In 2004 I moved from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn to a small suburban town in New Jersey…
For countless Birthright Israel participants, the return flight home can be an overwhelming experience. After ten days of exploring the culture and history of your ancestors with 40 new friends, the thought of separation, and a return to normal life is daunting. With a new perspective on life, Birthright Israel alumni often find themselves asking, “what now?”
On my trip, meeting Chen, our Israeli mifgash, sent me into a quarter-life crisis. It is hard not to be impressed with the maturity of Israeli youth. Drafted into the IDF at 18, our Israeli peers were tasked with responsibilities that made our post-college minds spin. As one of the soldiers described her job of coordinating emergency drills, she made sure to clarify that it was “only” for one city. The message that Birthright Israel participants get from the casual way that most mifgash speak of their military service is clear – they are just doing their part as Israeli citizens.
In Jerusalem, I was visited by a friend of mine, Brian, from New York who had made aliyah several years before. He went on to join the Spokesperson’s Unit of the IDF. Arriving at my hotel in full uniform, I was filled with pride and awe…but I was also a little embarrassed. I couldn’t help but ask myself why it had taken me so long to visit Israel and connect to my roots.
For years I had followed Israeli current events and politics, but nothing could compare to the personal attachment that was forming. Birthright Israel was giving the Jewish people the greatest gift: making sure that no matter what side of the ocean you were born on, Israeli and Diaspora Jews would no longer be strangers.
As the days went on, I could not help but feel that if I wanted to make a difference in life, I needed to start with Israel and the Jewish people.
Life After Birthright Israel
Landing back in New York, I was hit with my first “what now?” At first, all of my friends were excited to ask me about my trip. They used me to relive their own Birthright Israel experience. I was fortunate in that my madrich, Lior, lived 15 minutes from me and frequently invited me over for Shabbat with his Israeli family. He also introduced me to the Jewish Enrichment Center in New York City which hosted Shabbat for young professionals. In between Whatsapp messages with my Israeli mifgash, reconnecting with my Judaism helped distract me from missing Israel, but I was still looking for more.
Next Stop: Poland
The next summer, I traveled to Poland through the Jewish Enrichment Center on a Birthright Israel alumni trip. Walking through the concentration camps draped in an Israeli flag was a life-changing experience. As I knelt by the memorial stone next to the ruins of the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau, where nearly a million Jews perished during the Holocaust, I made a promise to my ancestors that I would do everything in my power to protect our people. The bonds that I had made a year earlier on Birthright Israel took on a new meaning that day that would drive me in the years to come.
Operation Protective Edge
My trip to Poland took place during the first week of July 2014, in the days following the tragic kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers and right before Operation Protective Edge. From July 4th through the 6th, while my group walked through the concentration camps, 62 rockets struck Israel from Gaza.
When I got back to our hotel at night and turned on my phone’s wi-fi, I at once received dozens of notifications from the Red Alert App telling me about each missile strike. I immediately messaged my Israeli friends, some of whom were still serving in the IDF. I was relieved to find out that they and their families were safe, but I could not believe how calm they were about the attacks.
My Involvement with AIPAC Begins
One of the guys on my trip worked for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and he explained that Israel was defending against the missiles using the Iron Dome air defense system. The Iron Dome (a product of U.S.-Israel defense cooperation) was what was giving our brothers and sisters in Israel the sense of security they needed to live their lives without fear.
While we looked at defense breakthroughs like Iron Dome in amazement, they took on a whole new meaning when seeing them put to use in real-life situations. Although history teaches us not to take the U.S.-Israel relationship for granted, the relationships that I made on Birthright Israel and the emotions that I felt in Poland gave me a new appreciation for the role we were fortunate enough to play.
Protecting the Jewish people
Fear of genocide, pogroms, or missile attacks were luckily not a part of my life as an American Jew. My Birthright Israel trip changed my life by giving me a reason to care about Israel. Israelis were no longer “strangers” but individuals who were a part of my family. Remembering my promise at Auschwitz-Birkenau and thinking about the importance of AIPAC’s lobbying on behalf of the U.S.-Israel relationship, I knew that I had a responsibility to “do more.” While Israelis were fighting on behalf of our people, as an American Jew I would need to fight on their behalf.
Getting Involved Locally
Upon returning home I became an advisor for my local B’nai B’rith Youth Organization chapter, the place that had helped shape my Jewish identity when I was in high school. I started assisting my friends who were leaders of Students Supporting Israel at Columbia University. They had their hands full fighting the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement as well as the annual “Apartheid Week” demonstrations.
Several friends of mine also introduced me to Fuel For Truth, an NYC based organization (now with chapters in Miami, Boston, and Los Angeles) that runs a ten-week “boot camp” program for young professionals focusing on Israel education and advocacy. Reading books about Israel in my spare time and volunteering more than ever, the biggest change occurred when one of my rabbis from the JEC approached me about staffing my first Birthright Israel trip.
Leading My First Birthright Israel Trip
For a long time I had balanced my eagerness to staff a trip with my fear of not being “good enough” for the role. For many trip participants, Birthright Israel could be the last opportunity to explore their Jewish connection before living a life of minimal involvement. They may never have another chance to visit Israel and develop a relationship with their past. As someone whose life had changed so much for the better because of this trip, the weight of this importance was not lost on me. In the end, the same reasons that made me reluctant to staff also caused me to accept the offer. Agreeing to become a madrich was the best decision I ever made.
Each Trip is Unique
Each Birthright Israel trip is unlike any other. As important as the itinerary is it is the individuals in the group and how they interact with each other that define the experience. While some of the participants may have grown up with more religious backgrounds or in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, others grew up in homes where their Judaism was never discussed.
Some participants long considered Birthright Israel to be a dream opportunity, others had no previous desire to visit Israel but were influenced by a close friend or family member. The honor of staffing these trips is also a gift to the madrichim who get to help their peers navigate the experience together. The individual gets to have their own experience but the madrich has the opportunity to enhance the trip and show and explain to the group parts of Israel that they may otherwise have missed. Each successive trip provides the chance to learn and to give back to the community.
The Meaning of “Birthright” for Israelis
Focusing in on the meaning of Birthright Israel for the American participants often ignores the meaning for the Israeli mifgash. These men and women are people under their uniforms and Birthright Israel helps to peel back the layers, exposing the reality that we are one family that has been separated by circumstance. This is a two-way street. While the participants often come away with a sense of how Israeli strength makes the world a safer place for all Jewish people, madrichim have the ability as Americans to connect the dots and show that Israelis that we have their back as well. Being Israeli is not easy, and the mifgash should come away energized and proud of who they are, with everyone feeling the reciprocity of the U.S.- Israel relationship. As one family, we have a responsibility to look after each other.
A Career with AIPAC
Staffing trips and my time in Poland inspired me to begin a career with AIPAC to protect our people.
In the AIPAC office, I am surrounded by many people who were similarly inspired by their Birthright Israel trips and who understand the importance of strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. Last December when Jews were being targeted in daily antisemitic attacks in Brooklyn I partnered with a colleague and our Krav Maga studio to co-found the Guardian Self-Defense organization in Crown Heights.
Every Sunday we train our brothers and sisters to prevent them from becoming victims. In a world where human interaction is being replaced by social media, Birthright Israel provides the personal touch that the international community is sorely lacking.
The Lasting Impact of Birthright Israel
From afar, many people look at Israel and only see politics. Close up, many only see Tel Aviv and shawarma. Birthright Israel pushes past that shallowness and allows its participants to make their own connection to the land and the people, forever changing our lives. When Israel gets attacked, I no longer only see an upsetting news story. I see my Birthright medic’s family home being attacked in Sderot. I see my mifgash being called up from the IDF reserves. I see the graves at Har Herzl where I watched friends speak about fallen loved ones.
While many Jews from older generations fear a weakening in our connection to the past, Birthright Israel is forging and strengthening bonds that will not be fully understood or appreciated for generations to come. While we may be moving further from the Holocaust, and some are missing out on the lessons that our survival taught us, Birthright Israel is making sure that we have the opportunity to connect with our brothers and sisters overseas in the here and now.
Take Advantage of this Gift
If you’re sitting at home wishing your Birthright Israel trip never ended or if you’re like me and the future of our people is always on your mind, don’t let a list of excuses stop you from following your heart. Our community needs more passionate leaders setting an example and there are endless ways to get more involved.