Sam Permutt, a 2005 Birthright Israel alum, never felt a true connection to Israel or his Jewish heritage. In our interview with Sam below, he shares how a desire to learn more about the geopolitics of the region drove him to participate in a Birthright Israel trip. Little did he know the trip would catapult his involvement in Jewish life and leadership. Birthright Israel Foundation is honored to count Sam amongst our 2024 Alum Ambassador cohort.

Q&A with Sam Permutt

What inspired you to sign up for a Birthright Israel trip?

Sam Permutt: “I was in college during 9/11 and became interested in the Middle East, not from a Jewish perspective but from a geopolitical one. I took classes on Mideast politics, American foreign policy, and international relations and became a mini-expert on the Israeli-Arab conflict. When I had the opportunity to go on Birthright in 2005, it wasn’t because I felt any emotional connection to it; it was more of an academic obsession that drew me there. Little did I know that that trip would change everything for me.”

Did you have any preconceived notions prior to going to Israel?

Sam Permutt: “I thought Israel was for Israelis—not necessarily for Jews in the Diaspora, and certainly not for me. It wasn’t not for me; it was just a place that I didn’t feel any emotional or physical connection to.”

Did you grow up with a connection to your Jewish identity?

Sam Permutt: “I grew up in a deeply secular household just outside of NYC. We were Jewish in the sense that we did not fast for Yom Kippur, but we ate bagels and lox to break the fast. Our Jewish identity was centered around going to the Borscht Belt every year or going to the newest Woody Allen movie. I had a Bar Mitzvah, but only because everyone else in my neighborhood was having one. My grandma was a member of Pioneer Women, an early socialist/Zionist movement. We occasionally gave money to her to give to JNF to plant a tree in Israel. But Israel was not a part of my Jewishness or my identity until Birthright Israel.”

What was your biggest takeaway from the trip? What surprised you the most about Israel/Israelis?

Sam Permutt: “My biggest takeaway was how instant (like instant instant!) my connection was to the people, to the land, and to the idea of a Jewish homeland. It was like it was part of me; I just didn’t know it. It’s hard to believe that I’ve only known Israel for like 20 years. I never knew Israel before Birthright, and now it seems to be in my DNA—like if you prick me, I bleed blue and white. Maybe it’s because my grandma and my great-grandma were such ardent Zionists—maybe they handed it down to me without my knowing until one day it was just revealed to me.”

How has Birthright Israel played a role in your life since coming home from the trip? Are you involved more in your Jewish community now?

Sam Permutt: “It’s hard to respond to this question without just writing “LOL.” After I came home from the trip, I moved to Israel for a year on a volunteer program through Masa. I lived in communities on the “margins” of Israel, teaching English, studying Torah, and learning about Israeli and Jewish history. For three months, I studied counterterrorism at the IDC Herzliya, which led me to pursue a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago when I got home. I ended up going to law school, but then, after a couple of years, I left the law to work for the UJA-Federation of NY. During grad school, law school, and UJA-Federation, I led 12 Birthright trips as a Madrich. I also became a fellow at Avodah and the Renee Cassin Program. After UJA-Federation I became the Director of Development of Repair the World and became a Schusterman ROI Fellow. I found my way back to being a lawyer and also as a lay leader at UJA-Federation. I also ended up marrying an Israeli. After October 7, I volunteered with my husband (who was on Onward) at Kibbutzim along the Gaza border, serving soldiers, packing food, and picking oranges. In fact, I was just in Israel recently, and during our last night together, my husband and I went to shiva for a fallen soldier because WhatsApp groups were buzzing that the soldier’s family, who had immigrated from the Philippines, was small and wanted more people around them while mourning. This is a mere snapshot of my relationship to Israel, and none of this would have happened without that initial Birthright trip.