Dear Birthright Israel Foundation Donor:

It all started when I hopped onto Birthright Israel’s site, and it felt like trying to get Taylor Swift tickets. I needed to book this once-in-a-lifetime trip (I’ll explain why soon.) Thank God, I secured my spot, and my journey back to Israel began.

First off, I want to say thank you. Your contributions have changed lives, including mine.

My love affair with Israel began when I was ten years old. My grandfather passed in 2009, and he always wanted to be buried in Israel. When he was young, he spent a lot of time there after leaving Iran and fell in love with the land. My family honored that wish, and a year later, to commemorate his yahrzeit, we traveled to Israel. We made that same trip again in 2017, and my love for Israel grew stronger with both trips.

Over the past two years, I realized I’ve taken Israel for granted. It took me a while to notice that Israel held a special place in my heart and gave me a sense of belonging. With the reigniting of the Israel/Palestine conflict in May 2021, my disconnection with my spirituality became way more prominent. I knew I needed to do something about it — not only for myself but for my community. The conflict pushed me to be more vocal about the current rise in antisemitism and anti-Zionism, as well as shedding light on how incredibly misunderstood Israel is. Even with this newfound passion, I still felt like something was missing.

I needed to go back to Israel. I knew in my heart that returning would make me a better advocate and allow me to regain my spirituality. Fast forward to arriving at Ben Gurion at five AM on a Tuesday, and I immediately felt a change in me.

The gift of traveling all around Israel in ten days is crazy when you think about it. From Tzfat to rafting in the Jordan River to trying oxtail for the first time in Mahane Yehuda Market, I got to truly appreciate this little Jewish haven. The most memorable part of my trip was our weekend in Jerusalem, where I got to renew my Bar Mitzvah on Shabbat. When I initially had my Bar Mitzvah a decade ago, I was not true to myself and the people around me. Being able to reconnect with my roots and have this special moment in the Holy Land as a queer Jewish man was healing for me. It is a moment I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life.

Birthright Israel participant Michael Valdes at his Bar Mitzvah

Ten days didn’t feel like enough time in Israel, so I planned to extend my trip for three weeks. Little did I know a few hours after the Birthright Israel portion of my trip ended, I’d get the call that my dad had unfortunately passed away. Before I flew back to New York to bury him and sit shiva, I revisited the Kotel on Shabbat and prayed for his neshama (soul), an opportunity most American Jews don’t get.

Birthright Israel gave me my spirituality back. I know that sounds cliché, but I mean it with all my heart. Not only did I nourish my Jewish soul, but I made memories and friends that’ll last a lifetime. I hope more young Jews get to have this life-changing experience. Again, thank you to donors like you for giving this beautiful gift. God willing, I’ll be back in Israel very soon in honor of my father.

Yours truly,
Michael Valdes
2023 Birthright Israel Alum