People often come back from Israel and share their photos and anecdotes. Brooke Weinbaum came back and founded a magazine.
"I wanted others to love Israel, too," says the publisher of Yalla Israel, which she started as a student at Florida Atlantic University. "I want them to see how fun and modern it is."
Score another success for Birthright Israel, which sends college-age people to the Jewish state. Now in its 13th year — its bar mitzvah year, as supporters call it — Birthright Israel has sponsored free 10-day trips for 300,000 young people.
"It has reached heights we never dreamed of," says Charles Bronfman, a philanthropist and one of the program founders, who donated several million in seed money for Birthright Israel. "We need a strong diaspora as well as a strong Israel. [Birthright Israel] has brought tremendous positive results."
Running on a $120 million budget, the organization is based in New York, with regional workers in several cities including Hollywood, Fla. Birthright Israel has sent about 40,000 young Jews to Israel each year, coming from all U.S. states and Canadian provinces, plus more than 50 countries. More than 12,000 young adults from South Florida have taken the trips.
In Israel, the youths visit sites from the Golan Heights to Jerusalem to the Negev Desert. They see museums, sample regional foods, and mix with Israeli soldiers and each other.
In so doing, many grow a bond with the land and with other Jews.
Weinbaum traveled in 2010 with Birthright Israel. She'd previously visited the land, but saw it with different eyes the second time. Upon returning to FAU, she got an internship with the Israel on Campus Coalition, which later gave her a grant to start the magazine.
The online-only publication, at yallaisraelmagazine.com, started with South Florida events in February, along with news from Israel. Three issues since have broadened to events nationwide.
"It shows the real Israel — the people, places, culture — a taste of everything," says Weinbaum, 22, of the magazine whose name is drawn from the Arabic word for "let's go."
Weinbaum, who earned a degree in Jewish studies in May, plans to return to the Jewish state with Masa Israel, a longterm immersion program. She'll spend five months in Tel Aviv and continue publishing the magazine.
"Even if people don't go to Israel, I want them to know about it," she said.
Birthright Israel was designed for young Jews like Greg Matus. Before his trip in January 2001, he was a lukewarm Jew whose family attended Sabbath sporadically, although they did the major holidays. Afterward, he became an active member of the Jewish Federation of Broward County and Temple Kol Ami Emanu-El in Plantation.
"It had a profound effect on me at the most important time in my life," says Matus, 34, regional manager for a real estate investment company. "It woke me up to where I came from. It made me think about my connection to Jewish culture and heritage."
Matus married a Jewish woman, and their three children attend the temple's day school. The family went to Israel in 2008. And even though eldest son Max is only 5 1/2 years old, Matus is already planning to have his bar mitzvah in Israel.
"You don't know on the front end the effect it can have on you," Matus says of Birthright Israel. "If any young Jewish person called me to talk about it, I'd say, go."
Matus' story closely tracks study results at Brandeis University. In 2009-2010, researchers there found that Birthright Israel alumni felt more connected to Israel and a stronger sense of identity as Jews. The alumni also were more likely to marry other Jews and to raise their children as Jewish. And even spouses who didn't go on the tours were four times as likely to convert to Judaism.
"Nobody leans on anybody," Bronfman says. "We don't care what they do, as long as they have an emotional attachment to Israel and they're happy to be Jewish."
The latest numbers say that 70 percent of Birthright participants say the tours "changed their lives," Bronfman says.
Michael Miller, 22, was among those who felt a change. The FAU economics major was raised in a "High Holy Days household" — observing Passover and Hanukkah. But he didn't attend Sabbath services or Hebrew school.
In college, he "started to get an itch for something spiritual," Miller says. "I wanted to be part of something larger than myself."
He took a Birthright Israel trip in May 2011 and got hooked. It was more than the sights — although those included places like Masada, the Dead Sea and the Western Wall. It was also the soldiers who traveled with the group. And the late-night talks over the nature of God and the role of Judaism in daily life.
"There is something about a nation of Jews that makes you crave a Jewish identity," Miller says. "It's a beautiful country and great people who are enthralled with their Judaism."
Even more: Many lived like Jews without an emphasis on ritual, he says. "In Israel, Judaism is whatever you want it to be. I gained an optimistic feeling toward Judaism. I felt confident of my place in the community."
These days, the group has begun adding "niche tours." Some specialize in Middle Eastern food or archaeology. Some are geared toward photography or high-tech industry. Outdoorsy types can go hiking or rafting or kayaking. Paraplegics, too, can find Birthright tours for them.
The biggest challenge is money. This year, Birthright Israel can afford to send only 42,000 of the 75,000 applicants. And the challenge will only grow: Starting in 2013, the group wants to increase the travelers to 51,000 each year.
Bronfman remains optimistic. "We won't rest until Birthright Israel is as important a passage to adulthood as a bar or bat mitzvah. We think that's where we're going."