The Birthright Excel program connects college students with internships in Israeli companies.
On Aug. 6, 43 students — including eight representatives from Pennsylvania — returned from Taglit Birthright Israel Excel, a 10-week business internship in Israel for college sophomores, juniors and select seniors who are pursuing careers in business and/or technology.
The students met with Israeli leaders in various industries, visited important sites across the country and took part in professional workshops. They were paired with Israeli peers, officers from the intelligence unit of the Israeli Defense Forces and students from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, who served as a bridge to Israeli society and culture. The students were also matched with mentors in industries such as finance, venture capital, consulting, high-tech, biotech and social media to show them the ropes.
“It’s a fantastic business opportunity,” said Lee Beckman, of Ambler, who attends the University of North Carolina. “Everything across the board exceeded my expectations.”
Beckman, 20, went on Birthright last summer with his twin Max and said it was “life-changing.”
“We really enjoyed our time and found great appreciation for Israel, the culture and the people,” he said.
When he retuned to Pennsylvania, he knew he had to find a way to get back. His friend Ben Glock, went on Excel in 2013 and recommended it.
Taglit co-founders Michael and Judy Steinhardt and Lynn Schusterman created Excel five years ago with a desire to develop future Jewish leaders, and empower them in the world of business, technology and social entrepreneurship.
While this was very different from Birthright, Beckman knew it could greatly help his desire to pursue a career in investment banking. Instead of touring and going out almost every night, like many do on Birthright,
Excel is more “complex” and involves a lot of work. “You really are getting a fuller experience,” he said.
Beckman was assigned an internship at Barclays, an investment banking firm, where he was paired with senior banker Ido Zakai. Zakai made him feel comfortable from the moment they met, he said.
“He really put the time aside to share with me his experiences and teach me and guide me about the industry.”
While many interns are known to get coffee and run errands, that was far from what Beckman did. He worked as a summer analyst and learned that building relationships and communication are key to succeeding in the business world.
The other important aspect of the program was the Israeli peer. He was paired with Tomer Shapira, 25, who is studying business and law at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. The two immediately bonded and became close friends.
Shapira took him out at night, showed him the culture, food, sights, had him over for dinner and also helped with mundane things like dry cleaning and dinner reservations.
The students stayed at the B’nei Dan, a hostel, and took many weekend excursions. They visited the Western Wall, went kayaking on the Jordan River and stayed on a kibbutz in northern Israel.
“It’s hard to believe how great of an experience we had,” he said. “It’s not 10 weeks; it’s a lifetime. We’re building an incredible diverse Jewish community through Excel.”
Jennifer Knesbach, 20, a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania from Houston, Texas, visited Israel for the first time with Taglit Birthright for 10 days and then immediately followed it with Excel. While the two programs are very different, Excel will have a lasting impact on her life because she is studying business at Penn.
“I just feel grateful and lucky that I got to be part of it,” she said.
Knesbach did an internship at BRM, a venture capital group, focused on technology and high tech devices, where Eran Barkat and Alon Maor, the partners at the firm, were her mentors.
She said she never felt like an intern and participated in many meetings with startup companies. All of the presenters spoke English so she could understand and the investors asked for her opinion as well. Due to her mentors’ guidance and the rigorous workload at BRM, she now wants to pursue venture capitalism instead of investment banking.
“I was treated more like a partner,” she said. “It was really cool to be a part of the decision-making process. At first it was hard to have an opinion because I didn’t know what they valued, but by the end of the summer I had an idea of what I was saying.”
Tai Benedit, 21, a rising junior at Penn out of New York City, also went to Israel for the first time and did Birthright and Excel back to back. He traveled throughout the Jewish homeland, experienced the culture, food and nightlife. One of his favorite parts of Birthright was waking up at the Kotel at sunrise.
He interned at Tri Venture, a venture capital firm focused on medical devices. It is a small firm, comprised of five people, two of whom, Michael Gez and Ari Fried, served as his mentors.
“Immediately, I was surprised,” he said. “Their goal for having me there was for it to be a learning experience for me.”
He and his colleagues met with a start-up company developing a microscopic positioner for surgeries and he helped generate ideas for pricing and how to get it in hospitals. It was intriguing to see an industry from the investor side and how companies in Israel are always thinking globally, he said.
“It got me excited about the whole start-up scene,” he said.