A Mother’s (and Birthright Israel alumna’s) Words of Inspiration

By Shauna Waltman

Every now and again I catch myself reminiscing. Maybe it’s because I am in my 40s or maybe it’s because I was asked to reflect on the pivotal influences in my earlier life. Or maybe it has something to do with being a mom.

When I look back, I can see the moments in my life that are responsible for changing everything. Birthright Israel was one of those moments for me. When I left on my trip, I was single, unemployed and desperate for a change. While my younger years were steeped in Jewish education and activity, as I journeyed through university and into adulthood, I distanced myself, unable to figure out how I fit in. Birthright Israel was, in every sense, an escape: I felt in a rut personally, professionally, spiritually.

Shauna in Israel December 2003

I owe so much of who and where I am today to those incredible ten days in Israel. My experience reminded me how good it felt to be a part of something bigger than myself. It inspired me to want to make a difference in the world around me. It empowered me to take control of my circumstances and go after what made me happy. To this day, I am deeply humbled that people I never met invested in me and my future.

I never imagined myself working in the Jewish community. I went to Western University’s Ivey Business School and I was headed down the corporate road. But on my Birthright Israel trip, I learned about leaders who used their talents to strengthen Jewish community and peoplehood. When I was offered the chance to work on the March of the Living, I felt it was the perfect way to combine my passion and skillset to impact others in a powerful way. Soon after, I transitioned into community engagement, working with amazing volunteers and professionals first to engage Birthright Israel alumni, and later all Toronto young adults, to community programming in Toronto. Birthright Israel taught me that there are infinite ways to connect to Jewish life – and that everyone has their own unique capacity to contribute to the Jewish story. I have worked in the community for almost 20 years now, and helping people discover what makes Judaism meaningful to them and how they can use their own talents to impact others has always been at the core of what I do.

I am also the product of a Birthright Israel love story. Jeremy was our trip leader and, while we didn’t start dating until after the trip (because that would have been a big no-no), Birthright Israel was the backdrop upon which we sparked a friendship that turned into love, marriage and three “Birthright babies.” We will celebrate our 15th anniversary in January and we’re keeping our fingers crossed that we’ll be able to return to Israel in a few years for our eldest’s Bat Mitzvah.

Birthright Israel has given me so much to be thankful for. A job that I love. A family that I love. A passion that unlocked in me a life of purpose and meaning. And for the privilege of telling my children: “You see this amazing Jewish community? I helped build that. But I didn’t help build it so that I could hand it down to you. I built it to show you the power and obligation that each generation has to build a community that is meaningful and relevant to them. Now go out and build your own.”

Shauna, second from right, pictured with her family: (L-R) Husband Jeremy Bornstein, and their children Levi, Hannah and Judah.