The Mayanot Post-Birthright Study Program draws students in with the excitement of being away from home for a longer period, but also with the insanely cheap price. "Taglit-Birthright Israel participants can apply for a scholarship to join this program for only $99! This includes tuition, room and board for 3 full weeks (normal tuition for this program is $799)" their website screams. (They also offer longer and shorter programs.) Having traveled extensively while in college and on a tight budget, I can tell you that this would have drawn me in. Three additional weeks, all-inclusive? Sounds like a good deal! One of the ways they get to students to commit to the post-trip study program is by presenting potential participants with a sense of urgency, mentioning on their website that "although applications for this scholarship will be available on your Taglit-Birthright Israel trip in Israel, due to the popularity of the program only those applications that are received in advance of your trip may be guaranteed a spot." How many young travelers, excited and possibly apprehensive about traveling alone in Israel, are thinking "well, I should definitely do this! What's a few hours of study a day when I can still travel and hang out?" But before you sign up for this or any program, stop and ask the trip providers for details.
Here are a few questions you should ask if you're wondering if the Post-Birthright trip deal is too good to be true. The Mayanot trip may seem like a party and you may have an awesome time. But you should ask these things before you sign up for additional weeks through their yeshiva:
- If I do the post-Birthright study program (which is not co-ed,) how long will I be expected to be in the classroom, studying? Will I have free time? Request a typical daily schedule, preferably in writing, with the times outlined so you can understand how your day will look.
- Will I be expected to adhere to orthodox religious practice even if I don't want to?
- If I decide the program is not for me, am I free to leave?
- What are my financial obligations if I decide to leave the program?
- Why am I being offered what has been billed as a $799 program for only $99? What are this group's ulterior motives?
They made in obvious attempt to convince us to stay longer by repeating how easy it was to extend your flight. They also brought us to the Mayanot yeshiva before Shabbos where we had to sit through a parsha (Torah portion of the week) class. Most of the participants were secular and were only concerned with going out and partying. Mayanot encouraged that as well, even putting it on the itinerary as a frabrengen (joyous, usually Hasidic, gathering.)
There was an emphasis on Kabalah (Jewish mysticism) and we spent a bit too much time in Tzfat (famous for Jewish mysticism and Kabalah.) We had to hear a Kabalist artist who was a baal teshuvah (returnee to orthodox Judaism) speak about what inspired him and almost everyone felt they had to buy something from him.
Shabbos wasn't as strict as an NCSY2 Shabbaton, but we weren't allowed to swim or leave the hotel (there was actually a warning if one left the hotel they would be sent home immediately and have to pay their return flight.) I guess they were concerned for safety to an extent, but when it wasn't Shabbos they let us roam all around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv at night, so it didn't really make sense to me.
While I definitely felt a presence of kiruv, I noticed more of an effort to convince people to make aliyah (move to Israel.)
As for the Mayanot Birthright trip, be aware that you may be approached to extend your trip to attend Mayanot's yeshiva programs. There are other trip extensions that are not centered on religion. Or students can do what a lot of us did, and just bring a backpack and sleeping bag, and find a youth hostel near places of personal interest. No matter which provider you choose, be sure to research the trip providers and any information the website may contain about post-trip programs.
1. Other posts will discuss other Birthright options listed on their site as "orthodox."
2. NCSY is an orthodox youth group sponsored by the OU (the Orthodox Union) who also do outreach/kiruv work.
The following articles might be of interest to readers interested in Birthright
Birthright's Israel: The Political Bias of the Jewish Community's Favorite Program by Nathan Ehrlich. November 28, 2011
Birthright Alumni Center Tied to Haredi Outreach Group, by Gal Beckerman. September 2, 2009