The first time I traveled to Israel was when I was fourteen and then most recently…
I can’t imagine what I’m about to tell you is markedly different from what thousands have said before me, but it’s worth repeating: Birthright Israel undoubtedly changed the trajectory of my life. I have been saying this to anyone who will listen since the day I came back: Birthright Israel is the single most important organization to build Jewish identity and inspire Jewish pride. It fosters a sense of true belonging in the Jewish world and as part of the larger Jewish story.
I grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb with a relatively small Jewish population. While filling our JNF tin cans each week and giving what we could to support Israel in various ways was part of our upbringing, Israel felt a million miles away. It was my grandfather, the sole Holocaust survivor of his family, whose pain and life story cemented the importance, even at a young age, that Israel is unequivocally essential to the fundamental survival of the Jewish people. Despite this, I didn’t know much about Israel or even about our people’s history in the land other than what I could vaguely remember from biblical stories told in Sunday school.
I was fortunate enough to go to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison right before every Jewish student on campus was held to a litmus test when it came to Israel. Antisemitism certainly wasn’t at the fever pitch it is now. I also happened to live almost exclusively with Jews on campus, which I’m sure made a big difference in what I would have otherwise encountered.
I heard about Birthright Israel from a few people who went and raved about it, but I decided to put it off until after I completed my law school prerequisites. I decided to sign up after graduating with my then-boyfriend. About a week before the trip, he broke my heart and ended the relationship. My friends, who were all thrilled about the breakup, convinced me I should still go, heartbroken and all. Little did they know the lifelong love affair that was about to begin.
Something I should also mention is that I went during the height of the Gaza war in 2009. My parents, as much as they supported Israel and wanted me to have this experience, were terrified. They really wanted me to consider going at a different time when tensions subsided. After a few calls with Birthright Israel staffers, their concerns dissipated, and off I went.
I showed up to the airport alone, nervous, and in tears when two other girls going on the trip came up to me, immediately put their arms around me, and subsequently made me laugh the entire 12-hour flight from Chicago to Ben Gurion. Nothing could have prepared me for the experience I would have over the next ten days.
From the moment we arrived, I felt an intense connection to the land. Though I went knowing no one, I formed the best friendships in a matter of hours. I went from obsessing over a heartbreak to not caring about the boy that I thought broke my heart in a single day. Not to mention falling in love with every Israeli soldier I passed by. The physical activity, packed itinerary and extracurricular fun allowed for very little sleep, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t want to waste a minute when I was experiencing something so extraordinary, I quite literally couldn’t put it into words.
In revisiting my Birthright Israel trip, I came across an email to my parents that summarized the impact perfectly:
“Mom and Dad,
I’m sorry I haven’t written for a bit. I wish I could put this experience into words, but that seems silly because it won’t do it justice. It also feels like, despite my best efforts to explain it, you won’t understand. I will tell you all about what we’ve seen so far in a different email, but I need to say this first.
This has really changed something in me. I feel that there was a reason I came here now, at this time in my life, and I feel a purpose and belonging like I’ve never felt before. This is our home despite being pushed out for 2,000 years. I want to live here. There’s something about it I can’t explain, but after being here, I feel like there’s nowhere else for Jews to live.
Expecting young Jews who don’t live in Israel to form a bond and understanding of it based on stories told in a Sunday school classroom that no one wants to be in is really dumb. It’s why my friends don’t care about Israel or being Jewish. I’m really sad it took me until now to get here. But I’m so grateful I’m here now. I’m so sorry [Birthright] didn’t exist when you were young. I’m really sad for you.
I know you’re probably scared, but I think you should be happy for me. Also, this doesn’t matter that much, but everyone here is beautiful. How come no one told me that? This country is filled with the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen.
Being here, you don’t even know there’s a war going on. It’s completely safe and normal — and I only wish you could feel that so you stop worrying. I have 7 months until law school, and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I don’t take advantage of the opportunity to stay here. It’s impossible for me to completely explain this, especially in email, but this is just a preface for a conversation I need you to be open to before I leave.
Ok, I gotta go, we are getting lunch, but I love you and miss you very much. Talk to you soon. Please stop worrying.
Love your strong-willed daughter who will do something bug to help lots of people in the future,
Do you think my parents had any chance against that? The amazing parents they are, they supported my decision to stay in Israel for half a year without any firm plans until law school began, which they were adamant about me seeing through. They told me if I still wanted to come back after I completed my education, I would be free to make the decision then.
After practicing entertainment law for a few years, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was pursuing the wrong thing. Though I was still regularly going to Israel, it was never enough.
Ever since I left Israel after my first visit, I have paid close (almost singular) attention to Israel and Jewish world news, taking note of the disturbing rise in antisemitism across the world—and especially how it was shapeshifting into the fanatical demonization of Israel.
I decided my work with various organizations and educating those around me — who largely were unengaged and uniformed — wasn’t enough. I was seeing the real-life consequences of the antisemitic libels being spread online. The systematic dehumanization, isolation, and ostracization of Jews from society once again. Physical attacks on Jews and Jewish spaces were becoming a regular occurrence.
At the beginning of COVID, I started a digital media company, A Wider Frame, to deliver quick and easy Jewish and Israel-related news in an attempt to inform others of the seriously disturbing trends I was noticing. I also wanted to give young Jews a resource in order for them to be able to use their voice to combat the flood of lies they were facing every day.
Through my advocacy work online, I met some really amazing people, including Noa Tishby, who asked me to work with her as her Senior Advisor and Chief of Staff prior to the announcement of her role as Israel’s antisemitism envoy. Together, we are advancing Israel’s foreign policy as it relates to antisemitism and developing and implementing policies and projects to combat antisemitism on a large scale.
I am also launching another Jewish multimedia company in 2023 with my close friend Jordyn Tilchen, which seeks to engage young Jews, help them understand modern manifestations of antisemitism, and instill Jewish pride. Along with activist and journalist Eve Barlow, Jordyn and I are also producing a docuseries about Israel from our perspective.
This is the transformative power of a Birthright Israel trip, and I am living proof. It costs $4,500 to send someone like me on a Birthright Israel trip, and the investment does not just put young Jews on a plane to Israel—it changes the course of our lives. Birthright Israel takes young diasporic Jews who may not otherwise have the opportunity to even understand who we are or anything about our incredible history and homeland and gives us a community, a voice, purpose, and pride. From the bottom of my heart, thank you to those who have contributed to this life-changing organization. You are planting the seeds for our future.