In 2004, a Birthright Israel trip inspired Marina Yudborovsky to reconnect with her Jewish identity, something it has done for 750,000+ young Jews worldwide. Marina, a Soviet Jewish émigré to the US, was then motivated to join the Genesis Philanthropy Group (GPG) in 2009 to help in its mission to strengthen the Jewish identity of Russian-speaking Jews around the world. This past July Marina was named GPG’s CEO, and JTA quickly named her one of the youngest women leading a major Jewish organization.
Marina immigrated with her family to the United States in 1989. In the US, local agencies like the UJA Federation of New York helped her family adapt to their new life. Those experiences, though some of them were challenging, created a foundation for what would eventually grow into a deep engagement with the Jewish world.
We had an opportunity to speak with Marina recently and wanted to know exactly what role her Birthright Israel trip played in her life. Here’s what she had to say:
Why did you sign up for Birthright Israel in 2004?
Unlike many other Russian-speaking Jews (RSJs) in New York at the time, who were living in Brooklyn, I was living in Queens, so I wasn’t really connected to the community. Through one of my non-Jewish American friends, I was introduced to another Russian Jew who told me about “this free Israel trip.” So we applied together.
Can you recall what made your Birthright Israel trip so life-changing?
The experience became a pivotal moment in my life, but this became obvious only much later. Israel made an incredible impression on me, but, as is often the case in such circumstances, it all came down to one person. The madricha (Birthright Israel trip staff) for a group of RSJs from New York – not even the group I was with – befriended me when our two groups stayed at Ein Gev, a Kibbutz on the Kinneret.
Coincidentally, the madricha, Sara, and I were on the same flight back to New York, and she told me about a course to train Birthright Israel staff like her. I did not require a lot of convincing to go back to Israel as a madricha. It seemed a lot like working in a Jewish camp, which I had done for years, before and during college, and loved it very much. So, I did the training and began taking groups to Israel – two a year for the next four years. This was really my introduction to the organized Jewish world. Eventually, I would end up meeting my husband through the people I met doing this volunteer work. The rest of my life really goes from there! And I am still friends with Sara.
How do you think the experience impacts other young Jewish adults from the Former Soviet Union?
Young adults who live in the areas of the Former Soviet Union or those whose families are from there are, in many ways, very similar to their North American and European counterparts. A trip with their peers to Israel, not only gives them first-hand experience with Israel and Israelis but also helps them create and strengthen the local community. There are differences, however. For example, due to immigration patterns of the last thirty years, most RSJ Birthright Israel participants have close relatives in Israel but have not been to Israel before. This was true for me and it makes the experience all the more personal and poignant.
One of the things I think is really incredible is that you go with your peers. You can choose the peer group and make the trip selection as relevant to you as you want. I think that is one of the keys to Birthright Israel being so successful. At GPG, for example, we have worked with Birthright Israel to tie Israeli history into the history of the Russian-Jewish community. These elements that are curated for each trip make it something unique, an opportunity for every participant to find themselves in the diverse tapestry of Israel.
Do you feel the program benefits young people when they return to their home countries?
Of course, not only in the context of building relationships with Israel. It helps build relationships with people in the community – people who share an incredibly powerful experience together. They form friendships, relationships, and long-term connections. These connections can become the backbone of the community and ensure its future.
Do you believe Birthright Israel plays a positive role in today’s college students and young professionals?
The trip is right for people at different times in their lives, depending on the person. I think for some, college is a great time to go because of the climate on campus around Israel. For others, though, that could be a reason they don’t go. I think it’s important that Birthright Israel gives each person this option.
Regardless of when you go, I do think participation in Birthright Israel plays an important role in the lives of participants. There are many reasons for this, but one is experiential learning. The program makes Israel tangible and gives participants the ability to build a much more stable relationship with the country, based on a more realistic picture of what Israel is truly like.
The trip inspired you to work in the Jewish nonprofit world; what is your advice to someone thinking of a career change?
Just do it! Working in this sector can provide you with incredible opportunities to leverage any skillset you have. I think people also have to keep in mind that you do not need to make a commitment to stay in the Jewish non-profit world forever. We need more talent to join this sector and bring diversity and new ideas, especially during these turbulent times.
Lastly, what would you say if you met the donor who made your trip possible?
I remember when I went on Birthright Israel, people were still suspicious about it being a free trip. I recall my parents being especially reticent. “Nothing is free,” they insisted. Well, Birthright Israel is truly a revolutionary idea and I am thankful for the incredible opportunity it provided. Now my work allows me to help ensure this opportunity exists for others, which in itself is a real privilege.