Taglit/Birthright: A Gift From Israel

Throughout this blog I’ve mentioned various locations, programs and activities; however, they all cost me something, as little as it could be. The program I just returned from is 99,9% free – all you have to do is find some Jewish heritage.

“Taglit” means “discovery” in Hebrew, if I got it right. It’s promoted as a “present” to the Jewish youth of the world, an opportunity to visit Israel as a part of an educational trip sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel. There are a few basic requirements: you have to be over 18 and under 27, not hold an Israeli citizenship (unless you left the country as a kid), and be able to prove your Jewish heritage. It may be your parent or grandparent on either side, or even the grandparent’s mother. The program would ask you to submit birth certificates and/or any other relevant documents for proof. You will also need to pay a deposit of $110 (as of this year), $100 of which will be refunded to you after the trip. And – that’s about it. In fact, you can totally go on this trip with an empty wallet (never a good idea, but still!), and it won’t be a problem because as soon as you enter the airport terminal, everything is paid for. Your flight, insurance, three meals a day, acommodations, tours and transfers – everything. I myself spent one hundred dollars on this 10-day trip which I just returned from. Fifty were a gesture towards the guide and the driver – they may not have been compulsory, but they were stressed upon, so I paid. Both the guide and the driver were very worth it in the end. And another fifty went for delicious freshly squeezed pomegranate juices, chocolates, more juices, and some dates amd hummus to take home. I could’ve done without it. But, oh well, oh well.

From what I learnt, Taglit is avaliable to young Jews from a vast majority of countries. It’s very popular in North America and Western Europe, and there are companies that conduct such trips in many countries. My group was from Sokhnut agency in Moscow, Russia, and I can’t complain – everything was great. I even came back with a slight February tan, which, of course, matters. Not.

First, after doing my research (there are various companies offering this trip in every country, and it’s best to apply as soon as the applications are open), filling tons of paperwork and attacking my program coordinator with questions, I ended up on a pre-trip meeting. It was a fun cozy gathering of confused people made to play summer camp games, and in the end we all got into it. There were two such meetings in total. It helped a good deal to know who all these people were before the trip, and there were over thirty, including yours faithful. The group was nicely diverse, with a healthy amount of craziness and Jewishness. By the end of the program the Jewishness burst out in the shape of hilarious Odessa-ish accent that people don’t usually keep in real life, unless they’re from Odessa; and Odessa, as everyone knows, is a universe of its own.

On day X we all gathered at the airport, sleepy and grumpy. We had to be there three hours before the flight as our company, El Al, is [in]famous for its security regulations. There was an interview with security prior to registration. I got a red sticker on my passport, calling for an extra checkup. I was pissed, sure that my perfectly packed backpack would get all messed up. Surprisedly, that was not the case; having heard a lot about people’s unpleasant security experiences, I was waiting for the worst, but a polite young man just scanned my backpack with a wand, and I was free to go. Phew. 

Upon arrival to the [in]famous Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv I was preparing for the horrid security checkup everyone was talking about all over the web. But – what? A three-second chat with a border officer, a compliment for my English, and shalom, Israel! I should really trust the web much less. Met by a representative of the Jewish Agency, we had out passports taken away in a blink of an eye; we wouldn’t see them until the end of the program. Yeah, that does make you feel uncomfortable, even that it’s done to make sure none get lost. But it still does. At least you have that piece of paper which is your entry visa. It has your picture, passport number, and may serve as an ID. Well, probably. The organizers argued that there was no need for passports anyway, as we all knew alcohol was strictly prohibited during the program, unless it was a hotel bar (oh logic!). 

Then, no, we didn’t go to the hotel. We were brought into some corridor upstairs, seated in a circle, and lengthily lectured about the program, what it’s for, and many, many other things which were the last we wanted to hear after a four-hour flight. At last we got into the bus, joined by our guide Andrey and a few Israeli folks of our age group, some students and some serving in the army. I prayed for a nice dinner and a warm bed. A dinner there was; we all got a second breath and joined our guide on a short tour around old Yaffo. However, afterwards we were all called to a conference room, where we had to engage in some team building activities. I barely remember anything but hating it, so sleepy I was almost falling off my chair. That evening surely gave me the impression of a summer camp. I’ve never been to summer camps – and probably, that was my problem. The hostel we stayed at was nice, and great food too, but these doors… The sound of these doors being shut… BANG! It would haunt me. For sure.

 Our second day was, perhaps, the longest day in my travel history (well, maybe except for that one time I had to get from Berlin to Copenhagen in a day without flying). It was so packed with events and information that I started doubting my ability to keep up a face. Also, it added up that by the program rules you are not allowed to leave the group. Decipher: the guide always walks first, the guard last (yes, there is a guard, ours was great). No matter how hard it is for you to keep the slower or the faster pace, that’s how it is. Took some adjustment for me. Um. A lot of it. I am even obliged to say that by the end of our trip guide Andrey kinda gave up and stopped telling me to fall back every time I would be a few steps ahead. Except for that time I was jumping from rock to rock not far from the cliff’s end on a certain mountain. But it wasn’t that close either. Never mind. He probably wanted to kill me himslef many, many times, and I totally feel for him. He was a great and knowledgeable guy and I hope he now enjoys a well-deserved respite. 

And no, you cannot leave the hotel after the day’s events are over. One girl from our group did, and she was flown straight home the following day. But come on, we all knew the rules.
So! The second day. We went to the Museum of Independence, walked the old quarters of Tel Aviv, had a lunch on the sunlit lawn of the city’s university, and then proceeded to its Genealogy Museum. May I just tell you, this museum was one of the best I’ve ever been to! Our local guide jumped out of nowhere dressed in a toga, Roman sandals and with a messenger bag across his shoulder, an image of an aged Hermes; he darted down the halls, leading us through the centuries-long history of the Jews. He was talking, running, talking again, gesturing, recreating little scenes from the past, entertaining and educating in the best way possible. I mean, was he even human? I adored him. He was my perfect idea of a guide, as much as I usually tire of them. We also learnt that one girl from our group came from king David’s line, two were the descendants of high priests, and my anscestor was a holy rabbi in the city of Chernobyl, which now lies in radioactive ruins. 

 Afterwards we drove to Jerusalem, around two hours, and all across the city to have a quick meal at the Jewish Agency. I guess it was the only time during the program that I actually expressed my dissatisfaction with a meal out loud. Later on we would always have a decent dinner; probably it was that one bad day. To add up, we then were driven all across Jerusalem to the Mega-Event, as they called it, where all Russian-speaking Taglits from different countries gathered for some seminars and a party. There was also a MASA fair – these are the programs for 5-10 months, educational and professional, also mostly covered by the Jewish Agency but requiring some personal contribution. We all were randomly assigned to the seminars selected from our top-three choices. I got to enjoy the wonderful, witty poetry of Igor Guberman. Some people had drumming, dancing, fashion, photography and IT workshops; some said theirs were boring, so I thought myself lucky. I then sat on a table in one of the fair’s empty booths, and counted minutes until the party was over. 

The music was so loud I didn’t even pop into the dance hall (a downside of the past being a radio worker), and the smell of stage smoke reached me even in my retreat. And the award goes to – the worst party person ever… Yeah, right, to the worst hangry party person, ever.
Thankfully, never again we had a day like that. The only reason I described it here in detail is because I wanted to focus on some realities of the program, to sort of balance all its goodness. It’s useful to know these things, and have extra chocolate be prepared. And all the other memories, adventures and observations will find their way to my next posts! 

The rest of the trip was of moderate load, and even the excessive amounts of bread for lunch failed to get us out of shape. We hiked and walked, paddled in the Dead Sea and jumped into the Red, pressed our foreheads to the Wailing wall and had a real Sabbath celebration, took in the memories of Yad Vashem and gazed upon the Biblical plants. We learnt about history, culture and traditions of one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and got a little sense of belonging. We made friends and had our fun together. And yeah, I gotta say it, seriously: it IS a find-a-couple program – if you want it to be one… Pity I didn’t know! =D

To sum up: it really is a worthy venture. So go dig into your family archive, find your inner Jew and stick yet another flag into your travel map! Right here. And if there’s no inner Jew (although I really do believe we all secretly have one, Jewish ancestry or not), there are tons of other great programs out there that require your minimal financial participation. And hopefully, I’ll soon be able to tell you about some.

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