My Birthright Israel trip was life changing – and not just for me

By Alec Burkin 
My story began as a typical millennial from Boston, a reform Jewish-American – devoid of any substantive connection to Israel. My Jewish identity was formed through a combination of summer camp, Sunday school and overly lavish bar/bat-mitzvahs. I visited Israel for the first time as a Birthright-Israel participant in 2011, when I was eighteen years old.
During the trip, after climbing up Masada and walking through the old city, our group arrived at the Hotel in Jerusalem. Despite the fact that we were exhausted and in no mood for more lectures, we were ushered to the basement to meet with speakers from various organizations working in Israel. One of them, a volunteer, announced, “We are here to encourage you to join Gift of Life Marrow Registry (‘GOL’). This registry connects anonymous, healthy donors with ailing cancer patients suffering from blood related cancers. Only one of 1,000 individuals are identified as a perfect match, and this depends on a common genetic and ethnic background. Therefore, it’s important for you, as Jews, to register during your time in Israel and help raise representation in the worldwide registry.” Those of us willing to join raised their hand, including me.
Some might find it surprising but only two percent of Americans are registered marrow donors. Incredibly, because of a system that recruits donors through the IDF, 10% of the Israeli adult population is registered, making it the marrow registry with the highest number of stem cell donors per 10,000 inhabitants worldwide.
It was one year after returning home from Israel that I received a call from a woman named Gail proclaiming I was a perfect match for a 59-year-old woman dying of a blood cancer. I hardly even remembered swabbing my cheek, but was thrilled to receive the call. Next, I donated anonymously, through a painless procedure in Boston.
After a year, when the anonymity clause was gone, I finally met Susan, the women who received my donation. A sixty-one-year-old women, looked me in the eyes and said: “Thank you for saving my life". Since that moment and those words, my life has changed forever.
Now, when I tell my story to strangers, just like that volunteer in the life changing lecture I attended many years ago, I hope to establish credibility and explain how an uninspired nineteen-year-old boy’s life was transformed by the opportunity to raise his hand, swab, donate and save a life. I had done nothing in my life to make me more qualified to be a donor than the next person and yet, I was given the chance to change another's reality, find new purposes & gain a new perspective on life and how I’d like to spend mine.
Now, as a new immigrant in Israel and a graduate student at Tel Aviv University, my American-Jewish identity has been transformed to that of an American-Israeli, curious about my connection to this land.
As I struggle to learn Hebrew, overeat every Shabbat at my Israeli friends’ homes, miss my family in America, I often sit back in my small apartment in Tel Aviv, and wonder where I would be if I had not raised my hand that day.
Still, countless people die every day while searching for their match, so I feel it is my obligation to spread this message in conclusion: if you are in good general health and between the ages of eighteen and forty-five, take a minute to think if there is anything you can do to save someone's life. Maybe it’s as easy as swabbing your cheek.