In the summer of 2014 during the middle of Operation Protective Edge, I embarked on my first journey to Israel. At 24, I finally had the great honor and pleasure of participating in a Birthright Israel LA Way trip with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
I was born in Crimea during the Soviet Union into an extremely secular Jewish household. I don’t blame my parents for the lack of Jewish life in our house—after all, they grew up in a country where Jews were persecuted for who they were. But as a result, I was a kid who would much rather play in the streets and wreak havoc in the neighborhood than learn about being Jewish.
But when I decided to go on Birthright Israel, it was during a time when I was looking to be moved. I wanted to see if Judaism was for me–and I was extremely excited about a free trip to Israel!
If I had to describe my trip in one word, it would be “unbelievable.” I spent 10 days all over Israel. I extended my trip for 7 days, even during Operation Protective Edge, and stayed in Tel Aviv. My Birthright bus happened to be staying in the same hotel as the family of Max Steinberg, the lone soldier from Calabasas. We had the opportunity to participate in the family’s shiva, and I paid my respects to his family in the midst of my first Israel experience.
Upon my return, I was nominated by my madrichim (bus staff) to be a Kahn Fellow at The Jewish Federation. I would serve as the group organizer and be responsible for maintaining contact and organizing events to keep the group connected. I think we did five Shabbat dinners in a row when we got back to L.A., and we still regularly maintain contact and hang out with each other. I immediately joined or connected with every single young Jewish group I could get my hands on, from YALA at The Jewish Federation, to ATID at Temple Sinai, to Friends of the IDF (FIDF) and Moishe House. I not only connected, but I began going to events regularly. I started attending services at Sinai Temple through their FNL program (formerly Friday Night Live) learning opportunities with Rabbi Wolpe and the other rabbis regularly.
When I got back, I feverishly wanted to attend the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. but wasn’t sure If I could afford such a trip. Thanks to the Kahn Fellowship at The Jewish Federation, I received a scholarship to attend . I got to spend three days learning about pro-Israel issues, heard from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and lobbied three members of Congress—something I’ve never done in my life. It was a remarkable experience. I’ve already signed up for next year and convinced a friend to go with me.
With the support of our Federation, I have spoken about my Birthright experience at local fundraisers and meetings with Birthright donors. I try to donate as much of my time to Jewish causes as I can.
Last week, I was selected to be on the board of ATID at Sinai, and I am excited about this new step in my journey. I think one of the most important transformations that has occurred as a result of my Birthright experience is that I now understand how important being Jewish is to me. And I am now actively seeking a Jewish partner who feels the same way and can go on this journey with me.
I have never felt more proud to be a Jew than I am now. I have never been more passionate or involved in Judaism as I am now. And I have never held stronger in my beliefs in Zionism as a Jew than I hold now. I credit ALL of this to my incredible Birthright Israel experience with The Jewish Federation and the Kahn Fellowship, and I want to thank everyone who has made these programs possible.
George Bukhin is a student, a co-founder in a start-up launching mid-2015, and a United States Marine who is always excited to expand his network and thank those who have provided him with the privilege of his life-changing Israel experience.
For more information about Birthright Israel LA Way and the Kahn Fellowship, contact Margalit C. Rosenthal at firstname.lastname@example.org.