We often kvell about the impact of Birthright Israel on Diaspora participants like you, but did you know that you’re not the only ones who benefit from this transformational journey?
Over the past two decades, we’ve also given 115,000 Israelis the opportunity to claim their birthright. The participants, known as Mifgash (Hebrew for encounter), are mostly young soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and they are an integral part of the Birthright Israel experience. Their presence enables Jewish young adults from outside Israel to learn first-hand about Israeli society, politics, culture, military service, and family life.
“The trip wouldn’t have been the same without our soldiers,” said California alumna Ariana Sloan. “They were passionate, intellectual, hardworking, and inspiring to say the least.”
Bursting the “Bubble” of the Typical Bus Trip
Believe it or not, Mifgash weren’t originally part of the Birthright Israel experience. The idea to include Israelis came from Birthright Israel Foundation donors Arlene Kaufman and Sandy Baklor. This generous couple shared a gut feeling that Israeli young adults could benefit from Birthright Israel too.
New York alumna Haley Albin, who went on an Arts and Entertainment niche Birthright Israel trip, said meeting the Israelis on her trip helped open her eyes to the enormity of Judaism’s melting pot. “I talked to our Israeli participants about what it’s like to be in the Israel Defense Forces or what Judaism means to them,” she said. “It’s about unity, it’s about celebrating life, it’s about sharing ideas, and most importantly–it’s about your mishpacha.”
US alumnus Harrison (no last name given) was surprised by how much he and the Israeli participants had in common, even though they live on separate sides of the world. “My friendship with Shahaf will last far beyond our Birthright Israel adventure,” he said.
When alumna Jane Peimer went on Birthright Israel she had no idea she would end up marrying an Israeli participant. “Vitaly and I sat on the bus together a lot; When we spoke, I only became more interested in his thoughts,” she said. “Today, we live in Tel Aviv and come together with three generations of my husband’s family almost every week for Shabbat.”
Defending the Jewish Homeland
After the Mifgash program started, donors Arlene and Sandy were invited to Israel to see their hard work up close. They still recall almost word for word what one of the first Israeli participants said, “As long as I live here, you can live as Jews anywhere else in the world. I am protecting you and protecting Jews all over the world.”
Birthright Israel’s Diaspora participants come from places where military service is not required. By spending time with Israelis, they not only strengthen their connection to Israel, but they also learn how crucial it is to defend the Jewish homeland.
Israeli participants, meanwhile, gain a better understanding of the people they are fighting for. “When you are a soldier, you understand the importance of your job to defend
the home front, your friends, and your country,” said an unnamed Mifgash. “My shared journey with Jewish friends from throughout the world strengthened me and helped me understand, in a deep and meaningful way, that what I am doing here is for the benefit of all the Jewish people.”
Mifgash alumnus Tom (no last name given) agreed, calling Birthright Israel “the best present for a young soldier to really understand how we are defending our country.”
These Mifgash above are not alone. According to a Brandeis University survey, 78 percent of Mifgash feel “very strongly” that Birthright Israel strengthened the importance of their army service. The magnitude of this lesson is not lost on Jewish young adults in the Diaspora. “You saw that they would give their lives up to defend Israel,” said California alumnus Corey Black. “They live and breathe Israel, and when I saw that, it hit me; this is home.”
Bonding with the Jewish People
Many Mifgash want to help participants understand the importance of the Israeli army, but our survey shows they also participate in Birthright Israel for other reasons:
- To strengthen their own Jewish identity
- To meet Jewish young adults from around the world
- To help participants strengthen their identity with Israel
Here’s a look at why Mifgash participate in Birthright Israel, in their own words.
To strengthen their own Jewish identity
While 83 percent of Mifgash alumni feel Birthright Israel contributed to their understanding of Jewish life in the Diaspora, according to the Brandeis survey, it also has led many Mifgash alumni, like Michael Soloveitchik, to further develop their Jewish identity. “I didn’t finish my Jewish discovery journey yet,” said Soloveitchik. “And I hope to find more of the ‘magic’ I saw during the singing of the Havdalah … on Birthright Israel.”
Mifgash alumnus Niran Avni credits the conversations, relationships, and roots he shared with Diaspora participants for leading him on a journey toward discovering his own Jewish identity. He was particularly moved by an American participant who brought a note from his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, to put in the Kotel. “I think that’s when I started to realize the importance of the trip,” he said, “that all the places that I, as an Israeli, had taken for granted were, for other people, places of inspiration.”
To meet Jews from around the world
On the final day of Mifgash alumna Adi Wegrzyn’s Birthright Israel journey, her group participated in an activity where they passed around a ball of yarn until it connected all members of the group. She keeps a piece of the yarn in her room as a memento of her Birthright Israel friends. “I think one day I will tell my children about the unique experience I had on Birthright Israel, which connects young people from all corners of the world,” she said.
Avni also gained many friends and meaningful connections on his Birthright Israel trip. “How people from two different countries and who hardly spoke the same language could connect in just five days still astounds me to this day,” he said.
On his Birthright Israel trip, Mifgash alumnus and former IDF soldier Doron recalled talking with Diaspora participants about their traditions and cultures compared to his. “Even if we didn’t have exactly the same traditions, we were able to hang out together as brothers and sisters as part of the same people.”
To help participants strengthen their identity with Israel
Surveys from Brandeis University show that 74 percent of participants feel connected to Israel after Birthright Israel. It turns out the Mifgash plays a crucial role in establishing this connection. As the Times of Israel explains, “An educationally effective Mifgash with Israelis allows the American participants to gain an understanding of the complex multi-dimensional, multi-cultural reality that is Israel.”
Mifgash alumnus Tom was surprised to find that many American Jews only know about Israel from the news before their trip. “The majority of my friends on the trip told me that they didn’t understand a lot of things about Israel before the trip, and I think this is the purpose of Birthright Israel,” he said, “for young Jewish adults to see Israel through their own eyes.”
Getting Involved with Birthright Israel
Birthright Israel Foundation also plays a role in protecting Jews around the world. We raise funds in the US to help send nearly 50,000 Jewish young adults to Israel annually. The trip is a gift to the Jewish people, and it helps ensure a vibrant future for the Jewish people for generations to come.
That’s why it’s so important for you to get involved. When you join our family of almost 40,000 annual donors, you become a stakeholder in the destiny of Jews around the globe. “The future of the Jewish people is being written today,” said Mifgash alumnus Doron. “Birthright Israel is a major part in writing that future.”