Participants, Ben Narynski, left, of Fullerton, Sara Gershfeld, center,… (Robert Lachman / Los Angeles…)
Ben Narynski recently flew home to a place he'd never been.
"It's like a hometown to me," the Fullerton resident said of the country he traversed by bus with 39 other young adults and a medic carrying a gun.
Visible from the vehicle's windows were the olive orchards and fig trees of Israel, a land he grew up hearing about but had never before seen. The 24-year-old veterinarian is one of about 27,000 young Jews from 33 countries making the pilgrimage this summer free of charge. As a descendant of Hebrews, he said, "you have to visit at least once in your lifetime, and this is the perfect time. I feel guilty that I haven't been there before."
Organizers estimate that by September, more than 190,000 young people -- about 75% of them Americans -- will have made the trip as guests of Taglit-Birthright Israel, a program founded in 1999 to connect young Jews to their ancestral homeland and to the Jewish community worldwide.
This year the program, often known simply as Birthright, is redoubling its efforts in observance of the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding.
"We've tried to touch every Jewish community out there," said spokeswoman Deborah Goldberg, adding that "this is the biggest year we've ever had."
Birthright is the brainchild of, among others, Michael Steinhardt, a New York-based investor and philanthropist, who saw what he considered an alarming trend: the increasing disaffection of young, non-Israeli Jews from their culture and community.
"They typically stop their Jewish educations after their bar or bat mitzvahs," he said, referring to religious coming of age ceremonies performed at 12 or 13. "I decided to focus on the next generation of our people. If there is a miracle in our lifetimes, it's the birth of Israel. You can be Jewish and not visit there, but you're missing a lot."
The first travel groups embarked in the winter of 2000 at a cost of about $24 million. Today, Goldberg said, Birthright spends more than $90 million annually sending people on Middle East excursions underwritten by Jewish philanthropists, community organizations and the Israeli government.
The results have been important to Israel "both ideologically and strategically," said Gidi Mark, the program's Israeli marketing director and soon-to-be chief executive. In addition to contributing to the country's economy and bolstering its support among Jews worldwide, he said, Birthright marks the young nation's ascension as an "equal partner in taking responsibility for the future of the Jewish people worldwide."
The requirements for participants are few: They must be Jewish, be 18 to 26 and must never have been on an educational tour of Israel before.
Because growing demand is outpacing funding, Mark said, about 20,000 applicants a year are put on waiting lists, and half never make the trip. For those who do, however, the no-charge, 10-day excursions include airfare, food, hotels, lectures and visits to some of the country's most significant historical, religious and contemporary sites.
"We have very high educational standards," Goldberg said.
Each Birthright bus holds 40 participants, two staffers from their home country, an Israeli educational guide and an armed security guard trained as a medic.
One of the most important aspects of the tour, Goldberg said, is the involvement of Israeli peers -- usually soldiers -- who join "not as security, but as participants. It creates a personal connection. Many of them stay friends" long after the trip.
To avoid problems in a country sometimes marked by terrorism and armed conflict, Goldberg said, Israeli security forces track each Birthright bus. A few buses had to be rerouted during last year's conflict with Lebanon. Aside from that, she said, "the worst thing that's happened is kids catching the flu from each other [and occasional] broken arms, maybe from falling off camels."
None of which seemed to daunt the participants gathered with Narynski for a pre-departure orientation last month at the Jewish Federation Orange County's office in Irvine.
"There will be no free time, only structured free time," Birthright staffer Jay Feldman told the soon-to-be passengers of bus 909, which, he said, would be making stops at Jerusalem's Western Wall and Ben Yehuda Street ("like the Santa Monica promenade"), as well as museums, monuments and the port city of Eilat, to name just a few.
"My job is to make your trip as amazing at it can be," he said.
"Israel is not just for Israelis; it's a country for Jews all over the world."
That was one of the lessons gleaned by Rachel Blatt, 26, of Los Angeles, who went on an early Birthright trip in 2000. Now she works as assistant director of a temple religious school and hopes to be a rabbi someday.
"It made Israel real," Blatt said of the trip. "It felt so special to be in the same place that so many of my ancestors have been, to know that this is where most of your history takes place, to feel the connection to the place we pray about every day. Once you go to Israel, there's no turning back; you fall in love with it and everything is changed."
The experience was so profound, Blatt said, that last year, when Birthright announced an alumni contest called "Let My Parents Go," she submitted a video that won spots for her mother and father on a parents-only trip that leaves this month.
"I'm so excited for them," Blatt said.
All of which encourages Steinhardt, who said he's deeply gratified by having helped birth a program well on its way to becoming a "rite of passage."
"It's begun to change a generation," he said.