STL Birthright trip builds community at home and abroad

Joel Frankel

By Joel Frankel

It’s Monday morning and I’m sitting at my desk at the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. The phone rings, and I answer. “Hi this is Joel Frankel, Israel Engagement Professional.” A friendly voice greets me on the other end. “Hi I’m calling about Birthright. My grandchild has never been to Israel and I want him to go before he is too old for the program. He’s from St. Louis and wants to meet other Jews his age. Can you help me?”

Calls like this are not rare, but until recently I wouldn’t have been able to do very much for the person on the other end of the line. Each winter and summer, the waiting list to go on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip ranges from 15,000 to 25,000 people from all across the country. So even if her grandson signed up for a national trip, there was no guarantee he would be able to go. That all changed for St. Louisans last year.  

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This past May, the first ever St. Louis Community Birthright Trip made its way to Israel. Thanks to the generosity of local donors, the trip made sure that any 22-26 year old living in St. Louis who wants to go to Israel had a chance to do so. This December that incredible opportunity returns, giving another group of St. Louis young adults the chance to see Israel for the first time.

Having a St. Louis specific trip not only benefits the young adults who get to see Israel for free, but also the community itself. As former Federation President and CEO, Barry Rosenberg, said when the first bus was announced in November 2011, a St. Louis Community Taglit-Birthright trip “offers greater opportunities to build relationships with other participants, help connect them to local activities when they return, and promote social opportunities and life-long friendships here in St. Louis.”  With that, our tagline basically wrote itself: “Make new friends in Israel. Reconnect in St. Louis.” So simple yet undeniably the essence of the trip.

The 10 days I spent staffing the first St. Louis Community Birthright Trip in May were some of the most fun, inspiring, life-changing, moving, and exhausting days of my life (read our blog from the May trip at JewishinStLouis.org/BirthrightSTL).  The bonds made between participants are deep in a way that only others on the trip can understand.

Traditionally, on Birthright trips, those connections are made with people scattered across the country that you may not get to see very often.  The advantage of traveling with other people from St. Louis is the ability to bring those friendships back with you and have a whole new community upon returning home.  

Not even three weeks after returning from Israel, the Birthright Foundation’s NEXT Shabbat Dinner program allowed me to host more than a dozen of my newest and closest friends from the trip for a subsidized Shabbat dinner. The incredibly successful alumni engagement program helps maintain the relationships to one another and to Israel, bringing the experience full-circle.

As a participant from the May trip stated, “The benefit of traveling with people from home is that the trip doesn’t have to end.”  We spent just 10 days together in Israel, but we formed a real “mishpachah” – family. This December, another group of young adults has a chance to do the same. The chance to make new friends in Israel. And reconnect in St. Louis.

If you are or know of a 22-26 year old interested in seeing Israel for the first time on a free trip 10 day trip in December, help them skip the waiting list. Visit JewishinStLouis.org/Birthright, or call Joel Frankel, at 314-442-3846.