Birthright Israel is truly a gift that keeps on giving. The Jewish young adults who we send on this free trip to the holy land return with a lifetime connection to their Jewish heritage.
“I fell in love with Israel, the people, the culture, and what it stands for,” said Birthright Israel alumna Holly Millet. “I made Israeli friends, saw the beautiful landscape, and feel so much closer to my Jewish heritage through this experience.”
As the fundraising arm for Birthright Israel, we aim to send 50,000 Jewish young adults like Millet to Israel every year. More than 750,000 have embarked on the educational trip since 1999, each with his or her own tale of transformation. Here are a handful of ways Birthright Israel Foundation helps Jewish young adults embrace their Jewish heritage.
Alumni are more likely to marry Jewish.
Courtney Barnett’s mom always told her she would meet her future husband on Birthright Israel, “but I never thought it would actually happen,” said the alumna. She and her fiance, Shahriar Sharifi, fell in love overlooking the Sea of Galilee in Tiberius and are getting married in November—one of the many perfect love stories resulting from Birthright Israel.
Alumna Elizabeth Savetsky didn’t meet her soulmate on Birthright Israel, but ended up marrying Jewish nonetheless. She believes the trip completely changed the course of her life. “When the trip ended, I knew I would marry a Jewish person with hopes to perpetuate our chain of humanity from generation to generation,” she said. “Ira and I have now been married almost 9 years, and we would never have met had it not been for Birthright Israel. I would not be observant had it not been for Birthright Israel. And most importantly, my two daughters, Stella and Juliet, would not be here, were it not for this organization.”
Alumni marry Jewish and they pass it on to their families
Already a mom herself, alumna Sarah Myer was moved by the mothers she saw praying with their children at the Western Wall in Old City Jerusalem. When she returned to the U.S., she filled her home “with reminders of Israel: books, photos, music, food, personal stories of our journey” to make Israel a tangible and real place for her son.
“I can’t wait for Jake to take this journey someday,” she said. “I want to give him every opportunity to have a connection with Israel and his heritage … and Birthright Israel will give him just that, just like it has for me.”
Alumna Elizabeth Sutton, meanwhile, has been taking her kids to Israel since they were in the womb. “I hope I can send my kids on the program,” she said. “It was a beautiful way for me to discover Israel.”
Alumni not only pass their Jewish heritage onto their children, but also to their extended family by involving them in Jewish holiday celebrations and other Jewish practices. They are 40 percent more likely to have Jewish friends and 36 percent more likely to get involved in the Jewish community, according to Brandeis University. It goes without saying that Birthright Israel alumni are preserving Jewish heritage for generations to come.
Alumni develop a deep love for Israel.
While in Israel, participants visit a wide variety of holy, cultural, and educational places. They also meet Israelis, make Jewish friends, and have the time of their life.
Alumna Mallory Hope Schwartz enjoyed the Israel trip so much, she decided to return as a trip leader—and now lives there. She considers her role “an opportunity for me to help another young Jewish adult ignite their passion for Israel, their Jewish identity, and the Jewish people.”
Another Birthright Israel trip leader, Shira Kaplan, believes that developing a love for Judaism and Israel is one of the most powerful things in the world. That’s why she works to expose Jewish young adults to their heritage and instill feelings of pride. “A Jew like that can set off ripples—ripples that are far-reaching and long-lasting,” she said.
Alumni become b’nai mitzvah in Israel.
One of the most moving parts of the Birthright Israel trip, according to Kaplan, is the b’nai mitzvah ceremony. Since many participants have yet to undergo this rite of passage, they are given the option to be called to the Torah while in Israel. “A bar or bat mitzvah is known as the hallmark of a Jewish upbringing, and yet there were quite a few students who hadn’t had the opportunity,” said Kaplan. “This ceremony cemented their Jewish identity. For the rest of their lives, they can say: ‘I had a bar/bat mitzvah in Jerusalem.’”
Alumnus Thomas Steinhart grew up in a secular household and never really knew much about his Jewish heritage. He had a bar mitzvah on Birthright Israel after hiking up Masada at dawn. “I presented to the group what it meant for me to be a responsible person and how having a Bar Mitzvah gave me more insight into what it means to be Jewish.”
Born but not raised Jewish, alumna Alexis Vance received her Hebrew name in the Old City in Jerusalem. Prior to Birthright Israel, she was afraid to explore her Jewish identity. “I grew up never meeting any other Black Jews … I felt truly ostracized because of my Jewishness for a very long time,” she said. “I left Israel with a stronger sense of comfort, health, and self-identity. And I returned to the U.S. a happier and prouder Jew.”
A transgender man, alumnus Samuel Benji already had a bat mitzvah when he was 13. His bar mitzvah in Israel remains his favorite Birthright Israel memory. As he wrote on his social media on the day of the ceremony, “I felt like this was my chance to … officially start my Jewish journey into manhood.”
Alumni learn to advocate for Israel.
Before Birthright Israel, participants may not know much about the Holocaust or why there is even a Jewish state. They often head to Israel with mixed or no feelings about their homeland. Perhaps they’ve heard negative messages on campus from the growing BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement.
In Israel, they gain Jewish knowledge about the history of Israel and the Jewish people, and they begin to understand that the issues in Israel we hear about in the U.S. media are not as black and white as they seem. “There are actually many shades of grey,” said alumna Jordan Shipowtiz. “Through my experience, I learned about those shades of grey, and they helped me create a better foundation in my activism for the State of Israel.”
This newfound understanding of Israel is particularly important now more than ever due to an increase in antisemitism around the world. It may be hard to believe, but a 2020 article in a Toronto Polish-language newspaper actually blames Jews for the coronavirus pandemic and calls Israel the source of the world’s problems and an emanation of the devil.
Birthright Israel alumni are equipped with the facts to defend Israel from such blatant anti-Semitic attacks. “I can see the difference in my peers who have participated in this program and those who haven’t,” said alumna Jenna Pfeffer. “In a time of extreme antisemitism and anti-Zionism, this program is nothing short of crucial.”
Alumni learn we are all one big family.
Participants are often apathetic about Judaism or completely disconnected before the trip. Everything changes after 10 days well-spent in the land of milk and honey.
We make a concerted effort to find those who don’t even know they need to be found, including those on the outer fringes of the Jewish community like mixed-race and interfaith Jews. Participants are eligible regardless of their personal background, political views, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs. Trips are even available for Jewish young adults with learning or developmental disabilities.
Alumnus Jonah Geer, for instance, was diagnosed with functioning autism, but that didn’t exclude him from participating in Birthright Israel. “Jonah loves adventure, and so Birthright Israel was a great trip for him,” said his mother Stacey. “He liked meeting Israeli soldiers who taught him some Hebrew words and songs … He even rode a camel when the group was in the desert.” Geer added, “The fact that there are opportunities for young adults of all abilities to participate in Birthright Israel is really incredible.”
Participants not only come from a variety of different upbringings and situations, but they learn there isn’t one right way to be Jewish. They may have felt disconnected before the trip, but now they know, as Jews, we are all part of one family.
The trip is free, yet priceless.
The gift of Birthright Israel is made possible thanks to the support of nearly 40,000 individual donors, as well as some Jewish organizations and the Israeli government.
When people like you donate to Birthright Israel Foundation, you are directly responsible for helping Jewish young adults embrace their Jewish heritage. Thanks to your donations, big or small, our family becomes stronger and our heritage is preserved for future generations.
“A lot of college students are working and cannot afford to make this experience for themselves,“ said alumna Jordyn Landau. “Having an opportunity to claim our personal Birthright Israel experience is invaluable.”
Do you know any Birthright Israel alumni, perhaps a child or grandchild? Share your story and tell us how Birthright Israel helped them embrace their heritage.