When Virginia Beach native, Zalmy Margolin touched down at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv just before New Year’s, 2015, Birthright Israel officially became a family affair. Zalmy, together with his wife Bracha, were the last in his family to arrive as leaders on the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies’ Birthright Israel division.
Zalmy is the youngest child of Chabad of Tidewater co-directors, Rabbi Aron and Rychel Margolin. By the time Zalmy committed to being a Birthright Israel: Mayanot leader, he had plenty of people to seek advice from; all six of his older siblings (two of them with their spouses) and his mom and dad had all experienced the 10-day journey.
“Ever since the concept of leading Birthright trips was introduced to our family, we knew we’d be doing it for a while,” says Rabbi Margolin who will be leading his 13th trip this month. “The ability to share such a unique Jewish experience in such a special Jewish place is addictive,” he adds.
For Rychel Margolin, who herself led a trip together with her husband, Birthright Israel is a great way for her family to do what they do best: combine their love for Israel and sharing Judaism with Jewish people. “I truly believe that everyone in my family has the ability to change the lives of many people, even when they don’t realize it themselves,” she says. “Through Birthright, they are definitely able to make a difference in an incredible way.”
In January of 2010, Rabbi Levi Margolin, fresh off a stint as assistant rabbi at the Chabad at Texas A&M University, lead the family’s first Birthright Israel trip. Ten days later, he was back in Brooklyn eagerly introducing the Mayanot Israel team to his siblings and parents. “Guys, this is a must,” he remembers telling them at the time, “I really can’t describe it. Go! Just go.”
Eight trips as leader and two and half years later, Levi Margolin tossed his belongings into three suitcases and boarded a plane for Israel. This time, he would be staying long-term, assuming the position of social media coordinator at Mayanot Israel, the organization that brought him to Israel his very first time, nearly 10 years earlier, long before he even dreamed of leading a trip of 40 first-timers.
Today, as director of marketing and staff coordinator for Mayanot, Levi Margolin continues to involve his family in the program as often as possible. When he heard about the “Birthright Israel Fellows” educational seminar, the first person he called was his dad. “I’m going to this Birthright thing in Chicago,” he told his father over the phone, “If you’re going to continue leading Birthright, I really think you should join me.”
“I remember thinking to myself ‘four days in Chicago is a long time’ and I wasn’t really sure what to expect of the program,” says the senior Margolin, “But at the same time, it would be four days with like-minded people, all with a love for Israel and Judaism and a deep passion for sharing it with others.”
A few months later, in September, Rabbi Aron Margolin, his son Levi, and about 100 others found themselves in a suburb just west of Chicago, Ill. about to be fully immersed for four days in workshops, activities and seminars focused on Experiential Israel Education.
Birthright Israel, founded in 1999, is one of the largest endeavors ever built upon the foundations of experiential education, a concept that has been catching steam since it was first introduced in the 1930s. Birthright Israel aims to bring young Jewish people from across the Diaspora to Israel and give them the tools to discover something new about their Jewish identity and their place within the greater Jewish World. Birthright Israel also aims to be a fully immersive adventure of the Jewish people’s homeland as opposed to a tour of a foreign country. Israeli youth join the participants along the way, a diverse lineup of speakers and presenters meet each group and several times throughout the journey, groups gather to discuss, process and reflect on their experiences up to that point.
In partnership with the iCenter for Israel Education, Birthright Israel presented the newest class of Birthright Israel Fellows with “the best hands on methods needed to lead an Israel trip, make a difference in the life of your peers and to relate stories and emotions that people will remember.” After four days, it’s safe to say that everyone learned something new.
“They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” Rabbi Aron Margolin said at the culmination of the conference, joking about both his age and experience in the Birthright Israel world, “But today, I can tell you that’s not true.”
Levi Margolin can be reached at email@example.com.