As a Birthright Israel Madrich, volunteer, and Mifgash, you could say that my journey began six years ago when I was asked to go on a five-day paid military vacation. Little did I know, this trip would turn out to be one of the most impactful moments of my life.
Growing up, I lived in the small suburban town of Hod Hasharon, Israel. Both of my parents were natives of the town, and all of my extended family members lived close by. I didn’t get the chance to meet Jews who were not Israelis while growing up. Even the term “Diaspora Jews” was, for me, something applicable to a history class.
As an Israeli, you might think about how I could possibly be impacted by a Birthright Israel trip, but I can think of five different ways the trip played a role in my life. Here you go:
1. Seeing Israel Through Another’s Eyes
Two weeks after my commander said I was going on Taglit (the Hebrew name for Birthright Israel), I joined an American group in Tel Aviv. In the beginning, it was very awkward, as the participants asked me a lot of questions, and I tried to answer them in broken English to the best of my ability. On the way to Jerusalem, one of the Americans told me that he was the first in his family to go to our destination. He said his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, gave him a note to put in the Kotel. I think that’s when I started to realize the importance of the trip—that all the places that I, as an Israeli, had taken for granted were, for other people, places of inspiration. From that moment on, I started to see Israel through their eyes.
On the same night we arrived, we had Shabbat services. I remember being shocked at seeing a woman reading from the Torah AND wearing a yarmulke—even, god forbid, reading the Kaddish. I don’t consider myself a religious person, but growing up in Israel, I learned that there was only one way to be Jewish and one way to pray. It was what I was taught in school and what I applied in Synagogue. As I saw this participant, my own age, reading from the Torah, and leading the service with incredible passion and knowledge that I could only dream of, I opened my eyes to new ways of celebrating my identity.
2. Fostering Real Connections
On the last night of our trip, a speaker gave us an update on the political situation in the Middle East. During the presentation, he asked if anyone had been influenced back at home by the situation in Israel. I was overwhelmed by the responses as participants spoke about demonstrations against Israel at their universities, apartheid walls, BDS, and mock checkpoints at their campuses. I raised my hand and talked about my military role as a liaison between the Israelis and the Palestinians and how, as part of my position, I was in charge of giving medical visas to Palestinian kids so that they could get heart surgeries in Israeli hospitals.
The lessons that I learned and the discoveries that I made during Birthright Israel were valuable. However, what had the most significant effect on me was the friends I gained during the journey. How people from two different countries and who hardly spoke the same language could connect in just five days still astounds me to this day. I like to believe that the journey of self-discovery that every participant goes through during Birthright Israel becomes a group discovery and produces deep, meaningful connections.
3. Becoming a Shaliach at UC San Diego
After the trip and my release from duty, I chose to continue the journey that started on Birthright Israel. I was selected by the Jewish Agency to serve as an Emissary (Shaliach) at the University of California San Diego. My role was to bring Israel to campus by providing education about Israel and fighting those who try to delegitimize the Jewish state. Just a year after my trip, I was able to help the same students who had talked about their campus experiences during my Birthright Israel trip.
During my two years as an emissary at UCSD, I was fortunate to see the effect Birthright Israel had in the college life of the participants. Together with Hillel, I led four trips with students from UCSD. The shared experiences and the deep connections that the students (who often did not know each other) created in Israel, lead to small communities of Jewish friends that blossomed throughout their college years. Many of these participants continued to be leaders of the Jewish organizations on campus, such as Hillel and the Jewish Student Union, and even more of them decided to continue their journey with a study abroad or an internship program in Israel.
4. Embracing Israeli Chutzpa
Birthright Israel opened up other doors in my life as well. While leading the trips, I saw that besides the usual shawarma and falafel, there was one specific drink that the students LOVED. It was a frozen coffee drink known in Israel as IceCaffe. I was surprised when I realized that the drink didn’t exist in America. So, with a little bit of Israeli chutzpa, we opened up an Israeli iced coffee booth at different festivals in San Diego. Long story short, Froffee is in almost 500 stores throughout the West Coast today, and we expect to be in 1,000 stores by the end of this year. Birthright Israel not only helped me shape my identity but also gave me the idea for my business.
While I was launching Froffee, I was also started the First Israeli Moishe House in Los Angeles. Our house was dedicated to serving as a bridge between Israelis and Jewish Americans who are currently in America.
5. Finding My Own Jewish Identity
Looking back, I realize that Birthright Israel opened my eyes to a whole new world of Judaism. The conversations, relationships, and, most importantly, the shared exploration of our roots led me on a journey toward discovering my own Jewish identity. For that, I want to thank Birthright Israel. Thank you for changing the lives of thousands of Israelis who have learned to value their country and their religion through the eyes of others.
Niran Avni is the founder and CEO of Froffee, a frozen coffee startup that was recently acquired by a venture capital firm. Previously, Niran served as the Jewish Agency Shaliach to the University of California San Diego and owned another startup company in Tel Aviv. For five years, Niran served in the IDF as the Vice Advisor for Palestinian Affairs in Hebron. Niran currently lives in Las Vegas, NV.