Back from Birthright Israel Blog

Back from Birthright Israel Blog

Meet an Alumnus: Sarah Petty

(Alumni Stories) Permanent link

petty1  petty2

When you went on a trip and with which organizer: Israel by Foot, Israel Outdoors (Tlalim)

Why did you decide to go to Israel? I wanted to experience the place I have learned so much about growing up.

Your favorite trip memory/funniest story: We camped out in the Negev for a night and it was absolutely beautiful. It was my first time ever camping and I couldn’t think of a better way to do it!

Biggest culture shock: Speaking with the Israelis on our trip about their way of life versus my way of life in the US, including education and military.

Your favorite trip food: Falafel!

You are from: Highland Park, IL

Your favorite thing to do in Chicago: See concerts and plays!

How you pay the bills: Lighting Designer and Event Coordinator

How you give back to the community (Jewish or not): Volunteer and I work for Grandparent’s for Social Action

Your favorite way to “Jew” in Chicago: Grabbing some Pita Inn with friends or catching a Shabbat Dinner at Moishe House. I have also volunteered at the Uptown Cafe. This August, I will be moving into the Chicago Repair the World Moishe House.

Relationship status: Single

Your claim to fame/fun fact: Since returning from Israel, I can make a great Shakshouka!

Here is my quick and easy Shakshouka recipe:

A bit of olive oil
1 clove of garlic, minced
Half of a white onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
3-4 ripe diced tomatoes
2 tbsps of tomato paste
A pinch of salt and pepper
5 Eggs


Heat a large skillet and add olive oil. Mix in onions and garlic and sauté.
Add the pepper and sauté until soft.
Once soft, stir in tomatoes and tomato paste. Let simmer for 5-8 minutes.
Crack eggs over mixture, making sure to evenly space them.
Cover pan and allow to simmer for 10 minutes.
Serve with pita, labna and hummus!

Meet an Alumnus: Jamie Berg

(Alumni Stories) Permanent link



When you went on a trip and with which organizer: Winter 2013/Shorashim

Why did you decide to go to Israel? I'd never been overseas and thought this was a great opportunity to explore Israel with others my age

Your favorite trip memory/funniest story: Climbing Masada and watching the sunrise as a group

Biggest culture shock: Cats roaming the streets like it was no big deal

Your favorite trip food: Falafel

You are from: Chicago (Deerfield)

Your favorite thing to do in Chicago: Go to the beach or boat ride around Lake Michigan

How you pay the bills: Media planner/buyer

How you give back to the community (Jewish or not): Volunteer at PAWs

Your favorite way to “Jew” in Chicago: Have Shabbat dinner with my birthright group

Relationship status: Taken

Your claim to fame/fun fact: I may or may not be friends with Jimmy Butler.

Meet an Alumnus: Brock Auerbach-Lynn

(Alumni Stories) Permanent link



When you went on a trip and with which organizer: December 2013, Israel Outdoors

Why did you decide to go to Israel? Never been and taking advantage if a great program while I still could

Your favorite trip memory/funniest story: Toss-up between Snorkeling in the Red Sea and the Israeli's coming to the airport to wish us bon voyage

Biggest culture shock: Pushy people looking to cut in line

Your favorite trip food: small hole in the wall humus place in Jerusalem.

You are from: Los Angeles

(If applicable) You came to Chicago because and when: To attend grad school in August 2010

Your favorite thing to do in Chicago: Toss up - naked bike ride and the logan square farmers market

How you pay the bills: Project Manager overseeing part of the Illinois energy efficiency program

How you give back to the community (Jewish or not): Volunteer with Chicago bike buddies, member of the Dill Pickle Food Coop and I'm a steady quiet (not so quiet) voice in everyone's' ear encouraging more sustainable behavior

Your favorite way to “Jew” in Chicago: I bought awesome challah from a local bread guy at the farmers market once

Relationship status: In a relationship

Your claim to fame/fun fact: Don Quixote is my spirit animal

Meet an Alumnus: Nikolas Levin

(Alumni Stories) Permanent link



When you went on a trip and with which organizer: I was there for New Years in 2014. Shorashim

Why did you decide to go to Israel?  Because it was a great opportunity for me to tour Israel and learn about Israeli culture while meeting new peers from my neighborhood in Chicago.

Your favorite trip memory/funniest story:  We had a staring contest in the Hotel Lobby on Shabbat, I beat all but one person in our group.  It was pretty funny. 

Biggest culture shock:  How modern Israel is, I had no idea how modern Israeli infrastructure was.

Your favorite trip food: One of the Israeli's on our trip introduced me to this, I'm not sure how to pronounce in English but in Hebrew it is ג'חנון (Jachnun is a Yemenite Jewish pastry).

You are from: Skokie/Glencoe

You came to Chicago because and when: I moved to the city 3 years ago to escape my parents and meet new people.

Your favorite thing to do in Chicago:  Eat at different ethnic restaurants.

How you give back to the community (Jewish or not):  I donate to the American Red Cross and have volunteered at soup kitchens (including the JUF Uptown Café).

Your favorite way to “Jew” in Chicago:  Grab a Matza Ball soup at The Bagel.  Or a Shwarma at Sultan’s Market. 

Relationship status: Single.....maybe you guys can help me out with this one!!! :)

Your claim to fame/fun fact: I referee Ice Hockey

Bus 319 - Galina's Blog

(Trip Blog) Permanent link


Shorashim Bus 319

Dear family and friends at home,

Sunday was a very emotional day. We woke up early again after our wonderful day of rest, had breakfast, packed up the bus and began our journey to Yad Veshem. It wasn’t a very far drive but after our preparatory discussion from the previous day, I knew it was going to be intense. After getting off the bus, we took a few minutes to enjoy the views from outside the memorial while waiting for our guide. When she came, she distributed headsets that she would be transmitting to for the duration of our tour. She began by taking us to the Path of Righteous, where there is a tree planted for every person that helped save at least one Jewish life during the Holocaust; Schindler’s tree was the very first one we saw. We proceeded into the main memorial and the tour began. The long triangular building zig-zagged as it took us through the years leading up to World War II, and ending with the challenges facing the Jewish communities following liberation. The first installation is a video showing how normal Jewish life in Europe was before the war. The whole memorial itself was heartbreaking to see, and reading through the information and listen to the testimonies of everything that happened was very emotional. I spent most of the tour tearing up, but I really started to cry when we got to the end and watched an interview from a survivor. The mood among the group was very somber and it seemed like most people were trying to process everything they just saw and heard. Our tour ended at the memorial for the 1.5 million children murdered during the Holocaust.

Before getting back on the bus we had to say goodbye to one of our group members, Jeanette. She had been volunteering in Chicago’s Partnership2Gether region of Kiryat Gat, and joined our group after the her program ended. We had adopted her into our group, and were sad to see her leave after lunch. The lunch break was relaxing; we got some food, did a bit of shopping, and I finally found a present for my dad!! Then it was over and the long drive to the desert began. After a bathroom break, we got to David Ben Gurion’s grave in Sde Boker. The view into the desert crater was absolutely breathtaking. Michal our tour guide played host for some Ben Gurion trivia, and she invited some of his closest friends (volunteer actors from our group) to ask us questions about his life. Interesting fun fact of the day: Ben Gurion did his best thinking when he was standing on his head. His best friend (Ali) demonstrated for us and she rocked the headstand, especially on the hard rocks! This is where I sign off!

Much love from Israel!!!

-Galina <3

Mount Arbel and Tzfat

(Trip Blog) Permanent link


Shorashim Bus 319

Day three of our Shorashim trip has been my favorite day so far (but there’s still so much more left!) We started with a hike down Mount Arbel overlooking the sea of Galilee. We stopped to take in the scenery and talked about the area’s historical significance. It’s amazing to physically experience a region filled with so much Jewish history, while there’s still a vibrant community of Jews living there today.

Afterward we traveled to Tzfat; I loved this city! I felt a greater connection to the Jewish people in Israel after all we experienced there. As someone interested in Kabbalah, it was fascinating for me to learn of the city’s ties to it. We visited a Kabbalistic artist, listened to a live music performance and got a chance to explore the city. Tzfat enabled me to see and experience what I have so far only heard and read about. This wonderful trip has already enabled us to explore and experience new elements of our Jewish identities; I have learned so much about the land of Israel so far, and I’m beyond excited for it to continue!


Meet an Alumnus: Danny Rudnick

(Alumni Stories) Permanent link



When you went on a trip and with which organizer: Shorashim, Winter 2014

Why did you decide to go to Israel? All of my friends had done it, and I figured, "Why not?!" I'm so glad I did!

Your favorite trip memory/funniest story: Pitching in cash for tons of food from the market in Jerusalem (ordered by one of our Israeli friends), taking it all back to the hotel, and eating it family style.

Biggest culture shock: The fact that everything was in Hebrew or Jewish related. To see something like that in Chicago you have to go to a very specific block; in Israel it is everywhere.

Your favorite trip food: The food from that family style dinner!

You are from: Chicago

You came to Chicago because and when: In 1987 when my mother gave birth to me.

Your favorite thing to do in Chicago: Eat all of the wonderful food! (Do you see a pattern here?)

How you pay the bills: Teaching Science

How you give back to the community: Volunteer at shelters

Your favorite way to “Jew” in Chicago: Attending volunteer events or get-togethers when I'm invited by Elizabeth JUF Wyner (kidding, of course)

Relationship status: Taken

Your claim to fame/fun fact: I'm an award-winning close-up magician and editor of a recently published magic book. To answer your questions: yes I will show you a trick, no I cannot make your significant other disappear, and no, sorry, I cannot make the Cubs win.

Empowering ability for children with physical disabilities

(Alumni Stories) Permanent link


 Empowering ability for children with physical disabilities
The author (standing on left) hanging out with members of“Just Give Me A Chance.”


Born at 29 weeks gestation, weighing 2 lbs. 13 oz., I was on a ventilator for 24 hours and in the neonatal intensive care unit for five weeks. Doctors told my parents I might have disabilities. My parents didn't know what to expect. At four months of age, my mother noticed I was not rolling over or sitting up.  At 11 months old, I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Doctors said I would have trouble walking and doing many physical tasks. Boy, were they wrong. I have since gone ice-skating, skiing, and been a participant on a birthright trip to Israel.

From the time I was six years old I have been determined to create an organization for kids with physical differences. In the summer of 2010, I began transforming my dream into reality. Six girls with cerebral palsy met weekly, took part in art and cooking projects, and, ultimately, created lasting friendships. The participants decided to name the group "Girls Club.' Girls Club was the launch pad to my life's work. The participants wanted to keep Girls Club going all year around. It was then I realized that the idea of girls club could reach more than six girls; so I set out to create a larger organization.

I began expanding my organization in December 2013. I changed the name of the organization from Girls Club to "Just Give Me A Chance." It now incorporates boys and girls with a variety of movement differences. The mission of the organization is to create an environment where children with physical disabilities share a comfortable space and can just be a kid.

Growing up I developed strong friendships with people who did not have physical disabilities. I was thrilled to be seen as just another kid. However, I wished there was an organization for kids with physical differences to have fun and compare stories. I made a promise to myself that I would create an organization where children with physical disabilities could simply have fun and enjoy each other's company.

Just Give Me A Chance provides a space filled with arts and crafts, cooking, games, laughter, singing and more. The organization creates a community where children feel comfortable sharing what it is like to have a movement difference.

As a little girl who participates in the group said, "My favorite part about the group is that I get to play with people just like me."

Just Give Me A Chance started its fourth round of classes in March. Classes are held at the Bernard Wenger Jewish Community Center in Northbrook. For more information, visit, email, or call (847) 751-0073.

Aimee Halstuk is the program director of "Just Give Me A Chance."

Learning that I belong

(Alumni Stories) Permanent link


Learning that I belong

At a wedding, a lady next to me asked if I was Jewish, as the groom's side was. I told her 'yes' and that I belong to North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park. She responded "Really?! You don't look Jewish. I never would have guessed." At that moment I could have told her the reason I don't "look" Jewish by her standards is because I wasn't born Jewish and converted almost five years ago. I didn't though, not because I was embarrassed, but because in that moment I was judged based on my looks, and I wasn't going to share my story as a justification.

For reasons such as this, there have been times where I've felt ostracized and it was hard for me to connect with others my age in the Jewish community. This is the primary reason why I wanted to go on Birthright Israel.  

I went on Birthright this past June not knowing a single person, with the mindset that I wasn't going to tell anyone that I had converted. I was afraid of being judged and feeling like a pariah for 12 straight days. Throughout the trip others shared their backgrounds, some had two Jewish parents, some were children of interfaith marriages, and some had mothers that converted. No one was regarded as being more or less Jewish than before. I realized that not everyone judges or tries to typecast you because of the way you look, what your name may be, or your background.

While in Safed, the boys and girls were separated. The guys went to their mikvah (ritual bath) and we went to ours, although we couldn't go into it. We were a part of a discussion of the different things a mikvah represents and the reasons why a female would go to one. Our discussion leader asked if any of us aside from her had been to a mikvah. I was the only one to raise their hand. I received inquisitive looks from my group. I was asked why, and revealed I converted. So I shared my story…

I was raised Catholic. I was an altar girl and in the church choir, not necessarily because I believed in what I was doing, but because I was going through the motions of what I thought was expected of me. At age 16, I chose not to be confirmed. The beliefs and practices of the church were not the same beliefs and practices I shared. I could have easily dissociated myself from Catholicism and just celebrated holidays, but I didn't want to take part in something I didn't believe in. 

I gave up on religion altogether and started reading philosophy, mostly existentialism.  For a few years it gave me the answers I sought. It wasn't until I was studying abroad in Paris when I realized religion was missing in my life. I started doing research on different religions and Judaism had my name all over it. When I returned to the states, I met with the rabbi that would do my conversion. I approached my parents and told them I was converting to Judaism, which surprised them. It started a great dialogue and they were so supportive, and are still to this day. 

After a yearlong process the day of my conversion came. My family and friends went to the Orthodox synagogue where the mikvah was located to support me. I don't even think twice today because it feels natural. I've found a balance between my past and present.

After I told my story, the group asked me questions but, other than that, nothing had changed, which was reassuring. For our last Shabbat, an Orthodox rabbi and his family stayed at our Jerusalem hotel with us. That is probably the part that will stick with me the most. His wife was a Jew by choice. I was in awe because I reflected on the judgments and subtle jabs I encountered. She explained that we weren't any less Jewish because we chose this. They left me with some Talmudic words of wisdom, which is everything I needed to hear: converting isn't about changing religions, but rather showing you were always Jewish. These words made me finally feel like I belong. 

Kristina Harris, who lives in Chicago, participated in the Taglit Birthright Israel, JUF Chicago community trip, through Tlalim - Israel Outdoors last summer.  

Lending a hand to our brothers and sisters

(Alumni Stories) Permanent link


 Lending a hand to our brothers and sisters
The author (right) with his dad and brother, Mitchell.

Having a brother who is on the more severe end of the autism spectrum has profoundly shaped who I am today, both personally and professionally. It is the reason my law practice is limited to serving families of children and adults with intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities, and mental illness.

As president of Supporting Illinois Brothers and Sisters (SIBS), the state chapter of a national organization called the Sibling Leadership Network, I have worked with many bright and ambitious fellow siblings to develop a support network for our fellow brothers and sisters, to help answer the questions they have, give them insight into what their future responsibilities might be, and to support them in their unique role as a sibling.  

My brother, Mitchell, has been living in a Community Integrated Living Arrangement (CILA), commonly called a group home, since he was 22 years old. It has given my sister and me tremendous piece of mind to know that he has a place he can call home with supports that allow him to live independently from my parents.  While we know that someday it will be our responsibility to maintain close contact with his staff, and take him for home visits, that is vastly different than the 24/7 care that some siblings are suddenly finding themselves responsible for.  

One of the greatest gifts that we, as a Jewish community, can offer siblings is "piece of mind"; by ensuring their siblings with special needs have the support they need to live and work independently from their parents. While there were few if any options for my brother, a Keshet Sunday School participant since the mid 1980s, to live in group home that was fully integrated into the Jewish community when he moved into his CILA more than 10 years ago, that is mercifully no longer the case.  

Keshet, Jewish Child and Family Services (JCFS), and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF) have come together to ensure the existence of such services and supports through the Supported Community Living Initiative (SCLI), a project I have been fortunate to be involved in from very early on in the process. The Supported Community Living Initiative explores a sustainable, community integrated future for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.  SCLI is administered by Jewish Child & Family Services, a partner in serving our community, supported by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation. 

The SCLI focuses on person-centered planning, to provide and/or facilitate a full array of best practices, services, and supports for adults across the spectrum of intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (IDD), as well as across all socio-economic levels and religious levels of observance.  This initiative also concentrates on connecting the community to residential and supported employment opportunities that already exist through both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations.  Libenu Foundation is one such organization in the Jewish community that has been a pioneer in establishing kosher CILAs in Skokie and West Rogers Park.  

We have already seen residents of CILAs established under both Libenu and the SCLI attend events together including dinners and community outings.  While it has not always been a smooth process, we are now seeing the young men and women in these group homes become fully integrated into their communities, they are becoming an integral part of their synagogues and local JCC's.  

Knowing that our brothers and sisters are embraced by our community is immensely important to us as siblings.  As it is said, kol yisrael areivim ze lazeh, all Jews are responsible for one another, may we continue to work towards the embodiment of that principal of Torah as we embark on this integral chapter in our community's service to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  It is ultimately a service not just to those individuals, but to their brothers and sisters as well. 

For more information and updates about SCLI, visit For specific inquiries email or call (773) 467-3838.

Benji Rubin is an attorney living in Chicago. His law practice is limited to future planning for families of children with special needs. 

JCFS is a partner in serving our community, supported by the Jewish United Fund/ Jewish Federation.

Experiencing Israel in a new way

(Alumni Stories) Permanent link


 Experiencing Israel in a new way
Ali Lapping (left) and Dana Glazer, the author, riding a camel in the Negev desert.

The summer between graduating high school and starting college, I went to Israel with my extended family. Visiting Israel that summer gave me a much better understanding and appreciation of what it means to be Jewish. My trip inspired me to become involved with Hillel on campus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which is something I never expected of myself prior to the trip. After a conversation with a Hillel staff member, I learned that I was eligible to go on a Taglit Birthright Israel trip. I was excited that I had the chance to return to the land I loved, but with people closer to my age. Two years later, I was off to Israel on a JUF Chicago Community trip with Shorashim. I knew that going to Israel with my peers, most of us from the suburbs of Chicago, would be a different way to experience the country. Together, we were able to have meaningful conversations about what we learned and what we took away from each site. Not only did we talk about the history of Israel, but we also discussed contemporary issues occurring in the country and in Judaism. It was fascinating to hear the different viewpoints on each topic, but I think we gained the most insight from the people who made the trip so extraordinary—our Israeli friends. On our trip, we had seven Israelis, who were almost finished serving in the IDF. They took the concept of "traveling with peers" to a whole new level. Here were seven people close in age with us, who look like us, dress like us, and who are Jewish just like us, but live in a place in constant conflict. It was incredible to witness their love for life and positive attitudes, despite living in an area at the center of so much disagreement. The amount of fighting they have been exposed to is unfathomable, and hearing their stories put so much into perspective. However, these challenging experiences have only strengthened the amount of pride they have for their country and their people. Touring with the Israelis gave the country a more personal feeling. I now have a greater appreciation for all Israeli citizens, knowing how much they sacrifice to defend their country, the country that is home to all Jews. No matter how difficult it is to be a part of the Israeli army, all seven Israelis on our trip serve without complaint because of how much they care for Israel. I truly admire the strength and courage they display every day. This trip was so eye-opening to everyone, and it was so encouraging to want to become more involved with Judaism and our own Jewish communities when we returned home. I cannot wait to go back to Israel, both to visit the incredible country, and to see the Israelis who have made such a difference for their country, their people, and the 40 Jewish kids from the Chicago suburbs. Dana Glazer is Young Adult Engagement Lewis Summer Intern for the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. The funding for this 10-day free trip for people ages 18-26 was provided by our local Federation and the Birthright Israel Foundation. Here in Chicago alone we sent close to 1,800 participants and raised $2.5 million from 1,200 donors.