Birthright Excel: Grooming leaders

“Excel is for our best and brightest,” said Birthright Israel co-founder Michael Steinhardt.

Participants from the professional internship program Birthright Excel take a group shot at a reunion in New York in October (photo credit: TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT)
Participants from the professional internship program Birthright Excel take a group shot at a reunion in New York in October
(photo credit: TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT)
Combine a concentrated junior year abroad, an intense internship with a high-level Israeli business/hi-tech firm and the Zionist-building elements of a Birthright program, and it would probably look a lot like Birthright Excel.
Celebrating its fifth anniversary, the competitive 10-week offshoot of Birthright Israel accepts 40 to 50 Jewish undergrads each year out of close to 2,000 applicants who are then placed in some of the country’s elite companies in finance, venture capital and hi-tech – from Checkpoint and Deloitte to Ernst & Young and Pitango.
“Excel is for our best and brightest,” said Birthright Israel co-founder Michael Steinhardt at a weekend gathering of more than 100 alumni held in Manhattan last month.
And a quick scan of the slightly maleheavy attendees bears that out. Many of those shiny, buttoned-down millennials are already working in fields like investment banking and system analysis and they credit part of their fast-track success to their time as a Birthright Excel fellow.
“It helped me understand the idea that in a lot of contexts, you can distinguish yourself with your performance, and you realize that ‘no’ in many cases can actually mean ‘yes, but…’” said Daniel Trauner, who participated in the 2012 Excel program as a Middlebury College undergrad.
Trauner, who interned with Tel Aviv denial-of-service protection experts Radware, went on to work for Hewlett-Packard after graduating and recently moved to San Francisco startup Bug Crowd.
Each Birthright Israel Excel fellow is guided by a professional mentor from within their company placement and is also paired with an Israeli student peer from either the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya or the exclusive 8200 intelligence corps unit of the IDF responsible for signal intelligence and code decryption.
“It was a great experience for me,” said past program peer Omer Levy, an IDC student in law and government. “What makes the program so special is that the participants don’t see only the business side, but they get the whole Israel experience – going to Shabbat dinner, going to bars, hiking.”
According to Birthright Excel’s mission statement, the program was created to develop a cadre of future Jewish leaders who will serve their community at home and promote business ties with Israel. The alumni at the New York event appeared gung-ho in that approach as they sat with rapt attention for speeches by Israel’s consul general in New York, Ido Aharoni, who told them, “You guys are going to be very important brand ambassadors for Israel,” and by Brad Wechsler, the colorful chairman of IMAX, who imparted the wisdom that “people like to be led.”
“They’re 24 or 25, and they’re working for Amazon and Google,” said Birthright Excel’s executive director Ifat Bechor, looking out at the participants.
“The first few years were about laying the groundwork of creating a great professional program in Israel that not only includes the best internships but also a great educational program that incorporates all of the values that Birthright has to offer. The last two years have been more about building this vibrant community of alumni.”
That sense of community was palpable at the event’s Shabbat dinner, as participants locked arms to sing Hinei ma tov and later laughed along with Steinhardt when he encouraged collaborations among the alumni, not only in the business sphere.
Jeremy Schreier, who participated as a Stanford senior in the 2013 program at famed security specialist Checkpoint, said that one of the main benefits of Birthright Excel has been joining the alumni community. “We see ourselves as members of the larger Jewish community and we’re always looking at our friendships and real connections to strengthen each other and the community,” he said.
And where does Israel fit into that? “I have a very deep connection and passion for Israel and Excel helped me flush that out and made me realize how I can make Israel a part of my personal and professional life one day.”
Duke chemistry major Rebecca Haley, who interned at Herzliya-based biopharma and medical devices firm Pontifax, said that her Excel experience filled in for not spending her junior year abroad. “I’m not sure I could see myself ever living in Israel – I feel I would need to speak the language fluently – but I would definitely want to bring my children there,” she said.
Regardless of their future relationship with Israel, the Birthright Excel alumni are viewed by the organization as valued treasures.
“You look at these kids, and in each and every one of them you see a future leader 20 years from now,” said Yoram Tietz, a managing partner of Ernst & Young Israel and chairman of Birthright Excel.
“It’s the first program we have with reciprocity – the US doing philanthropy and Israel giving back. Both sides of the equation are working together and it creates a win-win situation – for the companies, the kids, the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”