Proving They're Not Too 'Bougie' for Birthright

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: Two young L.A. women explain why they decided to rough it out on Birthright trip to Israel ■ What it's like to be on the verge of being drafted into the Israeli army

McKenna and Melina.
Tomer Appelbaum

McKenna (Malka), 21; Melina, 20; both from Los Angeles; McKenna is flying to L.A., Melina to Ukraine

Hello, girls. Can I ask how you spent your time in Israel?

McKenna: We were here with Birthright.

Did you know each other before?

Melina: No. We became friends on the trip. We extended our stay to hang out together.

Did you enjoy the experience?

McKenna: Yes, I even changed my name to Malka. We were given a list of names and told what they mean.

Melina: We were at the Western Wall and were hoisted on chairs and received Hebrew names. I thought “Michaela” would suit me, because of my grandfather, Misha.

What do you do in Los Angeles?

McKenna: I’m in real estate.

How did you get into that at such a young age?

McKenna: I was working in a bar and a woman who works in the field came in and said I’d be good at it. She said she could see my potential: interpersonal skills, communicativeness. I had dropped out of school and thought I’d end up working in bars forever, because I don’t have a degree. She saved me.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned?

McKenna: Mirroring. To reflect back the energy of the person I’m talking to. If someone’s shy, to speak to him quietly; if someone’s loud, to speak to him enthusiastically.

Did you use that behavior in Israel?

McKenna: It was a bit difficult, because of the language, but you could say that people here are definitely exciting. Sincere, loud, keeping it real.

You’re making me feel that I’m part of a cool nation. So, where are you headed from here?

Melina: I’m going to visit my family in Kiev. I haven’t been there for seven years. Things have changed a lot since the revolution. I’m a little stressed, because I’ve avoided going there, but I thought it’d be good to go back, and then return to Israel.

Why did you avoid going to Ukraine?

Melina: Because of the war. There are many problems, people went through a lot. Stabbings, shootings – it was scary. My father had a vodka business, and his factory was in Russia. Now they’ve stopped production and he has some economic difficulties. People used to a certain way of life lost a fortune. The real estate my father invested in is worthless, and my family says things won’t get better.

So will your father emigrate?

Melina: He tried to immigrate to the U.S., and realized it wasn’t good, so he went back to Ukraine. His brother is about to make aliyah to Israel, with four small children. They want to come because there’s a better economic horizon here.

In the wake of the crisis, there’s a new wave of immigration from Ukraine to Israel.

Melina: For example, that’s how I happened to be born in Cyprus. After the Soviet Union collapsed, everyone was hungry, and in Cyprus there was meat, cheese and bread. My family immigrated there and I was born in Limassol.

What do you do, Melina?

Melina: I’m studying film. After taking an acting course, I realized that I want to see things from the other side of the camera. I want to be in a creative environment.

You could make a pretty amazing film about your life, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cyprus, L.A. and the visit to Ukraine.

Melina: I don’t know if I’ll tell my story, but certainly there’ll be echoes of it in the films I’ll make.

What drew you two to Birthright in the first place?

McKenna: Everyone Jewish in L.A. goes on Taglit at some stage. I’m one of the last in my group to do it.

When we decided to stay on we rented an Airbnb apartment in Jaffa in a really dark and unpleasant place. Most of the people I grew up with wouldn’t have survived in those conditions, and definitely not the whole trip. We slept in hostels, which was okay for me, but they wouldn’t spend even one night there. People also said I was too bougie for Birthright. But it was perfectly all right. We had soldiers with us on the trip, and even if they were younger than me, I saw that their service experience matured them. Too bad we don’t have compulsory service.

Why do you think you got through it relatively easily?

McKenna: Because my parents raised me differently. I always felt different, because if I didn’t mow the neighbors’ lawn or babysit, I wouldn’t get money. Today I’m glad I was brought up like that: to appreciate the work I did for someone by myself and not get things for free. I think that could be the difference between people who were born into money and those whose parents were the ones who made the leap, so it will be important to raise their children to value that.

Melina: I agree. Here I am, daddy’s little girl, and he traveled at age 19 and slept in hostels in Europe. I’m showing him that I can, too.

Eitan Gribov, Ayelet Madvil, Joel Van der Boum and Yoav Sade.
Tomer Appelbaum

From left, Eitan Gribov, 18; Ayelet Madvil, 17; Joel Van der Boum, 18; Yoav Sade, 18; from Rishon Letzion; arriving from Bulgaria

Hello, where were you all?

Ayelet: We’re part of a group of 16 friends – 10 boys and six girls, including three couples. We’ve just landed from Bulgaria. We just decided we had to fly.

Yoav: Three of the friends are being drafted, and we said we had to do something.

Ayelet: Yoel organized the flight.

Yoel: We’re also organizing a big pre-induction celebration.

What will you have?

Ayelet: What won’t we have? There will be a shawarma wheel.

Yoel: We bought alcohol at the airport in Bulgaria. We told them we need cheap vodka, and Bulgarian vodka costs 20 shekels [$5.45] a bottle.

Sounds like you’re a cohesive group. Where did you meet each other?

Eitan: Most of the guys were together in the young leaders’ program run by the city of Rishon Letzion.

The municipality has a youth movement? Very nice. Yoel, what unit will you be serving in?

Yoel: The squad commander’s course at the Combat Support Center [specializing in basic training for non-combat recruits].

How do you feel about your army service?

Yoel: Lousy. It’s not the assignment I wanted, so I’m upset. I would like something more technological. I reached a high level in the classification process, but I didn’t make the final cut, so I ended up with something I didn’t want.

What would you like to do in the army?

Ayelet: Something that will help us afterward in civilian life, like computers.

Eitan: That will help us toward acquiring a profession.

Yoel: Most of us have been in Mofet programs [a Hebrew acronym for mathematics, physics and culture], but at two different schools. We’re mostly into computers. Commando units don’t interest us at all.

Eitan: Yes, we want something that will also help us, and not just help the state.

Well, you know what they say: The army isn’t a listeners’ requests program. How do young people find out about army assignments and the whole screening process?

Ayelet: Graduates of our school came to speak to us and explained what they did in the army. All of the jobs were related to computers. People invest a lot in preparing for the screening exams. We have one guy in our class who prepared like a madman for them and he got into a great program in Intelligence.

Yes, it’s been in the headlines lately that young people prepare very hard for certain desirable posts in the army. Is that connected to the special classes you were in, in school?

Eitan: I wasn’t in a Mofet program, and I can say that it’s preferable to go to one, because they have good, ambitious people.

Ayelet: Yes, a class like that makes you want to succeed, because everyone around you is smart.

Yoel: I don’t feel like I’m in a competition.

What did you do in Bulgaria? How did 16 people get along?

Yoel: We were at Sunny Beach.

Ayelet: It was great. We were all on the same vibe, there were no quarrels.

And what do people do in Bulgaria?

Yoel: On the first night we went to a party at the Viking club.

Ayelet: Yes, and that evening the girlfriend in one of the couples disappeared. We were 15 kids who found ourselves looking madly for her.

Eitan: We organized patrols.

Ayelet: She simply disappeared. We said, yallah, we’ll call the police. But suddenly she came running up to one of us and started to cry. We discovered she’d seen someone throwing up and wanted to help him, but another friend of his was there, too, and they gave her a hard time. They said, ‘I’m your boyfriend, come on.” When her boyfriend heard that, he freaked out, and we all got really pissed off and left. He forgot his bag with their passports and money in the restaurant, and went back for it after five minutes. The bag was there, but empty, with only the bandana tied to it.

Yoel: They took everything – the money and his and his girlfriend’s passports.

Sounds horrible. What did you do?

Ayelet: We begged the owners to let us see the [footage from the] security cameras. The police came and found out who it was and ambushed him. The money was gone, but at least the passports were found.

Eitan: Each of us contributed some money and we gave them back what they’d lost.

Great. That’s friendship. So it sounds like it was a tough place.

Ayelet: Yes, all the girls were harassed there.

What will you do until you go into the army?

Eitan: I have a job repairing air conditioners; I help a neighbor and he pays me.

Yoav: I wish I had a job like that, it’s a great deal. I’m about to start a barman’s course. We’ve just finished our studies. The last matriculation exam was just now, and now our final summer vacation is beginning.