New York—Birthright Israel Excel held a conference for 92 alumni of three of their Israel trips at a recent weekend in New York. The Excel program is sponsored by the Steinhardt Family Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, and was created to develop future Jewish leaders. Excel offers a more intense Israel experience than the regular Taglit-Birthright Israel program and is for smaller, select groups of young adults aged 18-26.
Since its inception, the now-traditional Taglit-Birthright Program has taken more than 350,000 Jewish young adults from 64 countries, all 50 states, and nearly 1,000 campuses to Israel for a 10-day tour. Additionally, 65,000 young Israeli soldiers from prestigious units of the IDF and students have joined participants on these tours. This winter season more than 17,000 participants will attend its free, 10-day educational tours of Israel, the largest number since the non-profit was founded in 2000.
JLBC was invited to attend a recent Excel Reunion program. It included talks by Howard Lutnick, CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, and Bruce Ratner, Executive Chairman of Forest City Ratner Companies. They each spoke about how their commitments to Jewish values have guided their lives and careers. Lutnick was tested by the devastation of 9/11 when many of his employees were killed in the World Trade Center. Mr. Ratner turned his experience as an administrator in New York City government toward providing for the housing and economic development needs of the city, subsequently establishing one of the most successful real estate development firms in the nation.
Following this program, the Fellows visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage/Living Memorial to the Holocaust, followed by additional tours over the weekend to significant sites, such as the World Trade Center memorial.
Five of the Taglit Fellows are from Bergen County. They are: Jessica Borenstein of Teaneck, Alec Goldberg from Englewood, who is a senior at Columbia University majoring in philosophy, Kim Gordon of Tenafly, Rebecca Haft of Fair Lawn, and Daniel Stolar of Fair Lawn.
Jessica attends Cornell University, where she is a senior majoring in history. Next year she will be joining Ernst & Young in their consulting practice in NYC. She attended Moriah and Frisch and interned for Israel Corp.’s Business Development and Strategies Group. “Being an intern in a country with no intern culture was one of my most valuable experiences. They treat you as if you are a regular employee there and set high expectations. From day one, they assigned me challenging and difficult projects and expected me to be my own boss. It forced me to learn how to work in an independent, unstructured, and culturally different environment; to be a mature and independent thinker.
“The best part of the program is the fact that they set you up with mentors in your company. They ensure that there is somebody in your workplace invested in your professional growth. I met with my mentor, the director of my group, everyday and gave a presentation to my CEO. [Israel Corp] is one of the most lucrative companies in Israel. That couldn’t have been possible in a company of similar caliber in America. There, everything is horizontal.”
Kim is also a senior and is studying Systems Engineering and Hispanic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She attended the Mackay School and both Tenafly Middle School and High School. Kim worked in the Assurance Department at Ernst &Young (EY) in Tel Aviv.
She told JLBC, “I was the only American on my team and on the entire floor of about 50 people. After introducing myself to all of these people on my first day, I knew that the experience would be challenging. I learned about EY Israel, its importance internationally, about the Israeli economy, and about Israeli work culture in general. Furthermore, the hierarchical structure of EY allowed me to establish relationships with many different mentors. By the end of my internship, I built a genuine base of contacts.”
Kim went on to say “The biggest difference between my two Taglit summers was the type of things I was exposed to. During my first summer in the traditional program, I was awed by the historical significance of just about everything I saw and I began to get a taste for the country’s rich political history at sites like Rabin Square. …Talk of the Cottage Cheese War and Tent Protests was buzzing all around my own daily experiences. These were the things I heard about from co-workers and other Israelis. I was awed by the economic and socio-economic factors that affect daily Israeli life. Walking around the center or the city each morning, like a regular Tel Avivian, allowed me to think about things like how much money Israel spends on its defense, how long some of its brightest people stay enlisted, diversity in the work place, and the cost of living.”
Rebecca is in graduate school at Cornell, working on her Master’s in Health Administration. She plans to start her career in healthcare consulting next year. She told JLBC, “I worked for Tnuva [the largest Israeli dairy] in the summer of 2011, during the Cottage Cheese Boycotts in Israel that targeted the firm. It was a fascinating experience to see how the people of Israel fought for change in their society and how Tnuva responded to these issues. Overall, I learned a lot about the Israeli economy as well as some key principles of market research and business development.”
Daniel attends the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, where he is a junior majoring in Business Administration with emphasis in finance and accounting. In Fair Lawn, he attended the Milnes School, Thomas Jefferson Middle School, and Fair Lawn High School.
Daniel’s experience, echoing that of his peers, believes that his Taglit experience has changed his life. For his internship, Daniel worked for a venture lending firm called Viola Credit. “My connection to Israel was completely changed…I had no real tangible connection to Israel before I went there. After spending time there this summer, I truly consider it a place I love, and will make every effort to go back...My connection to the Jewish community had waned since my bar mitzvah, and waned even more after I started attending college. Going through Birthright Excel made me realize how special being part of the Jewish Culture is, and how great of a community it is to be in. The Jewish community gave me a life-changing experience, and I have been getting more involved on campus as a result.”
Kim reviewed what she thought were the best parts of the recent weekend conference. “Birthright Excel always brings in prominent and inspiring speakers to share their experiences with us. …I also enjoyed mingling with other Excel participants, since I had not met students from the other Excel classes. Birthright Excel has become a network of young, motivated Jewish students and professionals with a common internship experience. I feel grateful to be a part of this community.”
The main lesson she took from the speakers was “There are many ways to give back to the community and we can start right away.”
Each year 36 Birthright students are chosen from a highly competitive pool of applicants for a ten-week summer program in Israel. The major component is an internship with a prominent, multinational Israeli company and includes touring Israel; meeting Israeli leaders in business, technology, politics, and philanthropy, and meeting with talented Israeli peers.
There is also an annual retreat and other events throughout the year for the Fellows. Applications for this summer’s program will be accepted until Feb. 2, 2014. Visit www.BirthrightIsrael.com for more details.
By Stephen Tencer