misinformed about the security threats in Israel and it is safer than the news makes it out to be.”
Taglit-Birthright Israel recently released a statement telling participants that trip destinations were being “reviewed and monitored on an hour-by-hour basis” for safety and that trips would be cancelled if they were deemed unsafe. The statement also said the organization has never cancelled a trip in nearly 13 years.
A version of this story also ran on boston.com.