Close to 600 supporters of the Birthright Israel Foundation packed the ballroom at the St. Regis hotel for the annual Atlanta event Monday, Nov. 6, to honor Doug Ross and hear keynote speaker Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.
“Doug constantly inspires me, engages me and challenges me,” Temple Sinai Rabbi Ron Segal said during the pre-function reception.
Ross chairs the foundation’s Atlanta Leadership Council and is a member of the national board.
Birthright alums and siblings Sarah, Michelle and Jonathan Arogeti spoke of their inspirational memories of climbing Masada and being with thousands of peers from around the world on their trips. Jonathan will lead an Atlanta delegation this December.
Danna and David Wellner, who have been in Atlanta four years, are involved with Birthright leadership “to celebrate Israel and pay it forward to help others” because they were trip recipients in 2005.
Ross said his motivation comes from the irresistible pull of communal belonging.
“I don’t want to be on the sidelines. I want to be on the field … to share with others the excitement of being in Israel,” he said. “Birthright is not just about the trip, but the gift from one generation to another.”
One theme for the evening was that Atlanta had raised enough money for two buses of Birthright participants, and by the end of the dinner, Ross said, “we want the third.”
The St. Regis delivered an abundant, delicious, family-style Mediterranean dinner with flavorful Israeli salad and appetizers, root vegetables, mushroomed rice, and spicy chicken. The buffet dessert at the exit was highlighted by thumbprint cookies and berries on meringue.
The show was stolen by speaker Rachel Gerrol, a Birthright alumna whose secular-oriented life was redirected by her trip.
Her view of the Birthright trip in advance: “OK, you can have me for 10 days.”
But after the free “vacation,” Gerrol, who had been a nonpracticing woman with one Jewish parent, had an Orthodox conversion, earned a Lion of Judah pin (a benchmark giving level of Jewish Federation’s National Women’s philanthropy), and became fully immersed in Jewish life with a husband and children.
“Half the Jewish students in college today are half-Jewish,” Gerrol said. “I was 100 percent welcome with Birthright.”
We laughed and cried with her as she explained that before Birthright she thought the expression was “mazal toast” and wondered whether she should light Sabbath candles every night.
Mike Leven, an event co-chair and a member of the Birthright Israel Foundation board, served as emcee and interviewed Danon.
The ambassador said 56 predominantly Muslim countries are U.N. members, and his goal is to close the gap between their negative public stances on Israel and the positive meetings he has behind closed doors.
A recent trip to Dubai was productive, Danon said. He praised the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, whom he escorted to Israel to observe the border with Lebanon.
“This is how I am effective: letting others discover reality and bringing it back to the U.S.,” Danon said. “It has to have an impact on their voting … spending four days on the bus. We show the challenges of security. You never know how we can make an impact … like sharing with African nations how to best grow mangos and bananas.”
He closed by saying, “We can fight about the budget, but we do not fight about Birthright.”
The bottom line is 1,000 North American colleges and universities have sent Birthright Israel participants, 75 percent of whom view the trip as a life-changing experience.