Birthright Israel showed signs of a changing of the guard while celebrating 15 years of free 10-day trips to Israel at a gala dinner Monday night, Nov. 16, at the St. Regis Hotel in Buckhead.

Birthright Israel Foundation President David Fisher

Birthright Israel Foundation President David Fisher

Charles Bronfman, who founded the organization with Michael Steinhardt, said he realized that Birthright Israel had survived to make a transition to new leadership about two years ago at a reception to honor Joshua Nash as chair and Laurie Blitzer as vice chair of the Birthright Israel Foundation.

About 100 people were in the room, Bronfman said, and he knew six. He said he thought to himself, “This is the happiest day of my Birthright life because the next generation has taken over.”

The leadership transition has included Georgia Aquarium CEO Mike Leven taking over the organization’s planning committee from Bronfman.

Bronfman reflected on Birthright Israel’s triumphs and tribulations for a crowd of 400 supporters who had gathered for two purposes: the third annual gala of Birthright Israel’s Atlanta Leadership Council and the closing event of the fourth annual national gathering of big Birthright donors.

“I’m impressed with all the younger-generation faces we see here tonight, but nothing is free,” said Gary Simon, husband of event co-chair Michelle Simon. “We have to keep up the financial momentum that propelled the over 500,000 Birthright participants over 15 years.”

The gathering moved from Las Vegas to Atlanta to provide a change of scenery and to bring it closer to East Coast donors, but the shift also brought the event to the new home of the president of the Birthright Israel Foundation, David Fisher.

“I’m thrilled about tonight,” Fisher said during the cocktail hour. His mother-in-law, Linda Selig, was one of the event co-chairs.

“Three years ago there was no way Atlanta could fill a room like this of over 400 for a Birthright event,” Fisher said. “Doug Ross has built success upon success outside of New York.”

Doug Ross and friends

Doug Ross and friends

Ross, who chairs the Atlanta Leadership Council and was recently added to the foundation board of directors, said he was overwhelmed by the evening, but the organization deserved it. “Birthright Israel is changing the arc of Jewish history.”

Ross also received praise from Bronfman and from the night’s keynote speaker, Bernie Marcus, who has supported Birthright since the days when it had only 17 donors, each pledged to contribute $1 million a year for five years.

Marcus delivered a brief history of anti-Semitism. He said that from age 12 he wanted to be a doctor, and he spent his free time as a young teen reading medical books. But every medical school had a quota allowing no more than 10 percent of its class to be Jewish, sending Marcus down a different path.

He said Jews also were excluded from the major law firms and the big corporations in America, but the founding of Israel in 1948, along with the surprise victory in the War of Independence, changed American attitudes.

That change secured one generation’s devotion to the new Jewish state, Marcus said, and the next generation remained supportive of Israel. But the third generation was losing that connection.

“Without Birthright,” he said, “this generation would be lost.”

Instead, more than 6,000 Atlantans are among the half-million Jews ages 18 to 26 who have made the trip.

One of them is David Koonin, son of Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin and event co-chair Eydie Koonin.

He told the crowd that his parents did everything right to cement his connection to the Jewish people, leading him from synagogue to day schools to summer camps to membership in AEPi at the University of Georgia, but until he went on Birthright in 2012, all of that Jewish education and experience could have been for nothing.

Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman with Malcolm and Lynette Joel

That 10-day trip made all the difference, he said, so that now in addition to the Atlanta Leadership Council, he is involved with such organizations as Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.

Similar stories were shared on and off the stage.

“Our son Scott went on the first special needs Birthright trip, and we were worried a bit,” East Cobb resident Lyons Heyman said before the program. “Then he came back with the best experiences and learned to do one-armed push-ups with the IDF.”

A former IDF officer, Omer Granot, explained that Birthright is similarly life-changing for the Israeli peers who participate in the Mifgash (encounter) program, riding along with the buses of visitors for several days.

Granot said the trip, “a one-week vacation from the navy,” inspired him to become a deputy submarine commander, then to pursue a master’s at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, where he organized an Israel trip of 80 students, most of whom weren’t Jewish. Now he’s part of the New York Jewish community.

“The Jewish people connect through Torah, the land and the nation of Israel,” Chabad Intown Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman said. “Birthright gives young Jews the connection to all three.”