Every year, tens of thousands* of Jewish young adults are gifted with a life-changing journey to Israel.
Before their enlightening Birthright Israel expedition, they tend to take Israel for granted. Like the generation before them and the generations to come, these individuals have little concept of a world without a Jewish homeland.
Everything changes, however, once they accept their birthright. The trip connects them to Israel; educates them on their culture, religion, and heritage; creates lifelong bonds between kindred spirits; and helps maintain the integrity of the Jewish people. Many participants go on to marry Jewish individuals, support Israel, get involved in the Jewish community, and work for Jewish organizations.
For nearly two decades, Birthright Israel Foundation has helped send over 750,000 individuals to Israel. Here’s a glimpse at some of their stories and how their lives have been transformed.
Rabbi David Levy
Whenever Rabbi David Levy sees a 20-something in his congregation, the first question he asks them is, “When are you going on Birthright?”
It was more than 18 years ago that the Associate Rabbi and Jewish Learning Lab Director at Westchester Reform Temple in Westchester County, New York, was among his peer group, traveling to Israel for the first time. He still recalls looking out over the Dead Sea towards the Jordanian hills and feeling a connection to the country like he had never felt before.
“It was as if, for the first time, I knew that G-d was present in my life,” he said. He noted that Birthright Israel allows young people to develop an authentic love for a complex and beautiful country through interactions and conversations with real Israelis rather than contrived soundbites.
Levy earned his undergraduate degree in information systems but went on to be ordained by New York’s Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), where he earned an MA in religious education. He called Birthright Israel and immersive travel experience, crediting it for enabling him to connect to Israel as an emerging adult.
“In many ways,” he said, “my trip was a crucial step in my becoming a Rabbi today.”
Living in her own “Jewish bubble,” Casey Dresbach didn’t expect to get a whole lot out of Birthright Israel. In particular, she didn’t expect the trip to completely transform her Jewish identity.
Rather than just a fun summer trip with friends and sorority sisters, “Birthright Israel as a whole completely shifted the way I viewed my past, present, and future identity as a Jew,” she said. She described it as an experience that coexists with you forever.
During her 10-day Israel trip, Dresbach was particularly moved by the sacrifices made by Israeli soldiers. “As an American, I can appreciate the sacrifices they make being soldiers and the fact that I don’t have to,” she said. “It made me come home proud to not only be Jewish, but to be Jewish and American.”
Afterward, she found herself reflecting on other women like herself who had a strong Jewish upbringing and took it for granted. She decided to step up her engagement in Jewish life and become a campus leader, running for the presidency of the Hillel chapter at University of Miami.
“I wanted to do this because just as the Israeli soldiers shifted my perspective on what it means to be connected to Judaism,” she said, “I wanted to act similarly and help shift the perspective of what it means to be Jewish on my campus.”
Dresbach went on to become the chapter’s first female president. “It’s all thanks to what Birthright Israel opened up for me,” she said. “Birthright Israel is not just a program … There’s nothing that prepares you for the emotional experience that comes hand in hand.”
Jewish, black, and LGBTQ+, Jordan Daniels felt pressured to keep a lot of secrets when he was growing up. His family was worried that his mixed identity would make him the target of discrimination. While attending college at Long Beach State University, Daniels finally began getting involved in Jewish-based events. At 24, he signed up for the specialty LGBTQ+ Birthright Israel trip. The summer itinerary includes a visit to the iconic Pride Parade in Tel Aviv.
“During this experience, my already existing appreciation and understanding of Israel and my Jewish identity grew tremendously, and I now feel a deeper connection to my Jewish roots,” he said. “I could definitely say that my life would not be the same if I hadn’t gone on Birthright Israel.”
Not only did Daniels feel accepted, respected, and connected to his tour group, it also helped Daniels come to terms with his multiple identities. He wrote more about his experiences in Israel on his personal blog.
“Since coming home, I have not only become prouder of my Jewish identity, but of all my identities—Queer, Black, Jewish, and a Person of Size,” said Daniels. “Every one of my unique identities had space to exist together on this trip, and they were expressed through my Jewishness.”
Daniels now works as a communications associate at a Jewish nonprofit called the Leichtag Foundation in San Diego, Calif. He remains rooted in his Jewishness and thanks those who donated to the Birthright Israel Foundation “from the bottom of my heart” for creating this opportunity for him and so many others.
Birthright Israel was a deeply rewarding experience for alumnus Aaron Kaufman. It not only changed his perspective on Israel, it helped him accept his disability.
Kaufman took part in the No Limits trip, designed for participants with reduced mobility. A wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, he quickly developed deep bonds with all 12 group members and staff. “I realized for the first time that I am not alone and there are people like me,” he said. “I had the most candid conversations I’ve ever had with friends on the bus because of similar experiences that we could share in a safe space.”
Among the activities on the No Limits itinerary was an eye-opening opportunity to interact with Israeli military personnel who have disabilities. Despite his physical limitations, he was also able to bike and sail, events he described as “exhilarating.”
Birthright Israel motivated Kaufman to work in the Jewish community. Upon his return from Israel, he took a job with the Jewish Federations of North America in Washington, DC, where he lobbies on disability issues.
Alec Burkin and Benjamin Kanas
It is not entirely surprising that Birthright Israel changed the life of alumnus Alec Burkin. What he never could have predicted, however, is that it would also give him the opportunity to save a life.
Burkin, who shared his inspirational story with the Jerusalem Post, explained that he was encouraged to register for Gift of Life Marrow Registry during his visit to Israel. The registry connects anonymous, healthy donors with ailing cancer patients suffering from blood-related cancers.
After returning home, he learned he was a perfect match for a dying woman—an extremely rare occurrence, since only one out of 1,000 individuals are identified as a perfect match. Burkin donated anonymously in Boston but later met the women who received his donation. She looked into his eyes and said, “Thank you for saving my life.”
Another alumnus, Benjamin Kanas, shared a similar life-altering experience on our blog. He turned out to be a match for a 59-year-old woman suffering from acute myeloid leukemia.
“The feeling is overwhelming and humbling to know you are saving someone’s life with such a simple action,” said Kanas. “At the same time, I am overcome with love and a greater appreciation for those I have in my own life. This opportunity would not have been feasible if not for the generous contributions from the Adelson Family to both Gift of Life and Birthright Israel Foundation.”
It was as easy as a swab of the cheek, and it altered their perspectives forever.
Who will be next?
While each of the stories above are unique, they are not uncommon. Almost every Birthright Israel alumnus has an inspirational story of transformation to share.
Success stories like these cannot exist within a vacuum. They only happen thanks to the support of our caring and philanthropic community, including individual donations to Birthright Israel Foundation. Each donation, big or small, goes directly toward funding a Birthright Israel trip.
We want to continue to change the lives of Jewish young adults, and we need your help. By donating to Birthright Israel Foundation, you help provide this incredible experience to tens of thousands of people each year, and you become a stakeholder in the future of the Jewish people for generations to come.
*Due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, Birthright Israel has had to postpone trips for May, June, July and August leaving over 30,000 Jewish young adults waiting to claim their birthright. We know firsthand how impactful Birthright Israel trips are to the individual and Jewish communities around the country, which is why we need your support today. We must ensure those whose trips have been postponed can receive this life-changing gift when the time is right.