For the past couple of years, an organization called Heroes to Heroes has sent groups of eight to fifteen American veterans will on a ten day journey to Israel where they are joined by up to five of Israeli peers from the IDF. The group travels, learns, and explores as a unit. The trip is designed to educate, motivate and stimulate discussion and bonding between disabled veterans and their IDF brethren, as a springboard for emotional and spiritual healing during and after the experience.
Backed by some government funding, Heroes to Heroes gets recommendations for participants from the armed services and the US Veterans Administration. “There is tremendous need, and we get more requests than we can handle. We are running one team a year now, but looking to expand to about five teams a year,” says Judy Schaffer, the founder and chair of the organization.
Admittedly, when I first saw the headline, I drew the conclusion that there was a new military Birthright option and was beside myself with excitement. Alas, this isn’t a program specifically for Jewish veterans. While the founder is a Jew, the majority of the participants are not. In fact the organization specifically distances itself from Birthright, in that they strive to provide an environment that promotes healing for combat veterans (regardless of religious or cultural background) and not just a tour of Israel.
Without a doubt, this is a lofty goal, and the stories from the participants are a testament to the good work they are doing. I hope they get to expand the program to even more veterans as they are planning to. If you would like to know more about what they do and how you can get involved check out their website and also take a look at this excellent article on Israel’s MFA website. Yeshar koach on their excellent work.
I still couldn’t help but steer my thoughts back to the idea of a military Birthright program though. As a participant in Birthright myself, I’ve often wondered why there has never been something like this targeted at servicemembers. I realize the logistics of leave, country clearance, etc. is more challenging than that of a regular college student, but that’s all the more reason an organization (like the JWB or Aleph) could offer assistance in setting up eligible Jewish servicemembers to attend one of the many Birthright programs. Having someone to both assist the servicemember and “grease the skids” with the command could make a huge difference in getting people to take advantage of this amazing opportunity.
Who knows, maybe one day we’ll see something like this. Until then, I’d encourage anyone eligible to take advantage of one of the many, many birthright programs out there. When I went, there was a single option. Now you can choose anything from a cycling trip to a culinary tour! It doesn’t seem like too far of a stretch to have a military themed trip (I wouldn’t be surprised if it already existed). If the following criteria describes you, you are eligible for a free trip to Israel:
- Age 18-26
- Have at least one Jewish parent (or have converted through a recognized organization).
- Never been to Israel on an organized tour (family trips don’t count)
For more information, visit the official Birthright website.
Have any of you participated in Birthright while serving on active duty? If so, please share your experience in the comments.