For some participants of the Monmouth Federation Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, the moment of true connection came when they gathered under a prayer shawl on the Haas Promenade, overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem.
In a ceremony led by Rabbi Steve Bernstein of Kibbutz Gezer on Jan. 17, seven of the 40 young adults in the group participated in their own b’nei mitzva ceremony, as their companions looked on. Some were undergoing the rite for the first time, others as a renewal of the commitment they had made at age 12 or 13.
For 23-year-old Liia Magi of Eatontown, the moment was simply magical — the kind of magic she said she generally finds easier to express through her drawings than her words. Born in Tallinn, Estonia, Magi came to the United States at age 16. She is now a senior studying illustration at Pratt Institute in New York.
“When they asked me if I wanted to participate in the ceremony, I was like, ‘Yes, please, just do it!’” she told NJ Jewish News. “I always wanted to have a bat mitzva. I don’t know anyone else in my family who had a chance to get a bar or bat mitzva, so I felt like I was doing it for everyone else that couldn’t. It was pretty spectacular.”
Birthright Israel — funded by the Israeli government and private philanthropists — sponsors free 10-day heritage trips to Israel for Jewish adults 18-26. As of last summer, over 250,000 individuals from 52 different countries have participated since the trips began in 2000.
Ed Mashkovich of Manalapan described the Birthright trip as the 10 best days of his life. “I was born in Russia and came to the U.S. when I was young,” said Mashkovich, a senior studying finance at Rutgers University. “I felt more at home on my first trip to Israel than I did in the few times I have visited Russia.
“There’s definitely some sort of spiritual enlightenment that I gained, plus I got to celebrate my 22nd birthday in Tel Aviv with all my new friends.”
For Brittany Rusin of Manalapan, Birthright was the most life-altering experience of her 26 years, she said.
“My mom is Jewish, and my dad is Catholic, and I wasn’t raised to practice either religion. Until I got bat mitzva’d with Birthright, I felt there was always a piece of the puzzle missing,” said Rusin, who works as a medical assistant. “Birthright made everything fall into place. Day by day, experience by experience, it just shaped my whole perspective of Judaism in a really beautiful way.”
Rusin is working closely with Ariella Lis Raviv, the Monmouth federation’s manager of community impact, who staffed the Birthright trip, on planning upcoming events to help link Monmouth Birthright participants past and present.
This is the kind of proactive response the Birthright movement hopes for, said Lauren Reich of Manalapan, who cochairs federation’s Taglit-Birthright Israel program together with Alan Winters of Elberon. Reich and Winters spearhead efforts to raise $60,000 for each Monmouth Birthright trip.
These funds are matched by the Taglit-Birthright Israel Foundation — enough to cover 40 participants at $3,000 per person. The arrangement allows Monmouth residents a berth on the program that otherwise might not be available (although about a dozen of this year’s participants were from outside the county). The January contingent was the third sponsored by the Monmouth federation.
The winter trip, held Jan. 9-18, was the first full bus sponsored by the Monmouth federation; prior trips have shared a bus with other organizations. It also marked the first time two young adults from the Deal Sephardi community participated, which organizers said they hope will spark more interest from that community.
“Monmouth County is among the leading federations across the country to have such an active Birthright program,” said Reich, who also sits on the national council of Taglit-Birthright Israel. “If these young adults will live life more Jewishly as a result of the trip, and if their parents are also affected positively, then it is a success.”
By the end of the January trip, the appreciation of the participants was almost tangible, said Raviv. “They were so thankful to federation and to Lauren Reich and Alan Winters for this gift they had been given.”