A Taglit-Birthright Israel participant died in his sleep at the end of last week during the final night of his trip, Birthright officials have confirmed.
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Michael Kellogg, 24, was traveling on Birthright with 22- to 26-year-old young professionals through trip provider Kesher Israel, under the arm of the Union for Reform Judaism. Neither Kesher nor the group’s tour coordinator, Jewish Agency subsidiary Israel Experience, would comment on the situation.
“Michael Kellogg was found dead in his bed on the last night of his group’s visit to Israel,” Taglit-Birthright Israel said in a statement. “The family requested a post-mortem.
We understand they will receive the results. Taglit- Birthright Israel sends our sincere condolences to the Kellogg family.”
While exploring Israel for 10 days with his peers, Kellogg smiled from ear to ear for the entire week and a half, as he eagerly learned about his Jewish background, his friends said.
After a week of hiking around the country, the group members decided to go out to celebrate their final evening together – last Wednesday, October 27. When they returned home to their hotel that evening, nothing seemed particularly abnormal about Kellogg, according to his roommate, Aaron Brooks.
“He laid down on his bed and he instantly fell asleep,” said Brooks, 22. “He just never woke up.”
At the time, Kellogg was being treated for a medical condition, but his family has not yet received the results of the autopsy conducted to clarify the exact cause of death, said his fiancée, Hope Fargis, who was not on the trip with him. She expects his body to arrive in Connecticut, where his family lives, tomorrow.
“He was an avid advocate of Israel – he wanted to be there so badly,” Fargis said. “It’s almost poetic justice that he then passed away there. He was so proud of the country.”
Brooks described his roommate as someone perpetually eager to learn,
particularly because he wasn’t from a strong Jewish background.
“He was all about learning all the time,” Brooks said.
“When we had Shabbat, he didn’t realize that the book was read from
right to left, and I got a kick out of that,” he added warmly.
Kellogg had been raised in a secular family and only started attending
synagogue when Fargis, who wanted to convert to Judaism, encouraged him
to research his roots and explore his faith a few years ago.
“He started really believing in God,” she said. “He was so proud to be Jewish and he loved it.”
And every Christmas – his father was Christian – Kellogg sent a donation
to his favorite charity, Magen David Adom, according to Fargis.
Soon Kellogg and Fargis became regulars at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro,
North Carolina, which they attended until they graduated from the
University of North Carolina in the spring and moved to Virginia.
Michael remained a member of the synagogue even after they moved, since
they intended to return to Greensboro next year to get married, Fargis
They had also volunteered in the local Jewish soup kitchen and at community events.
In addition to owning about 300 books on Israel, Kellogg displayed an
Israeli flag on the wall of their apartment and always wore a Magen
David around his neck, she said.
“He loved Israel and he prayed for Gilad Schalit and his family every day.
That was a cause deep in his heart,” added Fargis, noting that he had been thinking of joining the IDF.
Kellogg graduated cum laude with a degree in political science and a
minor in philosophy and pre-law studies. He was a member of the Pi Sigma
Alpha Honors Society and a volunteer court-appointed advocate for
abused and neglected children, according to Fargis.
In addition to Fargis, Michael leaves behind his parents, Beth and Bruce
Kellogg, and his brother Aaron, of Connecticut; his grandparents,
Arlene Weitz and Don Saar, of Massachusetts; and his beloved rat
terriers, Gizmo and Bella.
While the Birthright trip members only knew Kellogg for 10 days, Brooks
says he had bonded with him quickly and that everyone who had traveled
with them was shocked by his death. The group’s Facebook page is
exploding with condolence messages, emotions and memories of Kellogg.
“We were hanging out the whole time – the whole time we were trading off
our cameras to takes pictures of each other,” Brooks said. “The 10 days
were like a blur to me. It was big spiritual venture, and I can say
that Mike got a lot out of this trip and that he added to it. It
wouldn’t have been the same without him. There aren’t many times in your
life that you can say you met such a good friend.”
Despite the tragic loss, Brooks and the other group members say that the trip was far from a failure.
“As far as Mike goes, he wouldn’t want us to remember the trip as his
death. He would want us to remember how amazing it was,” Brooks said.
“In every picture he’s smiling.”
Services for Kellogg will be held in Hartford, Connecticut, on Thursday at 10 a.m. at the Weinstein Funeral Home.
Donations in his name can be made to Magen David Adom.