UI students experience Israel for free


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The first thing Eric Jacobson noticed when he walked off the airplane at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, last summer was the oppressive desert heat.

“That was my first realization that we weren’t in the States,” the University of Iowa junior said. “The sun.”

It was his first experience in the country and the first day of the 10-day Birthright Israel trip. The program, which began in 2000, sends Jewish 18- to 26-year-olds to Israel for free.

The Israeli government, private philanthropists, and Jewish organizations worldwide help fund the foundation, Taglit-Birthright Israel.

In January, the Israeli government approved a $100 million increase in funding for the program for the next three years.

“Increasing the budget is a historic decision — to bring the majority of young Jewish people to Israel and enable every young Jewish person who wants to come here to be able to do so,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a press release.

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Birthright officials are looking to increase the yearly number of participants from the current 30,000 a year to more than 50,000.

Local Hillel House Director Gerald Sorokin estimated 100 UI students have participated in the trip since the program’s inception in 2000.

Last summer, Sorokin said, 10 of the UI’s 800 Jewish students went to Israel through Birthright and an additional 10 went over winter break.

Sorokin, who traveled to Israel alongside UI students in 2001 and 2004, is glad to see the increased funding. His goal is to send every interested Jewish student at the UI on a Birthright trip before they graduate.

“We [at Hillel] see Birthright Israel as a higher level of participation in the Jewish community and a higher level of interest in what goes on in Israel,” said Sorokin.

Jacobson said his interest in Israeli politics and family in the region provided motivation to apply for the trip.

His trip was marked by traveling through the scorching heat in a coach bus with 20 other students.

His group spent several days hiking near Lake Galilee and traversing Masada, a barren mountain overlooking the Dead Sea. They even slept one night in Bedouin tents in the Negev desert.

He then made the trip to Jerusalem. A plaque on a ruined building indicated the street had been attacked by suicide bombers several decades ago.

It reminded Jacobson he was in a country often torn by political strife.

The trips are planned through safe areas of Israel, and neither Jacobson nor Sorokin have heard of a single incident in Birthright’s history.

Michael Goldberg, a UI sophomore who traveled through the local Hillel in January, said he was also struck by the history of both Jerusalem and Israel as a whole.

“Driving into the city, I felt an immediate connection to the land, people and environment,” Goldberg said.

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