McBirthright: The Pilgrimage Orthodox Jews Take to Finally Eat Their Very First McDonald’s Burgers

“It’s a watershed moment in a kosher-eating person’s life.” Photo: Getty Images

At Yael Reisman’s Orthodox Jewish high school, there were fevered tales about the wonders to be found in the Holy Land. Whenever her classmates returned to Elizabeth, New Jersey, after their first trips to Israel, they would speak of what they’d seen and experienced: “People come back and say, ‘You have to go to the Wailing Wall and you have to go to the beach and you have to see Masada, and’” — Reisman’s voice becomes hushed and emphatic — “‘you have to eat at McDonald’s.’” Specifically, you must eat your first McDonald’s hamburger. “It’s almost, like, imperative law,” Reisman says. “It’s practically biblical.”

In the United States, Mickey D’s delivers mass-produced burgers that are anathema for Jews who obey scripturally mandated kosher dietary laws, which demand specific methods of slaughtering cows and cooking meat, enforced by rigid Rabbinic inspections of food-preparation facilities. These procedures are simply too restrictive for McDonald’s to bother obeying. So, for an American child in an observant Jewish environment, the Golden Arches are always out of reach.

But in Israel, there’s an entirely different status quo. McDonald’s established its first restaurant in the Jewish State in October 1993, and since then has grown into an empire of 182 restaurants around the country. To ensure that kosher-keeping Israelis can enjoy Mickey D’s various delicacies, the company’s burgers are made from kosher beef and its locations must receive certificates from Rabbinic investigators. Voilà: As long as you don’t get cheese on your burger, you can hack the fast-food system and eat at McDonald’s, free of Jewish guilt. As a rep for McDonald’s Israel put it, Jews can “taste the American dream in Israel.”

For some kosher Jewish children, there were occasional trips to American McDonald’s locations, but parental oversight and biblical law meant the visits were more like teases that only left the kids wanting more. “I remember going to McDonald’s and I’d always have to get the fish fillet,” recalls Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a Conservative Jew who grew up kosher in suburban New Jersey. “But the fish fillet didn’t come in Happy Meal form, so I didn’t get the toys. And I’d be very jealous of those toys.”

“McDonald’s represented lots of things I wasn’t supposed to do,” says Reisman (we’re not related). “Like, there are kosher fast-food places [in the U.S.], but there’s never toys involved. And McDonald’s had tie-ins with Saturday-morning cartoons, but we couldn’t watch Saturday-morning cartoons because it was Shabbat.”

Some young Jews say they even felt taunted by McDonald’s boasting about its many customers — you know, the billions-and-billions served counts on the signs, teeming throngs who had done something these kids could not. “It just seemed to me that if a company was serving however many billions of hamburgers a year, they knew how to do a good burger,” says Avi Berkowitz.

Enter the concept of the Jewish burger pilgrimage. Call it McBirthright. “It’s a watershed moment in a kosher-eating person’s life,” Reisman says, no trace of irony in her voice. Her moment arrived at the age of 17, when she participated in a group trip that took her on a globetrotting journey through Jewish history: a stop in Poland to contemplate the Holocaust, a stop in Ukraine to learn about Eastern-European Jewish identity, then a week in Israel. By the time she touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport, she was going mad with anticipation. “I was more excited about going to McDonald’s than anything else,” she says. “I just kept saying to myself, We’re going to McDonald’s on Tuesday, we’re going to McDonald’s on Tuesday, we’re going to McDonald’s on Tuesday.”

Tuesday arrived, and Reisman set foot inside a sanctified McDonald’s in the Jerusalem suburbs. “It was exactly like what I saw on TV,” she says. “We definitely took pictures. It was Web 1.0 back in 1999, but today we would have Instagrammed the crap out of it.” She sauntered up to the counter, ordered a burger, and bit in, finally putting an end to her 17-year exclusion.

And that’s when Reisman learned what many others already knew: McDonald’s burgers aren’t all that great. “It was greasy and sort of all smashed together,” she says. “I mean, it’s fine. It tasted fine.”

Others who undertook similar journeys agree with Reisman’s verdict. “The first thing I thought was how tiny it was, and how it was completely unappetizing to look at,” says Hillel Smith. “I think I finished it? I don’t remember much else. I may have had fries.”

The real action, as it turns out, was at McDonald’s Israel’s main competitor: Burger King. People who managed to eat at both places all vouched for its superiority. “Burger King was better by, like, 10,000 percent,” Reisman says. “It tasted like barbecue. It had that grilled taste.” Berkowitz adds, “My memory of Burger King was a gigantic, juicy patty with onions, pickles, and French dressing on top — it’s quite possible it was objectively terrible, but in my mind? It was incredible.”

Alas, not incredible enough, since B.K. Israel no longer exists after a 2010 merger with a local fast-food chain. McDonald’s Israel, though, is still going strong. And it even manages to attract some repeat business. “I would never go to a McDonald’s here,” Reisman says. “But I’ll still do it in Israel. It’s a whole different … ” she trails off to think about the best way to put it. “It’s an experience. The going, the being — it’s wild.”

McBirthright: The Pilgrimage Orthodox Jews Take to Finally Eat Their Very First