By Ellen Braunstein
(JNS) Elias Saratovsky traveled in 1999 as part of the first round of Birthright Israel trips, hoping to “be part of writing the next chapter of Jewish history.” As president and CEO of Birthright Israel Foundation, Saratovsky will have a chance to write the next chapter of the history of the nonprofit organization that has to date brought 850,000 young adults on free, 10-day visits to the Jewish state.
“When I came into this job,” Saratovsky, 44, told JNS, “I wanted to ensure that Birthright Israel was available to every single young person who wanted to go to Israel because it’s more important now than ever.”
Having succeeded Israel (“Izzy”) Tapoohi, who retired at the end of 2023, Saratovsky spoke with JNS in his first far-reaching interview since he assumed the role on Sept, 1, shortly before Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.
A first-generation American whose parents emigrated from the former Soviet Union in 1979, Saratovsky had a limited connection to the Jewish community growing up in Brooklyn, New York. His family was culturally Jewish and not regular synagogue-goers, yet his four grandparents from Minsk, Belarus, were all Holocaust survivors. His two grandmothers spoke to him about their ordeals.
“From a very early age, my two grandmothers told me stories of how they survived,” Saratovsky told JNS. “It shaped my identity more than anything to know that life is fragile and the Jewish people are very special because of what we’ve had to overcome.”
“We have this incredible opportunity that many prior generations never had, which is to help ensure that we not only survive but thrive,” he said. “There is something very important about strengthening our bond with Israel, both as Americans and Jews living in the Diaspora.”
‘We are the future’
Saratovsky’s passion for the State of Israel was always strong. His Birthright trip during his sophomore year at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he majored in political science and Russian studies, deepened his connection to his heritage.
“The trip shaped my identity and helped me realize that Israel is a central part of our 4,000-year history and our collective Jewish consciousness,” he said.
He recalls reading about the new program launched by businessmen and philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt. There were 5,000 participants in the first group in December 1999, and at the last minute, he was able to secure one of the five slots offered through his college.
“The Hillel director asked me if I had a valid passport. I said yes, and she told me to pack my bags,” he said. “I was going to Israel in two days. I was so fortunate. That trip truly changed my life.”
The most impactful memory he has is of all 5,000 participants on his trip joining for the culminating Birthright Israel Mega Event, held in Jerusalem.
“It was a celebration of Jewish people in Israel — participants from all over the world that came together,” he said. “The connections I made with other college students from across the country and the world showed me how we are the future.”
‘Deeply passionate about this issue’
Saratovsky comes to Birthright Israel Foundation after a 21-year career as a pro-Israel advocate for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — better known as AIPAC — where he served in successive roles before becoming national director of regional affairs in 2021.
“I learned so much from my time at AIPAC,” he said. “Members are incredibly active and involved, working every single day to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
His leadership at AIPAC informs his new role at Birthright, he told JNS.
“I’m blessed at Birthright to have activists and donors who are deeply passionate about this issue,” he said. “One of my goals is to make sure that 20 years from now, there are even more pro-Israel activists across the spectrum as a result of their experience with Birthright.”
‘Every precaution to keep people safe’
Challenges loom large. Travel expenses are high in Israel and major donors have cut back their funding, so fewer young people are able to go on Birthright trips.
In 2023, there were two applicants for every slot, and more than 25,000 people had been put on a waiting list prior to Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attacks on Israel.
Travel costs had also increased by 30% since the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning an added $30 million in expenses for the 30,000 who went on a Birthright trip in 2023. A top annual gift from the Adelson Family Foundation of $40 million was cut to $10 million in 2023. Post-Oct. 7, two months of trips were canceled, leaving 25,000 young Jewish adults on the waitlist.
Out of safety concerns during Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Birthright participants are not going to communities in southern Israel. Nor will they be visiting the north out of concern for Hezbollah activity from Lebanon.
“We continued our trips during the height of the intifada,” Saratovsky said, referring to the second Palestinian “uprising” from 2000 to 2005. “We continued trips during multiple conflicts in Israel and are confident we can do trips now. We’re taking every precaution to keep people safe.”
Birthright is planning to bring survivors of the massacre from southern Israel and the Nova music festival to meet with those on the trips.
“We believe it’s very important for our participants to bear witness, to get a firsthand account of what happened,” Saratovsky said. “After Oct. 7, it’s more important for every single young Jew to go to Israel and to have a relationship with Israel, to bind our two societies.”
Birthright Israel has evolved significantly since Saratovsky took that first trip in 1999.
Every year, it now offers accessibility and inclusion trips for participants with a wide range of special needs. They are staffed by tour educators and madrichim (“counselors”) and have aides join them, if necessary. Israeli Mifgash participants — men and women from the Israel Defense Forces — join the groups as well. It is that kind of one-on-one with their peers that makes lasting impressions and friendships.
Birthright also offers a longer-term experience in Israel for six to 10 weeks called Birthright Israel Onward for those young adults who have taken the 10-day trip and want a more immersive experience in Israel as an intern.
The most memorable part of a Birthright trip is the meeting between Diaspora Jews and Israelis, according to Saratovsky. “It’s important for Israelis to understand what’s happening in America right now on college campuses,” he said.
On a recent trip to Israel, Saratovsky asked Birthright volunteers if they would feel safe wearing Star of David jewelry on a U.S. college campus. “A few of them raised their hand and they said when they arrived in Israel, they immediately felt safer. They felt like they were home,” he said.
“They weren’t just talking about physical safety. They were talking about emotional safety,” he added. “That’s just a very powerful component. We provide young American Jews with this opportunity to be in Israel and to be strengthened by each other and to understand what true resilience and grit feels like.”
No country embodies strength and endurance better than the Jewish state, according to Saratovsky. “We want our participants to tap into that Israeli resilience and to bring that back home with them,” he said.