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Taglit-Birthright Israel’s Impact on College Campuses

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This story comes to us from Hillel International, which offers college students numerous opportunities to explore and celebrate their Jewish identities by engaging them in Jewish life on their own terms. This piece was originally featured on the Rutgers Hillel blog.

Rutgers University junior Jordan Davis traveled to Israel for the first time on a Rutgers Hillel Taglit-Birthright Israel trip in her first year at RU. Birthright Israel Foundation invited Jordan to speak at their event on May 18, 2015 as a Birthright alumna. Here, we include Jordan's heartfelt speech:

I’d like to start off with a story about a young woman, from Freehold, NJ who was raised with two sisters in a secular Jewish home. She grew up watching the show Law & Order: SVU which inspired her dreams and goals of prosecuting criminal law. She planned on studying psychology and sociology at her state university, to continue with criminal law studies at NYU, and to work in a law firm. But one day, this young woman’s older sister suggested she apply for a free 10-day trip to some tiny, random country called Israel. So she did. And a few months later, she hopped on a plane, met some amazing people along the way, and had her life changed forever.

If you haven’t guessed by now, that young woman is me. My name is Jordan Davis and I go to Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Growing up, I knew nothing about Judaism. I was raised in a secular home, with no real connection to my religion, nonetheless Israel. When I came to college, I was lost in a sea of 40,000 people. But luckily, my older sister also went to Rutgers, so she brought me to the Rutgers Hillel opening BBQ during the first weekend, got me a “ask me about a free trip to Israel” promo t-shirt – even though I had no idea what that meant – and pushed me to apply for this trip, Birthright, since she had gone a few years prior. She thought I would like it and that would be it. 

When I went on Birthright, I had few expectations. I wanted to meet people, maybe find my future husband, and have fun. I traveled with 40 Rutgers students, spending our 10 days together at the Kotel, the Dead Sea, and that cool party dock in Tiberias that everybody has seen, heard of or gone to at least once in their lifetime. For most, it was just a 10 day trip to escape Rutgers and shake off the post-finals syndrome we all know and hate. For me, it was more than that.

Being that I was raised without much Judaism in my life, I was inspired. I was given the chance to have a Bat Mitzvah with 40 of my peers, 8 Israelis and 3 trip staff members – there wasn’t a ball gown or an ice cream bar at the after party, but it was still perfect in every way. It was there that I discovered I have a Hebrew name after my great grandmothers Gertrude and Tilly, (Gila Tovah). It was also in Israel that I met my best friend – Zohar Sela. She was one of our soldiers – and she quickly became my anchor in Israel. When I visited Israel a second time just 6 months after Birthright, I extended and stayed with Zohar’s family, where they gave me a home away from home.

After returning from my trip, I attended Hillel events almost weekly. I was elected to the Hillel Student Board as secretary for my sophomore year, and I became an advocate for Israel on campus, enrolling in classes to learn more about Israel, such as Hillel’s Israel learning Initiative (HILI) on campus. This year, I served as a Hillel Peer Network Engagement Intern, while also serving as the Campus Liaison for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and attending Policy Conferences, Saban Leadership Seminars, and the AIPAC Mission to Israel.

I’ve been blessed to have had the opportunity to return to Israel, not once, but four times, with an additional visit this summer as a staff member to Perlman Summer Camp. Last summer, I spent two and a half months in Israel, completing a Jewish learning trip, Volunteers for Israel, a civilian volunteer service in the IDF, and study abroad at Ulpan in Tel Aviv University. I was in Day 2 of class when the first rocket flew over Tel Aviv, and my mom demanded I catch the next flight back to America. Instead, I stayed because although it was dangerous, I believe in the saying: this too shall pass; and I couldn’t desert my home and the place I love for anything.

Just a few weeks ago, my friend from Birthright, Carly, quoted something I said during my interview – “My name is Jordan and I know nothing about being Jewish”. It’s so cliché to hear, but ask any of the 40 people on my trip and they will confirm, Birthright changed my life. But I truly don’t believe I’d be standing here today if it hadn’t been for Birthright. That simple 10-day introduction really gave my life a new light, with new dreams and plans for the future to follow. If you asked me two years ago where Israel is on the map or what my Hebrew name is, I wouldn’t be able to answer. If you asked me if I’ve ever been there before or if I had a Bat Mitzvah, I wouldn’t be able to answer yes. But now if you ask me, I’ve been to Israel 4 times in the past two years, my Hebrew name is Gilah Tovah, I had my Bat Mitzvah at Kibbutz Gadot in the Upper Galilee, I’m in the process of applying for Aliyah for this upcoming January, and Taglit Birthright is the best thing that ever happened to me.

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.