From Birthright Participant to Birthright Soldier
Izzy was raised in an Orthodox household, but he didn't discover his passion for Israel until he participated in Taglit-Birthright Israel when he was 19. These trips, funded in part by Federation dollars, have brought more than 300,000 young adults from all over the world to Israel, many of them for the first time.
Izzy loved the entire trip, but found one aspect especially compelling. "By far, the most amazing part of the trip is the soldiers with you," he said. "You’re learning about Israel through their eyes." Every Birthright group spends time with young Israeli soldiers who are about their age—this encounter, or mifgash, is a central component of the experience.
"I wanted to do my part to change the hardships that we've gone through as a people."
Not long after his Birthright trip, Izzy decided to make aliyah—and his family followed him soon after. As a new citizen of Israel, he joined the Israeli Defense Forces. He lists his knowledge of Jewish history as one of the reasons he has had such interest in joining the Israeli army: "I wanted to do my part to change the hardships that we've gone through as a people."
Nine months of training later, he headed into battle on the Gaza border to fight in Operation Cast Lead. A few weeks in, a rocket hit his base and exploded in the tent, taking off Izzy's dominant left arm just above the elbow. He spent the next year in physical therapy. “The rehabilitation stage was very rough, a lot of pain, a lot of phantom pain,” he says. "But I came out stronger." The injury, he says, did not affect his outlook on life, or his attitude towards people. "The only thing that changed was my willpower."
As soon as he was physically able to, Izzy reenlisted in the Israeli army, where he had to prove that he could still fight. He returned to combat, his rifle in his right hand, and went on to become a staff sergeant. The other injured members of his platoon also reenlisted. "Four of us got injured, all four of us returned to the army, and three of us returned to combat," he says with pride. Izzy is presently writing a memoir about his experiences in the army.
Coming full circle, Izzy now frequently accompanies North American Birthright Israel groups, with whom he is very popular. He's become one of those soldiers he met on his own first trip, who made the Birthright experience so outstanding for him. When asked why American students love talking to him about Israel, he does not have to think long before he answers. "They get to see true happiness from someone who's there," Izzy says. "They come to Israel to see what it's like, and I give them an honest picture of being proud of what I'm doing."
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Programs supported by Jewish Federations encourage greater academic engagement for Ethiopian-Israeli students. Through its School Mediator program, the Ethiopian National Project (ENP), which is funded by Jewish Federations, sends specialists in education, social work and cultural mediation to schools with large concentrations of Ethiopian-Israeli students. The mediators not only work to engage Ethiopian-Israeli students and their families, but also to educate the entire school on the cultural differences of this unique population. Learn more here about ENP’s School Mediator program.