What made me love Birthright Israel is probably precisely why everyone loves it – it’s life-changing. I signed up during my sophomore year at the University of Miami, and I thought it was a dream to go to Israel on an all-inclusive trip. Little did I know how much these 10 days would influence my life in the years to come.
I can explicitly remember walking off the plane and immediately feeling a connection to the land.
My Birthright Israel trip also allowed me to experience Israel in a way I never have before. Being only 19 at the time, it’s impressive how I enjoyed the educational aspects too. It’s insane how so much knowledge can be condensed into just 10 days and that what you experience never leaves your side. More so, each day of my trip was filled, exploring every corner of Israel. We had in-depth discussions about its cultural and historical sites, many of which I never heard of. This is all thanks to Birthright Israel for assigning a Tour Educator to each group (who gets to have a personal tour guide like this for 10 whole days?!).
The Tour Educator also helped us better understand where we come from, the struggles we continue to face, and why we need to preserve the Jewish people as both a nation and a religion.
Looking back on my trip, it reinforced how Israel is a very special place where any Jew can feel immediately at home; it is a place where things just feel right. You’re surrounded by people with similar backgrounds, traditions, food, family, and so much more! Words cannot describe what Birthright Israel is – you simply have to experience it for yourself. So, this brings me to my next point.
Becoming a Birthright Israel Trip Leader
I wanted all young Jews to take advantage of this gift, which is why I became a trip leader. The Rabbi on my campus invited me to lead a trip two years after mine. I managed to even fill half the bus just from telling fellow students how great my trip was. Rabbi Shlomo Sprung was the other Madrich, and since our time together, he has become a great friend and mentor to me.
What stuck out the most during my time as a Madrich was visiting Har Herzl. Many of the graves we looked at were of soldiers our own age or even younger. This was a hard moment for many since almost none of the Americans could think of a friend who died, but our Israeli soldiers could count one or two.
Forming Lasting Friendships with Israelis
There was another moment during my first time as staff that I will never forget either. One of the soldiers on our trip was an Israeli Commando Sniper whose name I cannot mention. During an icebreaker, everyone was going around answering the question, “If you could meet anyone in the world, who would it be?” While the typical answers included celebrities, movie stars, or athletes, I will never forget this soldier’s answer. It was the first time he spoke to the group, and with a dead serious look on his face, he said, “Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas. Just give me three seconds with him.”
And wow, what an answer. My entire group was stunned and went silent. It was the most badass answer anyone could have given, but it also made us realize how different our lives are. Here in the US, we have the joys of college, while our Israeli brothers and sisters are fighting wars, defending our homeland, and battling our enemies.
From this moment on, this solider and I became good friends. I stayed with him in Israel after this trip, and he came to visit me in the US for two weeks. Even years later, both he and I remain very good friends. This is just one example of how incredible the relationships are that we form on Birthright Israel.
How Birthright Israel Impacts Others
Of course, I couldn’t resist not staffing another trip so again, at 22, just after my college graduation, I went back to Israel. I didn’t think my second time staffing would be anything special, but it ended up being the best trip yet. With each time you lead a Birthright Israel trip, even though you’re a trip leader, you continue learning more and more about our homeland and our people. The most beautiful thing about staffing though, is seeing how Birthright Israel impacts others. I can think of hundreds of ways the trip impacts them but here are just a few:
- It’s beautiful to see people land in Israel for the very first time. The participants are cheering, crying, and some even kiss the ground because they finally feel home.
- You get to see people feel more spiritually connected than they ever have in their entire lives, especially when they touch The Kotel for the first time.
- Not everyone on a Birthright Israel trip knows what it means to be Jewish. Some of my participants even admitted they were embarrassed about being Jewish. But, by the time the trip ended, it was safe to say everyone had a newfound respect for Judaism and a new sense of pride. After the trip, I watched them all change their social media pages to pictures of them in Israel, something you’d never see before.
- For the first time, many felt comfortable asking questions and having deep conversations about Israel and Judaism.
- There’s a saying everyone has a spark in their soul or neshama, and sometimes it just needs to see a little light to come out and truly shine. When people go on Birthright Israel, that fire ignites, and they feel alive and connected. As a trip staff, this is pretty incredible to witness.
- I had two participants become very close, and eventually, they got married!
It’s been many years since my Birthright Israel days, but the experiences, friends, and memories are always with me. I’ve continued to give back the Jewish community, especially here in Miami, by getting involved with many local organizations like Chai Lifeline, IAC Edge, JCS, and others. Most of all, I look forward to the day my own children get to experience our homeland with Birthright Israel.
David Bitton moved back to Miami in 2002 after living in New York. He studied business management and computer information systems at the University of Miami and later worked at a high-growth startup software company that was acquired. David went on to found four music entertainment, computer service, SaaS businesses that were also acquired. As a best-selling author, legal CLE speaker, and previous co-founder and CEO of PracticePanther, David is now working on a property management software for the real estate industry called DoorLoop. He was a state champion tennis player who now spends his days with his wife, two children, and the dog.