I didn’t want to go on Birthright Israel. It seems crazy to say now, but it’s absolutely true. An all-expenses paid trip to Israel was of little interest to me in my early twenties when I was just kicking off my journalism career. I was busy with so many things — road trips with friends, concerts, keeping up with my blog — and a 10-day trip to the Holy Land simply wasn’t on my radar. It didn’t help that Israel always felt like a mythical place where miraculous, impossible things happened thousands of years ago. Like many other secular Jews in America, I grew up listening to the stories of the exodus and the Maccabean revolt and hearing about the horrors of the Shoah, but never was I able to truly connect to the Jewish story until I stepped into it myself.

After years of telling my cousin to go on Birthright Israel without me, I finally gave in at the ripe age of 24. I went, as tens of thousands of young Jews do per year, with preconceived ideas about this foreign land and its people. If we were playing a word association game back then and you said “Israel,” I would’ve responded with “desert” or “war zone.” If you said “Israelis,” I would’ve said “cold,” “tough,” or “smokes a lot.” I wasn’t against the existence of Israel, but I was certainly indifferent and ignorant of the critical role it plays in the safety, security, and continued survival of the Jewish people. I was what one would call “totally oblivious” and “disconnected.”

As soon as the wheels touched down at Ben Gurion airport, I knew my life would fundamentally change. It wasn’t long before I realized that this land actually wasn’t foreign at all. I remember walking through Tzvat, mesmerized by the Jewish art galleries and the masterpieces in them. As I explored the ancient city, a store clerk said two simple words that stopped me in my tracks: “Welcome home.” I can’t quite describe what that felt like. I’ve lived just outside New York City my whole life, and people who spend years in Manhattan tell me they sometimes still feel like strangers there.

Sample 10 Day Itinerary: See how a typical Birthright Israel trip comes to life and how it unites young Jewish adults from all over the world with the people, history, and land of Israel.
Sample 10 Day Itinerary: See how a typical Birthright Israel trip comes to life and how it unites young Jewish adults from all over the world with the people, history, and land of Israel.

Yet I, an American who had been in Israel for maybe 72 hours, was being told by a man who’s likely been there his entire life that Israel – the land, the story, the culture, all of it – is just as much mine as it is his, and that this is my home too. A couple of days later, seven Israelis joined our group who – despite my preconceived notions – were in many ways just like us. They were seven young, vibrant, witty, smart, and engaging IDF soldiers who were just as curious about us as we were about them. They told us about their jobs in combat and intelligence, and we told them about ours as writers, teachers, and medical professionals. We bonded over popular TV shows like Game of Thrones and laughed at the same viral internet memes. Another thing that connected us all was that we had all experienced antisemitism, albeit in very different ways.

From the Israelis, we learned about what it’s like living under the constant threat of terror from Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other organizations devoted to Israel’s destruction. From us, they learned about the prevalence of antizionism on college campuses and how, at its core, it’s just thinly-veiled antisemitism. We spoke about all of the anti-Israel sentiment that has infiltrated our social circles, our workplaces, and even the hallowed halls of Congress. What I realized was that, as much as we had in common, there was also so much we didn’t understand about each other, and Birthright Israel was crucial in bridging that gap.

2017 Birthright Israel alum Jordyn Tilchen photo collage at the Kotel and riding a camel in the Negev

I could go on and on and tell you about how much I loved floating in the Dead Sea, or how moved I was by our visit to Yad Vashem. I could tell you about our night out at the shuk, or how I stood at the Kotel on Shabbat with tears rolling down my face when suddenly it hit me that my ancestors had been praying for this moment for thousands of years. But instead, I would rather elaborate on what has happened since Birthright Israel, and how this 10-day program ultimately changed the entire trajectory of my life.

After returning and getting back to my normal routine, I noticed that my antennas were all the way up when it came to discourse about Jews and Israel. I’m an entertainment journalist, and I started noticing some snide remarks in the office whenever a celebrity would visit Israel. “No one should ever go there,” one colleague said. “It’s an apartheid state,” said another. Having been there myself, I knew that none of this was true. I also knew that I did nothing wrong by going and seeing the Jewish homeland with my own eyes. But still, I froze. I was so shocked and so deeply hurt that I couldn’t muster a response – something I deeply regret to this day.

I wish I could tell you that I quit that job, but I was actually let go soon after in a round of pandemic-related layoffs. I didn’t feel mad or upset about my unemployment. Instead, I felt liberated and galvanized to speak openly and honestly about antisemitism. So when famous football player DeShaun Watson shared a quote on social media that he attributed to Hitler, and the fast fashion retailer Shein put a swastika necklace up for sale on their website, I took to Instagram on one fateful day in 2020 to let my friends know exactly what was happening and why it was so concerning.

It’s been almost three years since then, and I’m still on Instagram fighting antisemitism, defending Israel, and being a very loud and proud Jew. I have amassed roughly 30,000 followers across Twitter and Instagram due to my advocacy work, and last year, The Algemeiner named me one of the top 100 people positively influencing Jewish life. At the end of this year, I will be launching a Jewish multimedia company with my good friend Eden Cohen with the sole purpose of providing young Jews with resources to better understand their Jewish identity before they are groomed on social media into hating Israel and rejecting the very essence of who they are.

Eden and I are also working with activist Eve Barlow on an upcoming docuseries that sees us road-tripping Israel and offering a real-time perspective of a country that is so much more than war and conflict. A country that’s bursting with Jewish pride and that celebrates and savors life; A country that has something to offer everyone — Jewish or non-Jewish, religious or secular; A country built by survivors and protected by their children and their children’s children. A country full of people who understand the genocidal threats they face and who have the chutzpah to keep going. That’s Israel, my home.

It’s important for me to say that none of this — my social media advocacy, my Jewish multimedia company, my Israel docuseries — would’ve been possible without that eye-opening 10-day trip that I never wanted to go on in the first place. My life changed because of the generous donors who understood the detrimental impact of anti-Israel sentiment on young Jews and who sought to reverse that toxic messaging. My life changed because good-hearted, well-intentioned people saw the correlation between exposure to Israel and unapologetic Jewish pride. My life changed because of those who chose to invest in a Jewish future by helping to send thousands of young Jews to Israel per year. Thank you sincerely from the bottom of my heart. From top to bottom and inside out, you have changed my life.