When Massachusetts-born Douglas M. Ross was 20 years old, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student felt like there was something missing from his life. After his bar mitzvah, he had drifted away from his Reform Jewish background, feeling more like a cultural, rather than religious, Jew. But six words from his father changed his life: “Why don’t you go to Israel?”
Now, after 40 years in Atlanta, Ross has been elected vice chair of the Birthright Israel Foundation – the U.S. funding arm of Birthright Israel. He said, “I didn’t even know Israel was a country! No one in my family had gone to modern Israel.”
But in 1976, Ross took a leave of absence from his university and lived on Kibbutz Erez, near the Gaza Strip, for seven weeks as a volunteer. “When the plane landed, it knocked me over. I felt something come alive in me. It blew me away,” he told the AJT.
After his kibbutz stint, he returned to college and wrote his honors thesis on the Israeli-Arab conflict. A world-renowned political science professor who was a Lebanese Christian took the young student under his wing, serving as his thesis advisor. After graduating, Ross returned to Israel for a year, studying Hebrew and living on a kibbutz.
Fast-forward several years. In 2018, Ross retired from his professional career as a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley. In the meantime, family friend Harry Maziar had enticed Ross to work with Birthright Israel Foundation. Ross has served as its Atlanta chair since 2012 and joined the organization’s national board of directors in 2015, serving in several capacities, including treasurer and finance cabinet chair.
Although today Ross easily spouts statistics about Birthright, noting that more than 9,500 young Atlantans have participated in Birthright since 2000, when he first started working with the organization, he knew little about it. His younger son had gone on the free 10-day trip to Israel in 2010, but he said he’s been on a learning curve for the last near-decade.
“I spent the first year asking a lot of questions,” he said.
The not-for-profit educational organization that sponsors the trips to Israel for young adults of Jewish heritage, aged 18 to 32, was launched in an effort to connect young people with Israel and their Judaism. Since its inception, 750,000 youth from 70 countries have participated. Pre-pandemic, about 45,000 young people went on Birthright every year.
The two main seasons for Birthright trips are winter and summer. In summer 2020, however, no trips were allowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Ross, 30,000 participants had registered for that summer and didn’t get to go. In May of 2021, Birthright was the first group allowed into Israel from anywhere in the world, but then the war with Hamas broke out.
“I just spoke with the CEO of Birthright and we’re expecting anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 this winter,” said Ross.
The trip costs an estimated $4,500 per person, with prices up due to the pandemic. The State of Israel contributes about one-third of the Birthright budget, with the remainder raised by the Birthright Israel Foundation and its 40,000 donors, and through Jewish community groups. Youth are asked to pay a $250 refundable deposit, which they can choose to leave with the organization.
“We raise $45 to $50 million a year,” said Ross, noting that the organization’s board is “very active.”
As the national cabinet chair of the Birthright Israel Foundation, Ross’s job is to “strengthen lay leadership in our 12 cities. We’re a very lean organization. There are only 46 employees in the entire country.” He takes on his new role as vice chair on the first of the year. “My role as vice chair will be to continue working with professionals and lay leaders to open people’s hearts and minds to Birthright.”
He contends that Jewish organizations around the country benefit from Birthright Israel. “Their up-and-coming leadership is coming from Birthright alumni,” he said.
As for Ross, he ultimately discovered that his connection to Israel dated back much farther than he ever imagined. Two of his great-grandfathers, originally from Lithuania, were buried in Israel more than a century ago. He eventually found their graves — “miraculously” — on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
- Jan Jaben-Eilon
- Douglas M. Ross
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Reform Jewish
- Bar Mitzvah
- Birthright Israel Foundation
- Kibbutz Erez
- Gaza Strip
- Israeli-Arab conflict
- Morgan Stanley
- Harry Maziar
- not-for-profit educational organization
- COVID-19 pandemic
- State of Israel