After returning from his first trip to Israel — a free tour offered by J Street — Adam DeSchriver, 21, has a “renewed sense of purpose for being committed to peace in the region, and I don’t take that lightly,” he said.
A clarinet student at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, DeSchriver joined 27 other college students and recent graduates on a trip designed to “present a robust, nuanced and honest view of the current realities on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian Territory,” according to J Street’s website.
The J Street trip — the first of its kind — was conceived as an alternative to Birthright, which, over the past two decades, has sent more than 650,000 young people on free trips to Israel aiming to strengthen Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish state.
In recent years, Birthright has been criticized by left-wing activists for not visiting the West Bank and not presenting opportunities for its participants to hear from Palestinians. Last year, groups of Birthright participants associated with the anti-occupation group IfNotNow walked off their trips in protest of their itinerary.
The 10-day J Street trip, which began July 2, was part of J Street’s “Let Our People Know” campaign, intending to present a “wide range of Israeli perspectives,” including “Palestinian voices who can speak to the realities of life under the occupation,” according to J Street’s website.
After seeing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as presented by J Street, DeSchriver, who grew up in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, now feels a responsibility to be an activist for peace in the region.
“It’s not something I had ever actually really, truly considered before,” he said. “But the occupation weighs on the Palestinians and it weighs on the Israelis. It drains the population, and more than ever, what we really need is peace in the region.”
When looking for a trip to Israel, DeSchriver, who completed his conversion to Judaism in May 2019, chose J Street over Birthright partially because of its eligibility requirements. To be eligible for Birthright, a participant must identify as Jewish and either have at least one Jewish parent, “or have completed Jewish conversion through a recognized Jewish denomination,” according to Birthright’s website.
Birthright’s requirement of a completed conversion, DeSchriver said, “is perhaps a little limiting to those who are choosing Judaism, to those who have made the choice, but who maybe have not had their moment in the mikvah.”
J Street’s eligibility requirements are broader.
“Anyone who identifies as a Jewish person, or is on a Jewish journey, is fine by us,” said Logan Bayroff, director of communications for J Street.
The exclusion of those who have not yet completed conversion “was an idea that always kind of rubbed me the wrong way,” DeSchriver said. He is also uncomfortable, as a convert, with the idea of a “birthright,” he said.
“The idea that there are certain Jews who have been endowed with this right at birth to go to Israel was something I always kind of struggled with because it was something that did not include me as a convert, it was not something I was given at birth,” DeSchriver explained. “I thought certainly, if I don’t have this right, and there are additionally people who used to inhabit the land and they don’t have the right to go there, I’m not completely comfortable with the idea of American Jews who have never been there to have a right to go there. I think it’s a great privilege that we should not take for granted because it is an incredible place, there are incredible people, it’s an incredible experience, and to me I have no right to that — it was really a privilege that was offered.”
DeSchriver traveled to Israel along with students and recent graduates from around the United States. Some of the J Street participants had been on a previous trip to Israel with Birthright or another group, while some, like DeSchriver, had never before been to Israel.
The students returned to the U. S. “more knowledgeable about the realities on the ground and more motivated to become activists for peace,” Bayroff said.
Although DeSchriver’s early Israel education was limited to the secular history and current events curriculum at his public schools, he is now pursuing a Jewish studies minor through the University of Rochester. Prior to his J Street tour, he took some courses that dealt with the conflict, including “Zionism and its Discontents” and “Israel/Palestine,” allowing him to join the trip with some background perspective on the struggle for peace in the region.
“I’d like to emphasize that the trip was so well-balanced, maybe even to a fault,” said DeSchriver. “It was incredibly inclusive of all narratives that exist there as much as it could be in the scope of 10 days.”
The travelers met with a wide range of people living in the region, from a contemporary Kabbalah artist in Safed, to settlers in the West Bank, to Palestinian activists at a village in the West Bank, DeSchriver said. They toured Hebron “and met with various panels of people discussing Jewish pluralism in Israel, discussing politics in Israel, discussing life in Jerusalem and plurality in Jerusalem, specifically for those who are not in the majority as an Ashkenazi Israeli Jewish narrative.”
They also received “a security overview of the Gaza situation,” he said.
The trip’s itinerary was exhaustive, he said, and “certainly conducive to giving everyone on the trip details that they didn’t know and couldn’t be expected to know in informing everyone of the incredibly complex reality.
“And I would say that in that happening, I as a person have become rather suspicious, or perhaps distrustful, of those who say they know exactly what needs to be done in the region, because there are so many competing narratives and perspectives that no one could possibly know what needs to be done in order to bring about peace and stability,” he continued. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and it doesn’t mean we should end the conversation there, but for anyone to say they know, and to stop listening because they think they know, is a real shame.”
The trip provided him with “an added layer of understanding on the humanitarian level, as well as understanding on the geopolitical level.”
DeSchriver, who is president of his school’s Hillel, is motivated to share what he learned on his trip.
“Each one of us has this privilege and this opportunity — not a right — but really an opportunity and privilege given to us by the generosity of J Street and its donors,” he said. “We were invested in and chosen because they believed that each of us was the right one to bring on this trip to show these things to, and to say, ‘Now it’s your turn to go home and to find in your best way how to let your community know that this is incredibly complex, there are so many factors to consider,’ and each of us should have some responsibility as activists going forward.”
The trip also left at least two participants “reconsidering their belief in a Jewish state,” according to a July 10 New York Times report.
“I came in here a very ardent Zionist,” Jesse Steshenko, 19, of Santa Cruz, California, told the Times. “You never know when a Holocaust might happen again. Yet, coming here, I’m starting to doubt whether a two-state solution is possible — and whether Zionism is even worth pursuing anymore.”
J Street currently has no plans to offer additional free trips to students, according to Bayroff.
“For now, this was the only trip of its kind,” he said. “It was intended to be a model to demonstrate to Birthright and to philanthropists what a trip like this can look like. J Street is not looking to be in the student trip business.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at