Birthright Israel Foundation hosted an evening of celebration to thank Atlanta leadership and highlight achievements over the last several years. It was a glistening evening at dusk looking out of The Grand Pavilion at Ray’s on the River onto the green sparkling breadth of the Chattahoochee River.
This event is always special because it features the young folks who have experienced Birthright Israel and what it means to them, layered in with leaders such as Doug Ross, the Atlanta chair of Birthright Israel, Harry Maziar, the former chair, and Mike Leven, who represented the national Birthright board.
Co-chairs for the evening were: Lisa and Seth Greenberg, Michelle and Rob Leven, Beth and Gregg Paradies, and Michelle and Gary Simon.
During the event, Michelle Leven announced that Birthright Israel last year raised the trip eligibility from 18 to 26 years of age by piloting a program for those 27 to 32 years old.
Restaurateur Ray Schoenbaum welcomed the crowd with special recognition of his machatunim, in-laws through marriage, Sandra and Clive Bank, whose A Kosher Touch catered the event. “It’s great both of us are in the food business and have no competition,” Schoenbaum said.
Tables abounded with artful sushi, chicken shawarma, potato latkes, pareve sour cream, spinach strudel and open-faced tenderloin sandwiches.
“I think Birthright is a beautiful thing, as it lifts up the Jewish people in general,” he said.
Carole-Ann Levine, vice president of Birthright Israel Southeast, was on hand in the cocktail hour. “Atlanta in the Southeast region is really the jewel in the crown. Doug Ross has really led the charge for seven years and really brought out the crowd tonight, … more successful, beyond words, in connecting young adults with lay and alumni leaders.”
Maziar, the original Birthright Israel Southeast chair, echoed her statements. “Picking Doug Ross as my successor seven years ago was one of the best recruits in my entire career.”
Always the life of the party, Mike Leven spoke of witnessing the changes in Atlanta Birthright through the years. He recalled the Canadian liquor magnate Charles Bronfman’s book on giving, “Distilled: A Memoir of Family, Seagram, Baseball, and Philanthropy,” quoting Bronfman when he spoke at the 2015 Atlanta Birthright event for 400 at The St. Regis Atlanta hotel. Bronfman later included the event in his book as a positive example of philanthropy.
Leven further correlated Birthright Israel with silver compared to gold “because silver tarnishes and must be constantly tended, … like our connection to G-d and Israel.” He closed by jokingly offering Schoenbaum a discount on a Vegas hotel suite for hosting such a grand event at Ray’s (Noting Leven’s affiliation with the Sands Corp.).
Next up were facts about Birthright Israel from the Beth and Gregg Paradies:
“In the past 20 years, 700,000 have gone on Birthright Israel, 9,000 from Atlanta. 1 in 5 Birthright alum married another alum. It costs approximately $3,000 to send one participant. Niche trips make up 25 percent of the offerings each year: culinary, arts, yoga, LGBTQ, medical students – all tailoring to special interests. The first ad asking for Birthright participants ran in ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine in 1999.”
Recent Birthright Israel participants spoke confidently and passionately: “Growing up, all I remember of my Jewish identify was lox, matzah and my grandparents cussing in Yiddish,” said Melissa McGrath. “Birthright was magical and changed my life.”
Max Greenberg and Kyle Simon “can’t wait to go back.” Benji Sklar stole the stage, talking about his emotional time at the Western Wall next to an Israel Defense Forces soldier. He decided subsequently to enlist himself as an IDF paratrooper, going many nights without sleep, but secure in his passion for Israel and in his brotherhood bond with Birthright Israel.
Ross, who is also on the national board, said that there was much work to be done and “We need your help, … growing from 75 participants in 2012 to 430 participants in 2018. We need to take care of our own. …These kids return from Israel motivated and inspired. Sometimes donors from other cities are paying [for Atlanta trips]. I challenge you to make a direct and tangible investment in the Atlanta Jewish community.”