As we enter this year’s High Holidays season, I am delighted to share a few thoughts…
For me to share more about my Birthright Israel experience, I need to start with one of my favorite stories. Here we go:
Once upon a time, there was a man who was walking along the beach early one morning after a big storm and found the shore covered with starfish as far as the eye could see.
Off in the distance, the man noticed a small boy walking towards him, pausing every few moments to pick up a starfish and throw it into the ocean. As the boy came closer, the man called out to him, “Good morning! Why are you wasting your time with that?”
The boy said, “What do you mean? I’m throwing starfish back into the sea. They will die if I don’t.” The man replied, “There are tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m sorry, but you won’t be able to make a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the sea. Then he turned, smiled, and said to the man, “I made a difference to that one!” Together they watched the starfish enter the water, returning home, creating a ripple so powerful that it made its way all the way here with us today.
Similar to that starfish, we, the Jewish people, have been creating ripples for centuries, always in our effort to return home to Jerusalem. Since the time of Egyptian Slavery, to the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, the Holocaust, all the wars and conflicts in Israel today, we Jews have faced and continue to face endless challenges, both as a community, a nation, and as individuals.
I experienced some of these challenges firsthand as one of the only Jewish students at my high school. There, I felt out of place and learned to hide the fact that I was Jewish. This experience caused me to be indifferent to my religion, roots, and Jewish identity.
Over time, I have learned that I am not alone in this story, but actually, it’s quite common in today’s younger generations, including my own, both in the US and abroad. But all of that changed for me when I was gifted the opportunity to go on Birthright Israel. Like many participants, before and after me, Birthright Israel altered the course of my life forever.
It was on Birthright Israel that I heard stories like my own, where I had finally met my people and felt the power of the holy land. It was also on my trip where I learned it was my birthright to embrace my Judaism and wear it with pride. Like the starfish, Birthright Israel threw me into the sea and brought me back home, creating a ripple in my life that continues today.
One of my most vivid memories of the trip took place on a Friday night in Jerusalem. It was my first time ever at the sacred Western Wall. I placed my hands and forehead on the wall and looked up in awe at the countless prayer notes wedged between the stones. A moment later, an Israeli soldier came and stood next to me. He looked about my age, with a red beret on his head and a rifle slung over his shoulder. He placed his head on the wall and started to pray, and to my surprise, he began to cry. I had never given the IDF and IDF soldiers much thought until then. To my surprise, he began to cry, and said under his breath in Hebrew, “תן לי את הכוח לחולל שינוי” – “give me the power to make a difference” he yelled.
If only he could see the difference he was making to Israel, the Jewish community, and the trajectory of my life. Thanks to my Birthright Israel trip, the connection I felt towards Israel ran through my veins. Like that soldier, like the boy on the beach, I also wanted to make a difference.
Not long after my trip, I graduated from college, moved to Israel, and joined the Israel Defense Forces. At the time, most of my family and friends disagreed with my decision. Of course, my heart was telling me otherwise. I wanted to do something special, something bigger than myself, and I was willing to sacrifice everything to chase that dream. After all the sweat, blood, and tears, days without food, and nights without sleep, I can now proudly say that I am a member of the Israeli Paratrooper Brotherhood.
I only hope that my service made a difference, and I was able to pass along the same magnitude of a mitzvah that Birthright Israel gave to me.
That is my Birthright Israel story and every participant has their own. Birthright Israel Foundation is not just any other non-profit. It is the bond that binds our people together. Each participant is a brick, and brick by brick, we are building something unbreakable.
On behalf of Birthright Israel Foundation, I ask you to please pick up a starfish. No matter how big or small, you are making a difference, and the ripple effect of your support will go far beyond what the eye can see.