Finding your faith in Birthright

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Finding your faith in Birthright

Photo by Tonia Speicher

Photo by Tonia Speicher

Photo by Tonia Speicher

Photo by Tonia Speicher

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by Dan Peltier

Sitting in Hebrew school can only teach students so much about their religion and their culture. Sitting in a restaurant in Jerusalem ordering dinner? That’s an educational moment.

A Birthright trip to Israel during college years helps students deepen their Jewish faith and have the time of their lives, according to Tonia Speicher, a senior nursing major who went on a Birthright trip last August. The best part about the trip? It’s totally free. From airfare, to hotels to meals, everything is paid for.

“I really liked the total immersion aspect of Birthright,” said Speicher, “I couldn’t go abroad because of my major so this was an opportunity for me to travel.”

Birthright Reflection

Speicher went to Hebrew school but has not been as close to her faith in recent years. She wanted to learn more about Jewish culture from the best place to do so.

“The trip was geared towards people like me, people who don’t know a ton about Judaism but are still interested in it. The majority of people on my trip weren’t orthodox and it wasn’t pushy at all,” she said.

Speicher also went with her two brothers, ages 24 and 26. The age range for Birthright is 18-26, and it was her older brother’s last chance to go. She applied for the three of them and was placed on a waiting list the first time but eventually got an August 2013 departure date that seemed to fit everyone’s schedule.

Her favorite city is Jerusalem, which she describes as the “most modern city in Israel” and she loved the shopping there. The highlights from her trip were a water hike and an excursion to the Dead Sea which she remembers was “very uncomfortable” because of its unusually high salt concentration. Visiting these biblical places helped her feel a part of something, one of the reasons she went on the trip.

“I’ve always been a minority, so it was kind of cool to be with people who have the same kind of background as me,” she said. “Most touristy places that we went locals would shout ‘taglit’ at us which means ‘Birthright.’”

She encourages any student who is curious about the backstory of their faith to apply for a Birthright trip and see the limitless beauty of Israel. She feels that a lot of students are nervous that they would encounter too many cultural barriers in Israel, but according to her there’s nothing to worry about.

“You can get by without knowing Hebrew, everyone speaks English for the most part. The guides take very good care of you on this trip and I felt very safe,” she said. “You just have to have an open mind, for example you can’t ask for alternatives at meals because you don’t like what’s on the menu.”

Speicher wishes she could return to eat more of the food she tried, such as falafel, pitas and salads at different restaurants or open-air markets. The food is just as important as the historical aspect of the tour, and she feels the history won’t be overwhelming for those who aren’t history buffs.

“We went from old school stuff to new school stuff, every day was balanced between history and nature or another excursion, I didn’t feel like I was in a history class and our guide was great,” she said.

Preparing to Go

Besides starting a new chapter in her life as she prepares to graduate, senior psychology major Shayna Alper has something else to look forward to this summer: a Birthright trip.

Like Speicher, Alper wants to deepen her understanding of her faith and knew that a Birthright trip was the best way to do it. She’ll be going for 10 days in July and hopes to possibly extend the trip to see even more.

“I thought ‘why not?’ go?” said Alper, “America is very blinded and we think we’re the best. If more people traveled the world we would be more open-minded.”

She’s looking forward to camel riding and hiking around Israel the most, and visiting Tel Aviv is at the top of her list. Alper also went to Hebrew school and continues to celebrate Jewish holidays but wants to learn more.

“I hope the trip gives me a complete perspective on being Jewish and that I learn a lot,” she said, “I commend people who believe so strongly in their faith, believing in something is powerful.”

She doesn’t know anyone going on her trip but hopes to make new friends along the way.

“I’m really excited and going alone will make it easier to meet new people. Everyone should want to do Birthright, it’s designed to be an individual journey to help you grow,” she said.

Both Speicher and Alper went through Awesome Israel for their trips. Students can find more information about Birthright through UMass Hillel, the campus’ Jewish community center.


Dan Peltier can be contacted at [email protected]


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