A Zionist and junior at Cornell University, Rebecca Haft had a life-changing experience in Israel last summer — she learned to like cottage cheese.
Haft, a policy analysis and management major, spent 10 weeks working as an intern in the business development department of Tnuva, Israel’s largest dairy company, under the auspices of Birthright Israel Excel. She was among 20 college students from the United States chosen, from more than 200 applicants, to take part in the pilot version of Birthright’s elite fellowship program.
Think Birthright, business class.
Earlier this month, most of the 20 met here for a four-day retreat, to review last year’s experiences and suggest changes.
At a dinner in Abigael’s kosher restaurant in Midtown, with light music playing in the background, they networked, exchanged jokes and traded stories with each other and Birthright leaders, including philanthropist and Birthright co-founder Michael Steinhardt.
Haft talked about cottage cheese.
“When you’re handed cottage cheese straight off the conveyer belt, it’s hard to say no,” she said. “And, after tasting it, it’s hard not feel more connected to the country it came from.”
Haft’s fellow Excel colleagues, college juniors and seniors who participated in internships at high-powered Israeli companies in such fields as technology, business, venture capital and social media, were mentored directly by each company’s CEO, receiving backstage passes to the world of high-tech, corporate Israeli culture.
This year, more than 600 students applied; 36 made the final cut.
“This program, more than anything, is an investment in Israel’s future,” said Sharon Prince, U.S. coordinator of Birthright Excel. “We are pulling students from the top echelon of American society. We have high hopes that these students will go on to become leaders in their various fields. Creating this formative connection to Israel early on in their careers is key.”
“Compared to previous internships I’ve had in the States, the internship I received as a Birthright Excel fellow was completely different,” said Ben Goldhaber, a senior at Georgetown University majoring in science, technology and international affairs. Goldhaber interned at Pitango Venture Capital, Israel’s leading Venture Capital fund, under the mentorship of Chemi J. Peres, managing general partner and co-founder of Pitango, and son of President Shimon Peres.
“In Israel, they are much quicker to trust young people,” Goldhaber said. “When I arrived at my internship, I was given real responsibilities, and fast. This is no American, feel-good resumé booster. This was a job — a real job — and a chance to experience, firsthand, how Israeli corporate culture functions and operates.” As an afterthought he added, “I mean, I barely operated the copy machine once!”
At the next table, Todd Arfman, an engineering and applied science student at the University of Pennsylvania who interned last summer at Ernst and Young in Tel Aviv, said, with a tinge of bluster: “Look around us,” he said, gesturing around the table at his fellow students. “We’re sitting with the people who will become the next Michaels [Steinhardt was sitting one table over, safely out of earshot]. Hopefully, in the future, we’ll be able to contribute to Israel as well.” And, he added, “not just monetarily. Socially, culturally as well.”
Besides Birthright Excel’s obvious business focus, the program also wants to instill a deep sense of Jewish pride and identity in participants.
“This trip shouldn’t be called ‘Birthright’ — it should be called ‘Birth responsibility,’” said Brett Levine, gesticulating as he spoke, a senior at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business with a major in finance. “As Jews, we have a certain sense of entitlement when it comes to Israel, and when it comes to our heritage. But what this trip taught me is that feeling entitled is not enough — we have a responsibility to our Jewish identity. We have a responsibility to Israel.” His words were met by hearty nods and exclamations of assent around the table.
Leonard Saxe, director of contemporary Jewish studies at Brandeis University and director of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, [crunches the numbers as to how the Birthright trip affects participants’ Jewish identity. “We’re interested in cold, hard, statistics,” Saxe said. “Are you more likely to marry someone Jewish if you go on Birthright? Yes. Are you more likely to openly identify as a Jew? Yes.”
How does Birthright Excel fit into the larger Birthright picture?] “Birthright is about diaspora Jews getting to know their history and culture,” Saxe said. “Besides for the trip itself, the key element at work here is the formation of close-knit social networks. Birthright Excel is operating under the same principles, only with a very specific network in mind: a network of future leaders, involving both Americans and Israelis.”
Birthright Israel Excel matches each participant with an Israeli peer, either one who is currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces or attending an Israeli university. These so-called “soul mates” accompany their American counterparts on trips and seminars — and simply show them the ropes.
“You get to Tel Aviv, you don’t know what’s happening — our soul mates were there to show us around, to give us a first-person introduction to an at-first intimidating culture,” said Jeff Lowenstein, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. “You need a little bit of chutzpah to survive in Israel. Our soul mates helped us out with that.”
Noy Dan, a reserve officer for the IDF and a current intern at the Israeli embassy in Washington, was the “soul mate” of Maya Yizhaky, senior at University of California-Berkeley who recently made aliyah. “We switched positions — now I’m working here in the States and Maya’s in Israel. Since working together last summer, Maya and I are best friends. Our friendship has gone far beyond Birthright Israel Excel. I’m simply grateful that the program was there to make the initial introduction.”
Sharon Prince and her colleagues are dedicated to ensuring that programs such as Birthright Israel Excel don’t just fade into the background in the lives of participants. “Our job is to keep this experience alive and relevant,” Prince said.
How? “You want a one-line answer? Gather students for events and retreats exactly like this one,” she said. “This is the first of what we hope will be many such events. Build a community, with strong personal ties. Construct a cohort of ambitious, talented young student leaders, dedicated to one another, and dedicated to a Jewish future.”