Cultivating a Lifelong Love of Israel
Q & A with Julia Birnberg
Heilicher alumna Julia Birnberg (Heilicher ‘12) is no stranger to Jewish community leadership. A rising senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she has already distinguished herself as a pro-Israel student activist and campus leader. We had the opportunity to interview Julia this past summer about her activism and how Heilicher assisted in shaping her Jewish identity.
Tell us a bit about your own Jewish upbringing and involvement. How did it influence your current path?
I grew up in a welcoming and supportive Jewish home. We had Shabbat dinners every week, attended synagogue regularly, and celebrated holidays with my extended family. Growing up, both of my parents were heavily involved in the Jewish community and are still very active. It was important to them to raise children with strong Jewish values and identities.
Attending Heilicher helped me truly understand what it means to be a Jewish American in my generation. Even as a little girl, I always had solid core values which guided me throughout my time at Heilicher and afterwards. I enjoyed having Jewish Studies and Hebrew every day. These classes really helped me develop a strong identity which carried on throughout high school and college.
What is special to you about Heilicher and your Jewish day school experience?
I cannot thank the school enough for creating such a welcoming and inclusive environment. The school was a really amazing place to explore my Jewish identity and also create friendships with people who believe different things. The teachers supported every student’s individual needs and encouraged us to get involved in our broader community.
Some of my most memorable experiences were the intimate conversations I was able to have with my students and teachers. I was able to connect with my teachers on a personal level and learn their stories. In particular, I loved how Heilicher was able to weave in Jewish values and learning in all courses. Specifically, I remember connecting the Jewish core values with a variety of songs in music class.
What drives your Israel advocacy and what are you currently doing?
My initial connection to Israel was through my Jewish identity and family. The first time I visited Israel was during middle school with my family, and I immediately felt a strong connection to this vibrant and innovative country. After visiting, I knew that I wanted to do my part in ensuring Israel’s right to exist.
A high school USY Eastern Europe Pilgrimage trip to Israel strengthened my connection and introduced me to students from across the country, some of whom I am still close with today. This trip changed my perspective on Israel activism because I was able to engage with students who shared my passion and wanted to do something about it. During high school, I decided that it was my duty to ensure and continue to strengthen the US-Israel relationship. I realized that as an American, I could impact Israel’s security and safety.
When I arrived on campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I knew I wanted to get involved with the pro-Israel groups on campus. I immediately joined Badgers for Israel, the AIPAC-affiliated student organization, where I learned the importance of building relationships with members of congress and influential student leaders. I attended multiple AIPAC Policy Conferences in Washington D.C., participated in AIPAC student training conferences, and interned last summer as an AIPAC Diamond Summer Intern. I also had the opportunity to speak as a student activist at various AIPAC Annual Events across the country.
During my freshman year, I also got involved with the student organization called TAMID, which connects college students with Israeli startup companies to offer advising and consulting services. I have remained highly involved with the organization throughout college and even interned during the summers for the two startup companies I found through TAMID.
I was really grateful for the impactful experiences I had at Heilicher and through my trips to Israel and wanted to give other students the opportunity to strengthen their connections to Judaism and Israel. This past winter, I led a Birthright trip with students from UW-Madison and across the country.
During my junior year abroad at Tel Aviv University, I participated in their Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Business program, where I had the opportunity to personally engage with and learn from successful Israeli startup companies.
Overall, I have found ways to merge my passions for Israel activism with my interests in business and entrepreneurship.
What message would you like to leave for the current generation of Heilicher students?
I would tell current students at Heilicher that it is important to figure out what you’re most passionate about and run with it. Find a cause or issue that ignites your fire and motivates you want to make changes in our world. I can tell you from firsthand experience that it isn’t always going to be easy to fight for what you believe in, but it’ll definitely be worthwhile and fulfilling. I also think it’s important to listen and be open minded to other people’s beliefs and values. You can learn so much from just engaging with other individuals with differing perspectives and upbringings. Heilicher gave me so much confidence in who I am and what I believe, and helped me develop the skills that now underpin my Israel advocacy.