Jerusalem — I attended the biggest Mega-Event ever for Birthright Israel last Sunday night, with 7,500 screaming participants gathered at an outdoor amphitheater near here, and my ears are still ringing.
The Mega-Events are the highlight and culmination of the 10-day free trips for 18-26-year-olds from throughout the diaspora, bringing all of the current participants together for one special evening featuring theatrical productions that rival Broadway and the Academy Awards with a mixture of music, strobe lights, videos, choreographed dancing, fireworks and lots of kitsch.
The crowd at the Latrun tank museum (the site of a major battle in the 1948 War of Independence) was pumped from the outset with up-tempo Israeli music blaring, to get the Birthrighters in a celebratory mood. The scene looked like a European soccer match, with the various national groups cheering themselves hoarse, waving Israeli flags and doing the wave even before the program started. There were contingents from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France and India, and of course, the U.S., the biggest by far.
Birthright officials expect 24,000 participants on trips this summer, and 42,000 in all this year, the biggest numbers ever, thanks in large part to a major infusion in funding from Las Vegas-based businessman and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed the crowd and may have received the last enthusiastic reception in Israel of his tenure, given the view that his days in office are numbered. But you would have never known it from him or the crowd as he exhorted the young people to come back to Israel.
“There is only one place in the world that is ours,” Olmert said, “and this is our place. This is your home. There is no other home for you but this one.”
The audience cheered.
Olmert personally thanked the mega-donors who helped make Birthright a reality and presented awards onstage to Michael and Judy Steinhardt, Charles Bronfman, Lynn Schusterman, incoming Birthright chair Dan Och of New York and several others.
Then the entertainment began, hosted by popular Israeli TV host Michael HarPaz (Hebrew for Goldberg), who began his introduction in a thick Hebrew accent before looking up and proclaiming in perfect English, “who am I kidding, I’m from Detroit!”
The next hour and a half was non-stop entertainment, with pop stars, elaborate stage productions, sing-a-longs (like “Adon Olam” and other Hebrew songs transliterated into English on giant screens so the Americans could join in), and a seemingly endless supply of fireworks, an Israeli favorite.
The dramatic highlight: after a short film clip about a young Israeli soldier, Assaf Hershkowitz, from a canine unit who had to leave the Canadian group he was touring with (more than 30,000 Israeli soldiers have traveled with the 180,000 Birthright participants over the last eight years) to return to his unit the day before, a helicopter appeared in the night sky. It circled over the crowd, then appeared to land just behind the stage, and Hershkowitz soon trotted onstage with his dog at his side as the crowd roared its approval.
Asked by HarPaz if the dog, Vosko, did any tricks, Hershkowitz answered, “Well, he can find bombs.”
Over the top? Sure. And was it ironic that towards the evening’s end, HarPaz led the crowd in a heartfelt rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” with everyone singing about an ideal world of no nations and no religion? Mixed message? Absolutely. But everyone was having too good a time to deconstruct the good feelings created by having so many thousands of young Jews together, celebrating Israel and their Jewishness.
There are, no doubt, valid criticisms of the hedonistic aspects of the Birthright trips, and surely there could be more serious Jewish content infused in the tours. But there is no arguing with the fact that Birthright has been a huge success in attracting so many young people who may never have visited, or thought about, Israel had it not been for this bold venture.
For one night, at least, there was a palpable sense of excitement and Jewish unity and pride in the cool night air of Latrun, and one can only hope that those good feelings will last a lifetime.