By Cindy Mindell
Since its founding in 1999, the Birthright Israel Foundation has brought nearly 300,000 young American Jewish adults on free 10-day heritage trips to Israel. Over the last several years, the philanthropic and educational organization has focused on creating programming that keeps participants connected to Israel and Judaism after they come home.
One such endeavor is the Birthright Israel Excel summer fellowship program, begun in 2011. Designed for North American Jewish college sophomores, juniors, and seniors pursuing careers in business and/or technology, the 10-week summer internship provides hands-on professional experience and creates an alumni network of Jewish business leaders in the U.S. and Israel.
Participants are assigned internships in the Tel Aviv-based business, finance, and technology sectors, and are exposed to Israeli life and culture through formal and informal educational activities.
This year, the all-expense-paid program included 44 students from 27 colleges and universities – among them, Josh Benadiva, a West Hartford native and University of Chicago junior, who worked as a summer analyst on the Ernst Young Israel mergers and acquisitions team.
A graduate of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford, where he took his first trip to Israel in eighth grade, Benadiva became involved in Jewish activities at University of Chicago. He serves as the student representative on the campus Hillel board of directors and is a member of the AEPi fraternity. On a summer Birthright trip after his freshman year, “I fell in love with Israel all over again,” he says, and hoped to make a third visit.
Benadiva says that he first became drawn to the world of finance in seventh grade, when he wrote a research paper on the 2008 economic crisis. He went on to study the subject, developing an interest in private equity. He learned about Birthright Excel from two close friends at university.
“They told me what an incredible learning, professional, and meaningful experience the program was,” he says. “My number one goal this summer was getting professional experience in my field of interest – finance and banking. I decided that Excel was my first choice for achieving that objective.”
Benadiva says that he looked forward to a meaningful learning experience in Israel, where he could develop leadership and professional skills and deepen his connection to the country. The program offered everything he had hoped for.
“Because mergers and acquisitions in Israel are much smaller transactions, you have far fewer people working on a deal,” he explains. “Instead of 100 people working on a $40 billion transaction, I was working on a team of two other people doing everything for a deal. I was meeting with clients, working on materials for them, and getting to implement some of my ideas.”
In addition to interning, the students also met with Israeli leaders from the business, technology, political, and philanthropic sectors, took part in professional workshops, and toured locations throughout the country. Each student was both with a professional mentor and with an Israeli peer, which allowed a firsthand exposure to life in Israel. Benadiva was paired with a student at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, with whom he explored policy and cultural differences between the two countries.
In terms of cultural differences, Benadiva says. “I guess the biggest thing I picked up was that Israelis are actually more critical of their government than American Jews are, on average, which was very interesting to me.”
The support and programming offered by Birthright Excel do not end in Israel, but continue long after participants return home. Because the program is designed to connect the next generation of Jewish business leaders to Israel and to one another, the success of the program depends on keeping participants in contact for decades to come. “The organizers always told us that this is a lifetime commitment, and all of the resources they are giving us are definitely consistent with that idea,” Benadiva says.
Participants will be flown to New York City for an annual alumni weekend, and have access to an alumni database and dedicated social-media website.
“No intern in the U.S. would come close to the level of exposure I got working in Israel,” says Benadiva, who is now experienced enough to apply for a similar position in the banking world of New York or Chicago next summer.
CAP: Josh Benadiva, far right, without sunglasses, and fellow Birthright Excel participants visit Tzfat during a tour of northern Israel.