Cheeseburgers in Jerusalem

It was the night before Melanie Preston's immigration flight to Israel and the 28-year-old daughter of a Jewish mother and an Irish Catholic father knew exactly what she wanted to eat.

"I want a cheeseburger, right now," she said, scanning a trendy South Florida menu. "You can get cheeseburgers in Israel, but you can't get a really good one. You know?"

This wasn't just a wisecrack about the kosher tradition of separating meat and dairy products. This was the kind of symbolic issue that Preston faced when she signed up for one of the free tours that have taken 70,000 young Jews to Israel during the past five years.

The global Birthright Israel program is open to young people between the ages of 18 and 26 who have never been on an organized tour of Israel. It doesn't matter if they have one Jewish parent or two. It doesn't matter if they have no idea why some Jews eat cheeseburgers and some do not.

"There are cheeseburgers in Israel. You can get them at McDonald's and some places serve them just like regular hamburgers," said Marlene Post, chair of Birthright Israel in North America. "You make your choices. If she's planning on being religious, then she will never see another cheeseburger in her life. If she's going to be secular she will have all the options she would have anywhere else."

This tension between Judaism the faith and Judaism the culture has been part of Israel from the start. Thus, one of the key philanthropists behind is Wall Street legend Michael Steinhardt -- an avowed atheist. Nevertheless, he joined the Israeli government and a coalition of donors, foundations and civic groups to fund this experiment.

The young people can select tours that emphasize education, art, recreation, religion or nothing in particular during their 10-day visits. They float in the Dead Sea and hike the Golan Heights, hang out with young Israeli soldiers and meet Holocaust survivors, visit security checkpoints and tour in buses tracked by on-board global positioning systems.

It isn't hard to spot the agenda, said Roman Smolkin, a 24-year-old computer professional in Aventura. Insiders stress the need for young people to "bond" with the state of Israel. Others talk about helping them establish a sense of "Jewish identity," whether religious or secular. Clearly, the constant late-night socializing is meant to facilitate friendships, some hooking up and even Jewish marriages.

"I think they're just trying to get people like us to be us, to be ourselves. They want us to act like young Jews," he said, during a dinner with Preston and several other tour veterans in South Florida. "But the people funding this must be thinking in terms of a very long-term investment for Israel and for Judaism. They must be thinking that they give us this trip now and, 30 years down the road we'll be different people."

For Harrison Heller, the impact was immediate. When he returned to Boca Raton he promptly signed up with Students for Israel and began speaking out politically. He still considers himself non-religious, although he now wears a prominent Star of David necklace.

"The whole religious thing is impossible to avoid," he said. "One of the very first application forms that we had to complete came right out and asked that question. It said, 'Are you Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or just a Jew?' You can't get more direct than that."

Preston wrestled with the faith issue as she prepared for "aliyah" -- the Hebrew word that means "to ascend," or move to Israel. She said she was raised "sort-of Reform" and "did the Christmas thing every year, but with no church services." Before Birthright Israel, she thought a "kibbutz" was a kind of boat.

Long after the tour, she had a tearful epiphany when she heard a Scottish folk singer attack Israel during a music festival in Montreal.

"What I've discovered," she said, "is that it's almost impossible to get involved in the life and politics of Israel without getting underneath that into the religious questions. ... That's what Israel is all about. It's great. It's scary. I love it. It's frustrating. I'm moving there.

"What can I say? I know that I can't escape the Israel question now, because it's my question."