Franck Azoulay (bottom row, second from left) at a Birthright farewell dinner in Jerusalem.
Franck Azoulay (bottom row, second from left) at a Birthright farewell dinner in Jerusalem. Photo by Franck Azoulay
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Courtesy Ila Gold
Ila Gold, second from left, bonded with Israeli soldiers on her Birthright trip. Photo by Courtesy Ila Gold
Mike Lovett
Prof. Leonard Saxe Photo by Mike Lovett

Her friends call Ila Gold the poster child for Taglit-Birthright Israel.

After growing up in a “completely American home” in a small town in Florida, Gold signed up for a Birthright trip as a college sophomore.

The 10-day journey “sparked a fire” inside her, she says.

“Many of my friends came here and didn’t feel the need to come back − it was fun and that was it,” Gold says. “The second I got back [to the United States] I started to plan how to return.”

Gold, 26, volunteered to staff several Birthright excursions for Oranim, a Birthright trip operator, and kept in touch with her Israeli friends. After finishing graduate school, it was time to take the plunge; she officially became an Israeli citizen two and a half years ago.

“I don’t know if I ever would have come to Israel if it weren’t for Birthright,” she says, noting that she loves her job in advertising, has a serious Israeli boyfriend and is truly happy − even if she’s taking life one day at a time.

There are no statistics on how many of the more than 300,000 Birthright alumni have immigrated to Israel following their trips, though experts say the percentage is small.

“The goal of Birthright was not to promote aliyah,” says Prof. Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. “In the modern era, the key issue was to create connections between Diaspora Jewry and Israel.”

Saxe estimates that 2 to 3 percent of American and 5 percent of Canadian Birthright alumni have settled in Israel.

Much more common are shorter return visits, for vacation or to study at a yeshiva or university. In a recent survey, Saxe and his colleagues found that 24 percent of American and 36 percent of Canadian alumni had returned to Israel within four years of their trip.

A positive Birthright experience − and nearly all of them are positive, Saxe says − is just one factor that influences young people’s decision to relocate to the Holy Land. But it’s a powerful one. “For the first time in their lives, they are part of an intensive Jewish group in a Jewish-Israeli environment and they find that they feel like they’ve come home,” Saxe says.

From LA to the IDF

Leron Ergas had been to Israel a number of times before his 2003 Birthright trip. ‏(To qualify, one cannot have previously visited the country on a peer educational trip.‏) The son of Israeli parents, Ergas, 27, says the excursion’s dynamics − the educational component, the camaraderie − had a profound effect on him.

“It was at an age when I could really appreciate the depth and value of my cultural and historical backgrounds,” Ergas says. Having never before considered settling in the country ‏(his parents left before he was born‏), Ergas extended his trip and then, on the day he was to return to Los Angeles, called his mother and told her he wouldn’t be coming back.

“I had a yearning to learn more about what I saw on my trip,” he says, so he signed up to take classes in Israeli politics and Jewish history at Tel Aviv University. He went through the immigration process a year ago and served in the Israel Defense Forces.

Vanessa Buisson, who was born in Paris but raised in the United States, had never been to Israel before signing up for an IsraelExperts-organized trip in 2003. She was initially opposed to visiting Israel because she had been influenced by her Arab classmates at Brown University and held “far-left, pro-Palestinian ideas,” as she puts it. A high school friend finally convinced her to take advantage of the free trip as a chance to see the region.

“I was the person who, when we went to Yad Vashem, raised my hand and said, ‘This reminds me of how the Palestinians in Gaza live,’” she recalled. “Everyone hated me on the trip.”

Buisson's tour group had a strong international flavor, with three Syrian Jews who spoke Arabic and a few French-Moroccan Jews from Casablanca. The diversity of the group and of Israeli society at large “totally opened my mind to Israel and really chipped away at the stereotypes which are so prevalent on university campuses,” Buisson, 31, says.

She returned to the U.S. with a “more nuanced understanding of Israel's position” and, after working for the Seeds of Peace youth organization and the Anti-Defamation League in New York, decided to move to Israel a year and a half ago. She’s now engaged to an Israeli man and the two are expecting their first child − “an Israeli baby,” Buisson says proudly.

Revelation in the desert

Shifka Shammah, 25, experienced a different kind of awakening on her Birthright trip. The youngest of five children, Shammah was born into a Lubavitch Hasidic family in New York, though the family left the movement when she was 7. She says she had a revelation while taking part in a solitude exercise in the desert and decided that very evening that she wanted to make her life in Israel.

“After the Birthright trip I felt a real need to come back to Yiddishkeit, to connect more to God and to the land,” she says. She returned to New York, quit her job at a natural supplements company and, six months later, planted her roots in Jerusalem. She is now married to a native New Yorker and the two have a 10-month-old son.

No matter how transformative the Birthright experience may be, the decision to settle in a foreign land is never simple. “For young people, they’re finding their way in the world and they have to feel that they can make it. They have to be able to find a job and to find close relationships that sustain them,” Saxe says. “It’s not an easy task.”

One way to ease the transition is by taking your social network with you. In 2003, Franck Azoulay moved to Israel from Montreal with 13 childhood friends who had taken part in Birthright trips organized by the Canada Israel Experience. All but two still live in Israel.

“We were well prepared,” says Azoulay, 35, who met his future wife Karine when he was working for CIE and she was a trip guide. “Coming with a support system was a big help.” Azoulay now works for the advocacy organization Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

Hedai Offaim, director of the Canada Israel Experience, attributes the higher percentage of Canadian Birthright alumni living in Israel to the community structure in Canada.

“We are involved in pre- and post-trip programming,” he says, so for Canadian youth the Birthright trip “is not just a once-in-a-lifetime event.” ‏(Offaim is also a freelance writer for Haaretz.‏)

The reality of daily life is Israel is, of course, very different from the perception that one may get on an all-expenses-paid romp from one end of the country to the other.

“Birthright gives you a very skewed view,” says Molly Livingstone, who visited on a trip organized by Israel Outdoors in 2004. “When I did it I saw only the most beautiful parts of the country.”

Livingstone, 29, knows better than most how precarious life in Israel can be. Marla Bennett, a close friend of hers from high school, was killed when Hamas bombed a cafeteria at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem a decade ago, during the second intifada. Bennett had encouraged Livingstone to go on Birthright, but Livingstone deferred a number of times because she was concerned about the escalating violence.

The tragedy “made me want to visit even more,” Livingstone says. “I came here, I explored the country and I just kind of saw what Marla had seen. I call it falling in love.” A public relations consultant, Livingstone currently lives in Jerusalem with her Israeli-born husband and 2-year-old son.

Sophie Kaye said she had no preconceptions about Israel before visiting in 2001 as part of the first all-New Zealander group. “I feel like our experience of Birthright was very different from the American experience because we were all very fresh,” she says.

Kaye was the only one in her group who knew the blessing over the Shabbat candles − “that’s how assimilated we all were,” she says. She originally planned to stay for two months but ended up staying for 10 and immigrated the following year.

Kaye, 35, worked for the Hadassah women’s organization and, in May 2002, spoke at a ceremony at the Jerusalem City Council honoring Charles and Andrea Bronfman, among Birthright’s major benefactors. She recalled saying in her speech that day: “I had never realized that it was my dream to live in Israel because I had never had the opportunity to come before Birthright.”