Lindsay Nathanson is a 2019 Birthright Israel alumna from Philadelphia, PA. She is currently studying History…
When I was in college, a new program started that would allow Jewish young adults who had never visited Israel to go on a free trip as their birthright. Growing up in a very Zionist household, I had already been to Israel several times, and so did not qualify for this new-found opportunity. As I saw the program develop and heard stories from friends about this once-in-a-lifetime trip, I felt that I had to find a way to participate. Fast forward about a decade, I was working for the Jewish Federation and urged my CEO to let me staff a trip. I told him how it would be so much more compelling as a fundraiser to be able to express the experience first-hand. He asked me, “have you been to Israel?” to which I, of course, said yes, “okay, then you can tell the story.”
But my hunger wasn’t satiated. I knew there was something different about this Israel experience that I had to be a part of. It wasn’t until 5 years later that I would have my chance. After relocating to a new community and taking a role at its local Jewish Federation, I was told that there was always a need for knowledgeable Birthright Israel staffers and, if I would be willing, they would love to have me for the next season. To say that I was above the moon is an understatement. Everyone around me wondered why I was so enamored. After all, I had been a staff person on major gifts missions, why would I want to travel at any other level of luxury?!
What those people didn’t understand, and what I still try to explain to people today, is that Birthright Israel is magic. There really isn’t any other way to describe it. You see a transformation in people and a spark ignited in them that before was simply a pilot light, waiting for the right moment to flame. There is a special recipe – a touch of adventure, a pinch of history, and a teaspoon of deep connection – that creates a bond within the group and with the land that is unparalleled.
I have seen participants make other Jewish friends for the first time in their lives and, more importantly, felt truly Jewish…not Jew-ish. They learn that there was no such thing as “a bad Jew” or “a good Jew” and, even if only one of their parents is Jewish, it doesn’t mean they aren’t wholly Jewish.
I have heard of stories of participants worried about telling their Jewish story on their application for fear of being rejected by the program, or worse yet other participants, only to find out that they are perfect (and accepted) just the way they are. I have seen Israelis get to know their country for the first time, some recognizing the importance of sites they’ve seen all of their lives, only because their perspective changes through someone else’s eyes. A year ago, as we were convening the group after going to the Western Wall, an Israeli participant turns to everyone and says, “I have been here so many times, but it never meant anything to me. Now, seeing you, I get it. If it’s ok with everyone, let’s hold hands and sing Hatikvah.” These are not orchestrated moments, they are the ingredients to creating a strong connection to Israel, the Diaspora, and Judaism, whatever that means to you.
A few years ago, I participated in the Birthright Israel Fellows program. I thought when I completed my commitment of three additional trips, I would be done, but this winter reminded me why it will be hard to ever walk away. One of my participants asked, “Why do you do this? You’re not getting paid, you have to take vacation, and it surely isn’t easy…so why?” I looked at him and said, “I love Israel. If by staffing these trips I ignite that love in just one other person, it is worth it.” He looked at me, a tear in his eye, and said, “Robyn, you’ve definitely inspired me.”