Elizabeth Savetsky’s Birthright Israel Story
The single most critical decision I made in my life was to apply for a Birthright Israel trip in the summer of 2004. Almost everything that is important to me in my current life can be traced back to that moment. I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, where my world felt a zillion miles from the State of Israel, or any strong Jewish community for that matter. Nonetheless, my parents raised me to be proud of my Jewish identity and did their best to give my brother and me a Jewish education and instill us with the values and traditions of our people. Although I did not feel particularly connected to my Judaism in my day-to-day life, I went to Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin and participated, along with the few other Jewish kids in my city, in BBYO.
My senior year of high school, I met up with a BBYO friend from Dallas who told me he was heading to Israel on a free trip called Birthright Israel. It sounded too good to be true, but I was intrigued. I was starting NYU in the fall and had some time to kill over the summer, so I looked into the program. My dad had been to Israel as a very young man and my mom had never been. Although my parents are Israel supporters, they were anxious about the idea of me traveling to this “dangerous” land, based on what they saw daily on the news. I am not typically an adventurer, but for some reason, I felt strongly that this trip was important. I begged my best friend, Sari, from Fort Worth to apply with me, and together, we convinced our parents that we would be vigilant and look out for one another.
Sari and I were accepted for the trip and it wasn’t long before I started to question our decision. The itinerary came and it seemed like an overwhelming schedule of hiking in the heat, camel riding, endless hours on a bus, and eating in restaurants that surely wouldn’t accommodate my ridiculously picky palette. What was I thinking?! Thankfully, we were already committed.
Sari and I arrived at Newark airport to find a large group of young men waiting to check into our flight to the Holy Land. We walked over and said “Where are y’all from?” The boys died laughing. They were all from Long Island and couldn’t get over our southern accents. We bonded with the others from our group (mostly New Yorkers) on the plane and by the time we arrived at Ben Gurion airport, most of our nerves had eased.
From there began the most magical days of my life up until that point. I am not exactly a nature girl, I don’t do well when I’m sleep deprived, and not knowing what to expect gives me anxiety. But none of that mattered on this trip. My high-maintenance tendencies melted away. I immediately felt connected to the land. I was home. Even the bus rides felt elevated and meaningful. I felt a bond to the others on our trip, in a deeper way than any friendship I’d ever had. We didn’t know each other and on the surface, we had very little in common, but we were bound by the fact that we were young Jews who had decided to take 10 days out of our lives to come back to our roots. These were my brothers and sisters.
Not only did I fall in love with Israel, but I felt an overwhelming understanding of what it meant to be a part of the Jewish people. When the trip ended, I knew I would marry a Jewish person with hopes to perpetuate our chain of humanity from generation-to-generation. As luck (or maybe fate) would have it, Sari hit it off with one of the counselors on the trip, Mickey. Mickey lived on Long Island and told me he would take me under his wing when I moved to NYC in a couple of months to start NYU. I was relieved to have a native New Yorker as a friend since I didn’t know anyone in my new city.
On my 19th birthday, Mickey brought some of his friends over to my dorm. One of them was a quietly charming, handsome fellow, Ira. The attraction was immediate and mutual. Mickey told me Ira was Orthodox and worried I would run for the hills. The crazy thing is, I much sooner saw myself with a religious guy than a non-Jew after my life-changing 10 days in Israel. I started my own journey to becoming religious and found my way back to Israel for a year to learn.
Ira and I have now been married almost 9 years and we never would have met had it not been for Birthright Israel. I would not be observant had it not been for Birthright Israel. And most importantly, my two daughters, Stella and Juliet, would not be here, were it not for this organization. What’s more? Sari ended up marrying Mickey. They now have two daughters of their own. Together, we have four, proud, Jewish girls who are the byproduct of our remarkable Birthright Israel trip. This story is just one of the thousands in which Birthright Israel has changed the course of someone’s life for the better, filling it with inspiration, meaning, connection, and direction.