Twenty years ago, 9,000 Jewish young adults embarked on the first round of Birthright Israel trips. They were pioneering travelers who signed up for the free trip without any point of reference, like the wealth of alumni testimonials and Brandeis University studies available to prospective participants today.
“I left the United States with no preconceived notions or expectations of what Israel was going to do to me,” said KC Yasmer, a June 2000 alumnus. “Now I truly understand that it was my birthright to go to the land of Israel.”
Like the next 750,000-plus Birthright Israel participants, Yasmer’s life was forever changed in his homeland. It wasn’t just a free trip to Israel, but a gift; a gift to Yasmer and a gift to the Jewish people.
“My life would be very different if I hadn’t attended Birthright Israel,” said Yasmer. “My trip to Israel with Birthright [Israel] is still one of the fondest and most impactful memories of my life.”
Founded in 1999 to bridge the growing disconnect between the Jewish Diaspora and Israel, the first Birthright Israel trips were funded by a dedicated group of Jewish philanthropists. Today, the trip is still a gift thanks to charitable financial support, including that of nearly 40,000 individual donors in the U.S..
A lot has developed in our alumni’s lives over the past two decades. Birthright Israel trips have grown and evolved, but the mission of Birthright Israel Foundation remains the same. We won’t rest until every eligible Jewish young adult in the world, including those less connected to their faith and their heritage, is gifted with an inspirational, transformative, and educational pilgrimage to the Jewish homeland.
An Investment That Echoes for Generations
Our annual goal to send 50,000 Jewish young adults to Israel changes tens of thousands of lives every year and hopes to guarantee a vibrant future for Jews everywhere.
“It is an experience that does not end after 10 days,” said 2000 alumna Rachel Gerrol, “and it has echoes for generations and generations.”
Gerrol didn’t have any connection to the Jewish community prior to Birthright Israel. She came from an interfaith family and sang in her church choir most of her life. Ultimately, she signed up for the inaugural Birthright Israel trip in 2000 because a free trip to Israel sounded way more fun than summer babysitting duties.
But when Gerrol told her Birthright Israel story at the 18th Anniversary Gala in 2018, she explained she was forever transformed by Birthright Israel. “18 years later, Birthright [Israel], you have changed every day.”
On her trip, she learned about: “A people, and a culture, and a religion, and a language, and a heritage and, oh my gosh, the Israeli soldiers. I learned about a true democracy in the middle of the Middle East.”
She made a pledge, while at the Kotel, to not let the trip be wasted on her. And it wasn’t.
Gerrol is now a highly-respected Jewish leader whose innovative work in the field of philanthropy has touched lives around the world. She has formally converted to Judaism, married a Birthright Israel alumni, and been back to Israel 13 times, twice as a Birthright Israel trip leader. Birthright Israel Foundation is beyond fortunate to count her among our Board of Directors.
An Investment That Connects All Jews
Interfaith families, like Gerrol’s, aren’t the only ones who benefit from a Birthright Israel trip. Our prospective participants often feel disconnected from the Jewish community for a variety of reasons, ranging from a private struggle with mental illness to a fear of being targeted by anti-Semites.
As Gerrol explains,: “Birthright [Israel] is a calling card to all Jews everywhere that you are accepted just as you are … exactly as you are.”
Our niche trips make it easier for Jewish young adults to take a leap of faith on Birthright Israel. These trips connect eligible Jews from all walks of life, including people with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community, foodies, yogis, adrenaline junkies, women, and much more. As it turns out, one out of every five participants chooses to go on a Birthright Israel niche trip.
An avid food blogger and host of the Food Network’s Girl Meets Farm, alumna Molly Yeh chose the culinary niche trip. “I joined a bus full of fellow bloggers, chefs, [and] foodies on a journey for the mind, soul, and stomach,” she said. “When I returned home, Israel was on my mind. I focused my time on learning and reading more about Israel as well as adding its flavor to my menu.”
Alumnus Daniel Cohen struggled with addiction for many years, but when he was 26 he honed in on the niche trip for recovering addicts. “I had no idea niche trips like this existed, but once I found out, I am so glad they do,” he said. “I would not have gone on any other trip!”
In spite of these trip differences, one of the key takeaways from all Birthright Israel trips, niche or not, is how we are all connected. Participants gain this insight in a country packed with cultural diversity where they are allowed to be completely themselves—all part of the same dynamic community.
“The day I decided to go to the Orthodox men’s side of The Wall was so empowering for my identity as a trans man, a member of the LGBTQ community, and a member of the Jewish community,” said alumnus Samuel B. “Without the amazing friends I made, I never would have been able to accomplish what I did that day.”
An Investment in You
“Superheroes.” That’s what Gerrol calls the philanthropists who started Birthright Israel more than two decades ago.
“[They] chose to invest in me, to bring me to Israel on the wild chance that I could find a piece of myself, a connection to my Jewish identity that I hadn’t ever gone looking for,” she said. “Their choice influenced the trajectory of … my life.”
The many donors who carry the torch for Birthright Israel’s founding philanthropists have their own reasons for choosing to support Birthright Israel Foundation. Perhaps they’re parents or grandparents who are inspired by their child’s transformation, or they’re worried about growing anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses. Maybe it’s an alumnus who just wants to pay it forward.
Donor Barbara Silverman of Chicago, IL, and her husband, Rick, support Birthright Israel Foundation because of its educational benefits.
“When donors like myself support Birthright Israel, we are making a crucial decision to keep the existence of the Jewish community alive and vibrant,” she said. “This trip is our chance to engage young people at the beginning of adulthood when they face negativity about Israel and are unaware of the facts. The gift of Birthright Israel provides our younger generations the tools to build a body of knowledge about Israel, Judaism, and our collective heritage.”
Ultimately, whatever the impetus, a donation to Birthright Israel Foundation is a win for the Jewish culture worldwide. It’s an investment in yourself, your children, your grandchildren, your great grandchildren, and beyond.
Did Birthright Israel invest in you? Tell us all about your life-changing experience.