In summer 2021, I went on Birthright Israel, an opportunity I am forever thankful for.
For a little background on myself: I grew up in Greenwich, CT – a very un-Jewish town with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, and while we were lucky to be members of an amazing synagogue, I always craved a larger Jewish community. This desire was one of the factors that led me to the University of Michigan (Go Blue!!) where I am currently a Sophomore in the Business School studying Finance and Art History.
One of the first things I did when I got to Michigan was apply to the TAMID group – a business school club that consults for Israeli start-ups. TAMID exposed me to an amazing community of students who were passionate about Israel, and in a lonely COVID year, helped me feel at home at Michigan.
However, in May, as the conflict between Israel and Hamas intensified, I witnessed antisemitism on campus that I’d never seen before. Statements addressing the conflict were sent out by the Central Student Government and even the Business School Council – the people that were supposed to represent us and make us feel safe – which targeted TAMID’s right to exist as a club and equated supporting Israel to supporting apartheid. Our university rock was even vandalized with the words “Fuck Israel,” and messages started appearing on social media telling Jewish students to leave campus, contributing to a deeply upsetting environment.
In conversations with my non-Jewish friends, I realized most people had no idea what was actually happening, and as a result, they believed everything they saw on social media. Yet, these social media posts were deeply biased and failed to even scratch the surface of the conflict, contributing to skewed perceptions, and fostering dangerous anti-Israel bias.
For me, I believe that education is the key to solving almost every issue. While I felt tempted to think that as just one person, I couldn’t do anything to help, I decided it was my responsibility to educate myself on the current conflict, which would enable me to then educate others and address the tough questions with newfound insight.
This is where Birthright Israel comes in. I had always wanted to go, but then COVID hit and travel came to a sudden halt. Amidst everything happening at school, I saw an Instagram ad that trips were back up and running. It felt like a sign, and I signed up that day. My goal was to see what was happening in Israel firsthand so I could come back and be an advocate.
My Jewish mom and grandmother were worried if it was safe to go, but I knew that there was no group more trustworthy and experienced than Birthright Israel. Most importantly, there was no way I was letting the fear of terrorists stop me from living my life.
In July 2021, I got a plane bound for Tel Aviv and instantly began to experience what I call the ‘Birthright magic.’ The program does an exceptional job of fostering a sense of true belonging. I had only met my group the day before at JFK Airport but instantly, the 12 of us felt like we had known each other forever.
Even though I had been to Israel before with family, coming with Birthright Israel made it feel more like a homecoming than a tour of a foreign country. My trip was centered around finding out what Israel meant to us as individuals and how it could play a role in our lives. We had amazing candid conversations about our Jewish identities, experiences at home with antisemitism, and what we wanted our relationships with Israel to look like moving forward.
My trip was even lucky to have three IDF (Israeli Defense Force) soldiers join us the entire time. Not only did they show us the best places to go and eat, but it was also eye-opening to spend ten days with kids our age, who liked to go out and have fun and joke around… yet while we were studying in college, they spent their days manning the Iron Dome and protecting their country.
Of course, my trip eventually had to end. Yet, when I was on the plane back to the US, I could only smile and reflect on how incredible those 10 days were. I wasn’t sad – because I knew I’d be back. I also knew that I had accomplished my goal of educating myself so that when I finally arrived back on campus with a newfound sense of what Israel meant to me, I had the information and education to stand tall the next time antisemitism reared its ugly head.
And sure enough, it has. Our university rock was vandalized a second time with the words “Fuck Israel” – on Yom Kippur of all days. Now more than ever amidst this hostility, I feel proud to be Jewish and proud to be a supporter of Israel.
I credit Birthright Israel for imparting in me the passion and courage to continue to stand up and approach hard conversations with my peers, and for giving me the tools to be an advocate for Israel rather than sitting by silently. I am forever grateful to Birthright Israel Foundation and its donors, and I wish for every college student to have the same life-changing opportunity I had.