It is difficult to imagine the dedication that must go into a program that will change someone’s life forever. But somehow, the Taglit-Birthright Israel program has managed to change the dynamics of many communities, in a matter of just one short decade.
The success of the program was celebrated, and the efforts of those who have made Taglit what it is – the government of Israel, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, and private donors - were honored this past Thursday at the Birthright Mega Event T.O.
“People ask me, ‘Since you and Michael Steinhardt started all of this, has it exceeded your expectations?’” Birthright co-founder, Charles Bronfman, told the crowd of 150 guests, who were honored with a L’chaim prior to the mega party. “I just say, ‘It’s exceeded our wildest dreams.’ We never ever thought this kind of thing would happen.”
The L’chaim, chaired by Karen Morton, founding chair of the Birthright Israel Foundation of Canada also commemorated Bronfman’s birthday and was attended by Amir Gissin, Israel’s
consul general in Toronto; Mark Adler, the member of Parliament for the riding of York Centre; Torontonian philanthropists Warren and Debbie Kimel; and Ted Sokolsky, President and CEO of the UJA Federation.
Following the proceedings, Sokolsky helped Bronfman honor the top 50 Birthright Israel young –adult volunteers in the Toronto Jewish Community.
“The volunteers have all worked in such a wide variety of organizations across the city; in hospitals, for the federation itself, for Birthright Israel itself. There are very few organizations they haven’t touched,” said Sokolsky, who referred to the Taglit program as a “peer educational experience.”
Sokolsky noted that the program was extremely successful among Canadians when it was started, despite the first trips coinciding with the second intifada,
which began in late 2000.
Bronfman, who was moved to tears during a testimonial video, told Shalom Life that when he and Steinhardt founded the program 12 years ago, the timing was perfect.
“People did not have Israel on their radars. We asked young adults in college where they would like to have a vacation and nobody ever said Israel as one of their top 20 places,” he recalled. “So we decided that we would have to do something very unusual; give a gift. We gave the gift and it just took off.”
But not without the great support of volunteers, donors and the tireless work of Birthright Israel’s staff, Bronfman made sure to emphasize.
“Everything about it has improved with age. Nobody was twisting anybody’s arm. We said, ‘Look, you’ll get through with Israel and either decide if you are happy to be Jewish, if you have an emotional relationship with Israel and if you’re happy to be a member of the Jewish people or not. It’s up to you.’”
Bronfman says that the results have been outstanding, pointing to success rates that have been tallied and long term research that has been conducted. Amir Gissin said that the mind blowing success of the program, which has generated a tremendous amount of devotion and love for Israel, made him especially proud to represent Israel at the Mega Event.
“When you see what kind of influence this trip to Israel had on those people and their commitment to the Jewish community, their extended family, it’s just a heartwarming experience,” said Gissin.
“I think that we all discovered with the years that Birthright Israel actually answers a need, both among young Diaspora Jews and among Israelis to connect. I’m sure we will meet in ten years, in 20 years, and in 30 years until the project will come to a point where every Jewish youngster will have a chance to visit Israel from here."
Gissin said that the fact that he has never encountered any critics of the program in Israel indicates how strong the partnership between Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora has become because of Taglit.
“The Birthright Israel issue is unique among the Israeli politics which are usually divided between left and right. This is an area which was always in consensus for all parties for its importance to develop and build the Israel-Diaspora relationship.”
Mark Adler pointed out that Canada’s ties with Israel have been solid ever since Stephen Harper became the Canadian Prime Minister in 2006.
“He’s very committed to the State of Israel and he doesn’t believe in moral relativism but rather in moral clarity,” said Adler. “(The relationship) will continue to prosper. Right now, there’s a free trade agreement between Canada and Israel and the Harper government is working on expanding that deal. There are a number of scientific innovation programs that are being undertaken by both Canada and Israel.”
Sokolsky also spoke about the strength of the Israeli-Canadian connection, which has made him happy that UJA embraced Birthright Israel from its establishment.
“I don’t think that there’s a single family here in Toronto that hasn’t been touched by Birthright Israel alumni, that hasn’t been at a Friday night dinner or a seder or any event where someone who you’ve never imagined would be enthusiastic and thrilled about their trip to Israel on Birthright would come back and be talking about the ten days that changed their lives,” he said.
“We’re forever in debt for what Birthright Israel has done for this Jewish community, as strong and as vibrant as it is. Even if a young person goes to Israel and doesn’t get involved in any follow up, that’s a seed that will be planted forever and it will sprout eventually.”
Since 1999, nearly 300,000 young Jewish adults have participated in the Taglit-Birthright Israel program, learning about the culture and identity of Israeli at no cost. From the Toronto Jewish community alone, approximately 15,000 have taken part and over 700 of them attended the Mega Event at the Warehouse in Downsview Park.
The party featured Megan Boys Entertainment and all attendees were given the chance to win one of two free tickets back to Israel via a raffle, courtesy of Air Canada.
Michael Glina, who went on Birthright Israel once as participant and twice as an instructor, said that he feels his experiences have shaped his future.
“It has positively influenced and affected my life and I wouldn’t be the person I am today had I not gone on Birthright and been a madrich,” he said.
Mitch Reiss, who has been back to Israel three times since his Birthright Israel trip three years ago and will soon be returning again, shared the same sentiment.
“I liked being able to experience a little bit of Israeli culture as well as the nature of the north which was gorgeous. Being able to visit Jerusalem and go to the wall was overall an amazing experience,” said Reiss. “I owe all of my Zionism to my trip to Israel on Birthright.”
It is easy to attribute Bronfman’s overwhelming satisfaction and emotion to comments such as these.
“We’re just delighted we did it,” he said. “It’s incredible. The whole trip is ten days and yet it lasts and lasts and lasts.”
Reprinted with permission from Shalom Life