In just several weeks’ time, tens of thousands of young Jews from across the
world will arrive in Israel on what many will later describe as a “trip that
changed my life.” For outsiders, these words might sound cliché, but for a good
portion of the 350,000 Jews who have participated thus far in the Birthright
Israel program since its launch in December 1999, these words are quite true. I
am one such Birthright participant who can say that this 10-day trip literally
did change the course of my life.
I first came to Israel with Birthright
in January of 2004 with the University of Texas Hillel organization and around
70 other young Jewish students at UT. In the midst of the second intifada, many
Jewish students at UT Austin opted not to participate in the trip.
me, this was never an option. The moment I heard of the chance to travel to
Israel for 10 days, I jumped at the opportunity.
Growing up, my family
always supported Israel, and I interacted with Israeli Scouts at the Memphis
Jewish Community Center day camp as a child and teenager.
I was always
fascinated by Israel and loved meeting with and talking to Israelis.
moment I landed in Israel, I knew that my life would never be quite the same. As
one of our first activities on the trip, we were asked to write our thoughts
upon landing in Israel and being in Israel for the first time. I remember
writing that I did not know if I would make aliya, but that I did know I wanted
to spend several years in Israel during or after college.
The trip was a
wonderful, exhausting experience. From the Golan Heights to the Dead Sea to
Jerusalem and the Negev, we saw all of the “highlights” of Israel and met with
fellow participants from other universities, as well as with a handful of
There are those who criticize the Birthright program by
saying that it is a “Disney World of Israel” – not exposing the participants to
the reality of Israel. As someone who had never been to Israel before, I wanted
to see the “highlights” like the Dead Sea and the Kotel. I have now lived in
Israel a little over six years, and I still don’t know if I understand all of
the intricacies of Israel and its society.
To those who criticize this
aspect of Birthright Israel, my response is that the point of the program is to
stimulate within its participants an interest in Israel and in connecting
further with their Jewish identity. One can’t “get” Israel in 10 days, but one
can be so inspired by the country and the experience that they want more, which
is exactly what happened to me and many of my classmates on the
Following my graduation from the University of Texas in May of
2007, I came to Israel at the end of July to begin a master’s program at the
Hebrew University of Jerusalem, just as I had hoped I would in my initial
reflections upon arriving in Israel on Birthright.
My decision to study
in Israel for two years was very calculated; it was my “test run” for aliya.
Having no family in Israel, I knew that in order for my aliya to be successful,
I would need to learn Hebrew, meet Israelis, and establish a family base for
myself in Israel, which is exactly what I did.
Immediately after I
graduated from Hebrew U, I made aliya with Nefesh B’Nefesh, and I can say that
the experience has been wonderful, although of course there have been small
bumps along the way. I am dating a wonderful Israeli and the future for me is
here in Israel.
I KNOW that my life would probably have taken a
completely different course if I had not come on the Birthright trip. I most
likely would be living in the United States, still involved in the Israel realm
as a Jewish professional, but I would not be living here in Israel, and I would
not want to build a life, family and future here.
I am quite grateful to
those who fund and support Birthright Israel because this 10-day trip did in
fact change my life. I remember crying when I saw the Kotel after winding across
rooftops in the Old City before looking out onto the Western Wall Plaza. When I
told my boyfriend this, he of course laughed, but my connection to Israel as my
homeland was cemented in that very moment when I laid eyes on the most holy site
to the Jewish people.
So at the end of this month and in December when
you see thousands of young Jews from countries throughout the world swarm upon
Israel, remember that this trip could very well have the same effect on them as
it did for me and thousands of previous participants.
Because of my
experience with Birthright, I can proudly say that Israel is my home now and