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As a Birthright trip leader and volunteer, you could say that my journey began six years ago when I was asked to go on a five-day paid military vacation to travel with Americans. Little did I know, this trip would turn out to be one of the most impactful moments in my life. But the truth is, my journey had begun much earlier.

Growing up, I lived in the small suburban town of Hod Hasharon, Israel. Both of my parents were natives of the town, and all of my extended family members lived near it. Growing up in a small town, I didn’t get the chance to meet Jews who were not Israelis. Even the term “Diaspora Jews” was, for me, something applicable to a history class.

Joining the IDF

At 18, as most Israelis do, I joined the IDF. At first, I was a soldier in Intelligence Unit 8200. After completing an officer course, I was appointed to the position of Vice Advisor for Palestinian Affairs in Hebron, in charge of human intelligence, and serving as the liaison between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Four-and-a-half years into my service, my commander told me, “You are going on a paid vacation to travel with Americans.” I was a bit worried, to say the least, as I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

My First Birthright Trip

Two weeks later, we joined the American group in Tel Aviv. In the beginning, it was very awkward, as the participants asked me a lot of questions, and I tried to answer them in broken English to the best of my ability. On the way to Jerusalem, one of the Americans told me that he was the first in his family to go to see our destination. He said his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, gave him a note to put in the Kotel. I think that’s when I started to realize the importance of the trip—that all the places that I, as an Israeli, had taken for granted were, for other people, places of inspiration. From that moment on, I started to see the trip through their eyes.

On the same night we arrived, we had Shabbat services. I remember being shocked at seeing a woman reading from the Torah AND wearing a yarmulke—even, god forbid, reading the Kaddish. I don’t consider myself a religious person, but growing up in Israel, I learned that there was only one way to be Jewish and one way to pray. It was what I was taught in school and what I applied in Synagogue. As I saw this participant, my age, reading from the Torah, and leading the service with incredible passion and knowledge that I could only dream of, I opened my eyes to new ways of celebrating my identity.

Fostering Real Connections

On the last night of our trip, a speaker gave us an update on the political situation in the Middle East. During the presentation, he asked if anyone had been influenced back at home by the situation in Israel. I was overwhelmed by the responses as participants spoke about demonstrations against Israel at their universities, apartheid walls, BDS, and mock checkpoints at their campuses. I raised my hand and talked about my military role as a liaison between the Israelis and the Palestinians and how, as part of my position, I was in charge of giving medical visas to Palestinian kids so that they could get heart surgeries in Israeli hospitals.

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The lessons that I learned and the discoveries that I made during the trip were valuable. However, what had the most significant effect on me was the friends I gained during the journey. How people from two different countries and who hardly spoke the same language could connect in just five days still astounds me to this day. I like to believe that the journey of self-discovery that every participant goes through during Birthright becomes a group discovery and produces deep, meaningful connections.

Continuing My Birthright Journey

After the trip and my release from duty, I chose to continue the journey that started on Birthright. I was selected by the Jewish Agency to serve as an Israel Fellow at the University of California San Diego. My role was to bring Israel to campus by providing education about Israel and fighting those who try to delegitimize the Jewish state on campus. Just a year after my trip, I was able to help the same students who had talked about their campus experiences during my Birthright trip.

My Birthright trip had also opened up other doors in my life as well. While leading the trip, I saw that besides the usual shawarma and falafel, there was one specific drink that the students LOVED. It was a frozen coffee drink known in Israel as IceCaffe. I was surprised when I realized that the drink didn’t exist in America. So, with a little bit of Israeli chutzpa, we opened up an Israeli iced coffee booth at different festivals in San Diego. Long story short, Froffee is in almost 500 stores throughout the West Coast today, and we expect to be in 1,000 stores by the end of this year. Birthright not only helped me shape my identity but also gave me the idea for my business.

While I was launching Froffee, I was also starting the First Israeli Moishe House in Los Angeles. Our house was dedicated to serving as a bridge between Israelis and Jewish Americans who are currently in America.

Seeing Jerusalem For the First Time

In the years since I opened my business, I started volunteering as a Birthright trip leader. As an Israeli, I never had the privilege of going to Israel for the first time, because Jerusalem was something that was always there for me. By leading these trips, I can experience it for the first time through the eyes of my participants. There are no words to explain the feeling of giving back by taking 48 participants to Jerusalem, knowing that you are going to be involved in shaping their identity for the rest of their lives in the same way the experience shaped yours.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to staff one of the first older Birthright trips for young adults between the ages of 28 and 32. Most of the participants on this trip were in a time of their lives when they were starting families. As a result, most of our nighttime conversations were around topics like the role of Judaism in their new families, what traditions and customs they wanted to maintain in their new household, how to integrate the community into their new families, etc. Those important issues, together with the maturity of the participants, created a trip that, in my mind, will profoundly and positively affect participants and their families for years to come.

Finding Identity Through the Eyes of Others

Looking back, I realize that Taglit-Birthright Israel opened my eyes to a whole new world of Judaism. The conversations, relationships, and, most importantly, shared exploration of our roots led me on a journey toward discovering my own identity. For that, I want to thank Birthright. Thank you for changing the lives of thousands of Israelis who have learned to value their country and their religion through the eyes of others.

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