I realized the importance of having young adult Jews visit Israel when I led a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip in December 2004. By and large, the students from the University of Michigan and Harvard who traveled with me to Israel became more engaged in Jewish communal life and several became more observant of Jewish traditions. With close to 150,000 participants between 18 and 26 having traveled to Israel with Birthright, it is an impressive program that has proven successful of its stated mission.
Several Jewish celebrities have been birthright israel participants as well. A week ago I read about a NASCAR driver who traveled to Israel with Birthright. The JTA recently interviewed Soprano star Jamie-Lynn Sigler (left), who is currently in Israel on a birthright israel trip.
“Everyone assumes I’m Italian,” says Jamie Lynn Sigler, 26, with a sigh, pausing over her hummus lunch at the open-air market in Jaffa, one of the stops on her birthright israel tour. “Even kids on the trip keep asking, ‘Are you Jewish?’ “
Sigler, who played the daughter [Medow Soprano] of Mafia kingpin Tony Soprano on the acclaimed HBO show “The Sopranos,” grew up in a Jewish home in Jericho, N.Y., going to Hebrew school and having a bat mitzvah.
Her father’s family immigrated to America from Greece and Poland. Her mother, who is Puerto Rican, converted to Judaism. But it was only touring in Israel, during her recent visit to the country, that she said she felt a true spiritual and emotional connection to her roots.
“It’s one of the most beautiful, inspiring places I’ve ever been to,” Sigler said. “I now have a greater understanding and motivation about preserving my Jewishness.”
Among the highlights she noted were riding camels in the desert, dining on roast lamb in a Bedouin tent and exploring the back alleys of Jerusalem’s Old City. Sigler said she was especially moved during her visits to the Western Wall, where she was surprised by her tears, and to Yad Vashem, where the Holocaust and its history suddenly felt deeply personal.
“I started to think, ‘What if I was there, what if I had been ripped away from my family?’ ” she told JTA.
Sigler said Israel had been a fairly abstract concept before the trip, with her images limited to the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict portrayed in the media. [Her] group was accompanied part of the time by a small group of Israeli soldiers. Through them, Sigler said she heard about a much different life than the one she and her friends lead in America. She was taken by their sacrifices and the pride they have in their country and history.
“It’s so different but so inspiring to be part of that,” said Sigler, her face dominated by a pair of large designer sunglasses. “I would want to move here and join the army” too.
I met Jamie-Lynn Sigler in the summer of 2003 when she was filming scenes at the Soprano house in North Caldwell, New Jersey — only a couple miles from my home at the time. She was very sweet and personable, even offering to wish my wife congratulations on the upcoming birth of our first baby (right).
I think it would be a fun idea to promote birthright israel trips that included Jewish celebrities on the trip. There would be a long waiting list to go on “Superbad Birthright” with Jonah Hill (real name: Jonah Hill Feldstein) or “Birthright Musical” with Ashley Tisdale. Of course, the celebrities would get to participate for free, but none of the other participants could complain about that being unfair since everyone goes on birthright israel for free!