Lauren Mintzer, 23, a recent college graduate living in Chicago, loves Israel and loves food.
But she never expected the two to collide until she participated in Israel Through the Lens, a niche Birthright Israel trip that combines food and photography.
“I got to experience Israel through the food,” said Mintzer, who went on the 10-day trip in May 2016. The group went on several “food tours” across Israel, including a hummus-tasting spree through Jerusalem’s Old City and a visit to a Druze village to sample the cuisine. “We were Instagramming the food whole time,” she said.
Though Mintzer, who grew up Conservative, had gone to Israel the summer before her junior year of high school, she didn’t intend to go back — until she found a trip that offered “a completely different experience.”
“I was looking for a more personalized Israel experience — something that spoke to my individual interests,” she said.
She’s not the only one. In an effort to reinvent itself and stay relevant to young adults, Birthright Israel, the program that trademarked the free 10-day Israel trip for the 18-26 crowd, is exploring the niche market. The new effort is inspired by the desire to draw in more unaffiliated young adults who have no prior connection to Israel, rather than a decreased interest in the standard 10-day trip, said Noa Bauer, Birthright’s vice president of international marketing.
“We know that today millennials are interested in personalized things,” said Bauer, speaking to the Jewish Week by phone from Israel. “When a group of people starts off with shared interests, everyone is immediately more comfortable and connected.” This is key to connecting to those who “didn’t grow up with Israel as part of their vocabulary,” she added. “We’re looking to extend our pool and stay close to our consumer market.”
In practice, that looks like trips that cater to scuba aficionados (all trip staff having diving licensees), adventure seekers, gourmands, techies, yogis, young professionals, LGBTQ folks and recovering addicts. Birthright’s new website, launched in September 2016, allows participants to filter through different trips by personal categories and interests. While a sprinkling of niche trips began seven years ago, today they consume 12 percent of the Birthright trip market, said Bauer.
“Part of the reason it’s not even bigger is that people didn’t know about the different opportunities until now,” she said.
The options are impressive. Taglit Gourmand is for French participants and includes food tastings and cooking classes. Innovation Nation is for those interested in Israel’s booming tech and start-up industries. The “urban” trip cuts down on the hiking in favor of city life, including an exploration of street graffiti, music and local marketplaces.
However, the trend towards an increasingly tailored Jewish experience raises concerns, experts say.
“This is part of a broader social trend compounded by the weakening attachment of Jews to being Jewish,” said Steven Cohen, sociologist and research professor at HUC-JIR. “It makes sense that young Jews are far more integrated, and far less concerned with matters of collective loyalty, Israel being a key one of them.”
The Birthright innovations belong in a larger context, he said. “Many Jewish educators, rabbis and leaders are combining Jewish experience with the other interest and identities of Jews they’d like to engage,” he said. While “capitalizing on peoples’ occupational identities” is far from a new trend in the Jewish non-profit world, the extent to which Birthright is putting this technique into practice speaks to a distinct generational shift, he said.
“We’re living in an era of radical choice,” he said, in which the individual is “increasingly a unit unto himself.”
“The fastest growing political party is ‘no political party;’ the fastest growing denomination is ‘people of no religion,’” he said, referring to the 2013 Pew study on American Jewry which found that nearly a third of young Jews define themselves as having no religion. A March 2014 Pew Research Center study found that millennials are increasingly disassociating themselves from religious institutions.
“Even speaking about allegiance and loyalty to Jewish institutions seems arcane today,” he said.
Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, executive director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Studies at New York University, said that while Birthright’s “entrepreneurialism” continues to make it successful, he has found campus-based programs, rather than two-week trips, have the best chance at sustained engagement.
“The cost of getting more people through quick, niche programs is how many people are drawn away from longer-term, campus-based programs that have a higher impact,” he said. A “journey-mentality,” rather than a one-stop ride, is the best approach for engaging young Jews. “Young people are on a journey, and they need fellow travelers,” he said. “The longer you travel with someone, the more likely you are to journey for longer.” For many who enjoy the lightening Birthright experience, “they have a great time, but that’s often where the journey ends.”
Responding to these comments, Bauer wrote in an email statement that niche trips “have proven to be successful” by offering “a specialized experience for participants to bond over their shared interests and allow for participants to engage with their heritage in unique and impactful ways.”
Young adults who experienced the niche Birthright trips largely seemed to come away with glowing reports. Ally Dematteo, 20, a student at Syracuse University, participated in a Birthright “academic” trip, a 13-day program launched in February 2016 that allows college students to earn up to 3 college credits. The group studied counterterrorism and Arab/Israeli relations with high-level Israeli security officials at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. The group even traveled to the Gaza Border to meet with a group of generals about the security situation.
“I didn’t know much about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict going into this — having such experiencing commentary helped me paint a fuller picture,” said Dematteo, who grew up in a traditionally Jewish household in Long Island. “I felt safe during the whole trip, even though we traveled to high-alert regions,” she said. “The perspective we gained was honest and unbiased, and stressed the risks for all that the current situation poses.” She wrote a research paper — one of the academic trip requirements — on how ISIS is recruiting youth.
Though before the trip she was a communications major and planned to pursue a career in advertising, now she intends to switch her major to political science and pursue a career in global affairs. She hopes to enter Syracuse’s counterterrorism institute, usually only for graduate students, as an undergraduate.
“The academic trip put me on that path,” she said. “I realized the importance of the counterterrorism field. It inspired me to pursue a career that can help ensure the safety of others.”
Ramiz Rafailov, 23, an MA student in mental health and counseling, participated in the LGBTQ trip, one of the most popular niche trips. As a Russian-speaking Jewish immigrant, coming out to his family and community as a gay male in 2011 was “a huge shocker.” “Openly identifying as gay in my community is a big statement,” he said. He found the LGBT Birthright trip to be “exactly what I need[ed] to strengthen myself personally.”
Though he had been to Israel several times before, the trip exposed him the “vibrant LGBT life in Israel” for the first time. The group visited Israel Gay Youth in Tel Aviv, an Israeli NGO for LGBTQ young people, and even marched in the June 2016 Gay Pride Parade.
“Meeting like-minded people was so empowering,” said Ramiz, who now intends to lead the trip as a madrich, or group facilitator. “The group feeling of pride, of celebrating who we are without shame, was magical,” he said. The niche trip allowed his fellow LGBT participants to “be their full selves, without fear of being judged. For LGBT people, a heterosexual trip could be traumatizing. We want to be in a space where we know we’ll be truly respected, where we already have shared experiences. It felt safe.”
Birthright’s impressive statistics of successful marriages — 1 in 4 Birthright alumni marry another Birthright alumni, according to Bauer — was not lost on the LGBT crew. According to Ramiz, seven successful couples emerged from the trip. (He met someone he was interested in, but “we’re still seeing where things go,” he said. “I haven’t given up hope.”)
Ramiz hopes to propose an “even more niche” niche trip for the future — a trip for Russian speaking LGBT Jews, a very vulnerable demographic that he feels is often overlooked. “Once we get personal with these trips, why not get even more personal?”