Veganism and Birthright: Together at Last
By Jeffrey Cohan
Israel over the last few years has been receiving international acclaim as the most vegan-friendly country in the world.
Although survey data is admittedly imperfect and incomplete, it is now widely proclaimed and accepted that Israel is the global leader in the number of vegans per capita. An estimated 5 percent of Israel’s population is eschewing animal products, fulfilling the Torah injunction to be a “light unto the nations.”
But the burgeoning vegan scene there has been all but ignored by Birthright Israel, the enormously popular program that sends tens of thousands of Jewish college students and young adults to Israel each year for identity-building 10-day visits.
The vegan scene has been ignored, that is, until now.
Jewish Veg, the U.S.-based vegan-advocacy nonprofit, announced in January that it is organizing the first-ever vegan Birthright trip, scheduled for Aug. 13-23, 2017. The trip will showcase the vegan movement in Israel, introducing American and Canadian participants to some of the best vegan restaurants and some of the most respected animal-rights activists there. The significance of this development has not escaped the attention of the Jewish media in North America. The national Jewish newspaper “The Forward” published a full-length article about the trip within hours of receiving our press release. And the Jewish Telegraphic Agency gave Jewish Veg top billing in an article about specialty Birthright trips.
As I told “The Forward”, we firmly believe this trip is perfectly aligned with Birthright’s objective of strengthening Jewish identity in the young-adult generation.
So many vegan and vegetarian Jews – of all ages, really – have become estranged from our community precisely because our institutions and programs have ignored their dietary choices. This phenomena is bitterly ironic, as it is those same vegan and vegetarian Jews who are upholding the highest ideals of our religion when it comes to something as fundamental as eating.
Now, Birthright is working with us to bring these compassionate souls back into the fold, as it were.
Furthermore, this will build a new kesher between the Jewish communities of Israel and Diaspora. By design, 10 of the spots on our Birthright trip will be reserved for Israeli vegans, with an eye toward creating interpersonal, enduring, Israel-U.S. relationships.
The response we’ve received from college students and young adults has been almost overwhelming. Taking into account that any one Birthright trip can accommodate only 30-40 participants, we believe the demand for a vegan version could fill 10 or more trips a year.
Accordingly, we fully expect to organize additional vegan Birthright trips, maybe even as soon as this year.
This initial trip came about somewhat serendipitously – or, if you’re spiritually inclined, maybe you’ll see Divine Intervention at play. As an organization, we were discussing the idea internally when Mayanot Israel, one of the longest-standing Birthright tour providers, contacted us out of the blue last summer and asked us to partner with them to create a vegan trip.
So far, it’s been a beautiful partnership. Mayanot is handling the registration process and many of the logistical details, while we’re designing the itinerary.
It helps that we already have experience in showcasing the Israeli vegan scene. For the past two years, we’ve been bringing Israeli vegan leader Ori Shavit to the U.S. to speak on college campuses, in partnership with Hillel International.
Ori is now working with us to develop the itinerary for this summer’s trip.
Hillel and Birthright are partnering with Jewish Veg on these initiatives for the same reason: The vegan movement is one of the most exciting, modern, inspiring aspects of contemporary Israel – something unequivocally positive to focus on.
Thankfully, Birthright, with a nudge from Jewish Veg, has now acknowledged this.