Winter Break Trip Opportunities For College Students Multiply

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Temple Hillel gathers at the Wall.

Just as cellphones, computers, answering machines and microwaves were mere figments of the imagination for the baby boom-generation growing up, so was the concept of college students using winter break for anything more than a reprieve from school.

Maybe there would be a family vacation to Florida or a tropical island. But those were usually costly and probably not all that exciting for teenagers who’d rather be anywhere than with mom, dad and their little brother and/or sister.

Going someplace meaningful, learning a bit of history while simultaneously gaining a deeper understanding of your heritage —  that seldom happened.

It does now — and has for a while.

Programs like Birthright and Meor send thousands to Israel and other lands at either a fraction of the cost or none at all, so Jewish college students across the country are afforded the opportunity of their young lifetimes.

While summer is traditionally the busier time for these and other organizations, which are primarily donor-supported, there are plenty of winter trips, too.

Much has changed since Pamela Fertel Weinstein’s parents allowed her to go where she’d always wanted — Israel — on one of the first Birthright trips in 2000.

“I had no idea what to expect, but it was finally fulfilling a dream of mine to go,” said Fertel Weinstein, now Birthright Israel’s vice president of marketing and communications.

“It was still then very much word of mouth, and maybe 9,000 went that year. Now we’re sending 48,000, and it’s grown exponentially. It’s becoming, in some circles, a rite of passage — something for Jewish kids to do when they get to college.”

And it’s hardly the only option.

While, unlike Birthright, it might not be free, Meor offers numerous trips to Jewish students who have an educational frame of mind. Not only do they get to experience a different place (and usually a different country), they learn in the classroom.

“Meor means to illuminate,” said Rabbi Josef Lynn, who runs Meor from his home in Israel. “Basically, students come together from all the 22 Meor campuses in the U.S.

“The first week in January, 140 of them will be traveling to Poland, starting in Warsaw and going to many of the death camps. … I’ve been involved from the beginning. My brother [Shmuel] got me involved, and I took over the Meor Poland trip three years ago. They visit a different town every night and are busy every day between touring the camps and having class and discussion groups.

“It’s a trip about life and inspiring people to connect to their Jewish roots. It’s not supposed to be about sadness. It’s much more about the future and continuity of the Jewish people than remembering the past.”

If going to Auschwitz, Treblinka and seeing the Warsaw Ghetto isn’t for you, Meor probably has something else that might be. For starters, there are two winter trips to Israel — Meor Israel and Meor Vision.

Meor Israel combines an introduction to the Holy Land with Jewish study. Meor Vision, which is open only to those who’ve completed Meor Israel, Birthright or something equivalent, goes deeper into Talmudic study and offers classes and other outdoor activities.

And then there’s Olami, the annual international Jewish Summit. Some 1,200 delegates representing 100 organizations and 20 countries are expected to participate in the week-long event that will begin in Spain and end in London. A handful of those delegates will be coming from the Philadelphia area.

“It’s hard to get in,” said Shoshana Kay, executive director for Meor at both Temple and Drexel universities. “You have to be a student leader and be Jewish. The Poland trip is more heavily subsidized.”

But there’s even something for those who don’t want to leave the country. Meor’s Heritage Retreat in Sedona, Ariz., is a 10-day trip with a heavy emphasis on the Torah. It also costs less than the others at just $250.

Parents will find it hard to complain about that or the $450 price tag for Meor Vision or $450 for Olami, not including the flight cost.

Even the $850 for Meor Poland isn’t too steep.

To today’s Jewish college students, this is the norm. Most are likely unaware how different it is from when their parents and grandparents went to school.

“This is a much more entitled culture than 10 years ago — and I don’t mean that in a bad way,” said Kay, who’s been involved with Meor for 11 years. “Because of Birthright and other trips, they have such opportunities. And everyone’s vying for their time and attention, so we have to recruit hard. … A non-Jewish student or someone older who didn’t have this would recognize this is a big deal. They’d say, ‘These people are so lucky.’”

What makes today’s Jewish college students such “chosen people”?

“It’s because Jews care so much about other Jews,” Kay said. “Sometimes we don’t seem to have much unity, but at the end of the day it’s really one people, one nation, one heart. Jews are willing to put millions and millions of dollars into young strangers just because they care about perpetuating their Judaism. That’s quite remarkable.”

To Fertel Weinstein, though, it’s simply the gift that gives again and again.

“Who knew 12 years later I’d come to work here?” she said. “But everything I’m doing now is helping pay back for an amazing experience that changed my life.”