Sarah at Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem.
Sarah at Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem.

Meet Sarah Markowitz, a Michigan native who made aliyah after a Birthright trip.

A friend of mine named Hannah told me last year in November, to apply to Birthright because it would absolutely change my life,” said Sarah Markowitz.

As an individual actively in recovery from addiction, Markowitz thought it would be a bad idea to go on Birthright after hearing stories of partying on the trip. But Markowitz decided to listen to her friend and did some research.

Sarah at the Ramon Crater in Mitzpe Ramon
Sarah at the Ramon Crater in Mitzpe Ramon

“I went to the Birthright website and saw the Israel Free Spirit program for people recovering from addiction. And I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is HaShem, this is God, I have to apply for this.’”

The Michigan native signed up for the Taglit Birthright immediately.

What is Israel Free Spirit?

Sharon Darack came up with the idea for Israel Free Spirit for people recovering from addiction in 2003. The first trip was held in 2010.

“The whole concept of the trip came from creating a safe environment for Jewish people in recovery. To have a Birthright experience where there’s no pressures around substance, alcohol use or potentially other behavioral addictions,” Darack explained.

Israel Free Spirit includes the same experiences other Birthright trips have — a camel ride in the Negev desert, a trip to the Western Wall, a float in the Dead Sea, etc.

“The biggest difference is that the staff are trained in recovery. They may have experience working in treatment centers. Some are social workers or alumni who have been on the recovery trip before,” Darack added.

Throughout the trip, participants also have optional 12-Step meetings after the Birthright programming for those who want to participate.

 Sarah and E after climbing Masada.
Sarah and E after climbing Masada.

“You can be in recovery and enjoy life, travel, and you don’t have to feel alone or isolated,” she said. “Israel Free Spirit is the best free hidden gift. This program is very life-changing for young people like Sarah.”

Jewish Upbringing

Growing up in the West Bloomfield area, Markowitz has always felt close to Judaism. She attended Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield and was active in the Jewish community.

Markowitz recalled one of her teachers telling the class how they had the right to get citizenship in Israel.

“It has stuck with me as a little kid. I remember thinking, Israel is my second home. I’ve always felt a pull to Israel,” Markowitz explained.

The 28-year-old had only been to Israel once before with her family at a young age and always knew she wanted to go back. Following her bat mitzvah, Markowitz chose to stay in Hebrew school. “I was in BBYO for four or five years. I was president of my chapter at one point.”

Markowitz also spent some of her time working at the Friendship Circle, which allowed her to get to know the Orthodox community.

“I would go to an Orthodox Shabbat dinner, and I always thought the Orthodox community was so cool. I was just attracted to something about it,” she said.

In high school, Markowitz says she lost touch with her spiritual and religious side and fell into addiction.

The Trip That Changed Her Life

Markowitz moved to Phoenix, Arizona, in 2021, for a recovery program and quickly started reconnecting with her Jewish spirituality.

“One of the therapists was a Chasidic Jew, and he gave me a siddur,” Markowitz explained. “He told me that I have a Jewish soul, and God wants to hear from me.”

Markowitz’s journey to recovery and finding her spirituality really took a turn when her friend, Hannah, told her about the life-changing experience.

Unfortunately, due to COVID and other complications, the trip kept getting canceled. As time passed, in the spring of 2022, Hannah overdosed and passed away.

“The day after she passed away, I got the email that read: ‘Mazel Tov, you’re going to Israel!’ I know Hannah had a part in that, and I feel her with me on this journey.”

Markowitz left for her trip in July and had a magical experience.

“To be around other Jews in recovery, I didn’t realize how much I was missing it. We did 12-Step recovery meetings together;we got to meet the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem fellowship. It was just incredible and there was so much support,” she said.

During the trip, Markowitz realized she wanted to make Israel her home.

“I was at the Western Wall and I wrote out something called the Third Step prayer; it’s something from the 12-Step program. So, I wrote it out at the Western Wall. And I wrote to HaShem, ‘Love, Sarah,’ and I put it in the Wall. Then, when I touched the Wall, I felt HaShem with me in every way. I had this experience of God’s will for me is to move to Israel and to become Orthodox.”

Markowitz officially made the announcement to make aliyah on the trip where she had the opportunity to have another bat mitzvah, and she had to pick a mitzvah.

“I said my mitzvah is to make aliyah. I’m moving to Israel.”

Following the 10-day trip, Markowitz didn’t waste any time in applying to make aliyah.

“When Sarah came back and said, ‘I need your help. I want to go back again,’” Darack said. “I’m like, really? I know everyone wants to go back. And then she made it happen. I was so impressed that she was able to do this and turn it around and connect with organizations. And I did whatever I could to help.”

Just one week after Markowitz returned from Birthright, she got a call asking her to join the Masa Cohort, a teaching program aimed to advance Israeli students’ English skills, starting Aug. 22. Markowitz thought it was too quick of a turnaround time and wasn’t sure if she would be able to make it work.

“Every bump that I was expecting to hold me back, God just took care of it. So, it’s really been quite an easy and peaceful process for me.”

Markowitz booked her one-way ticket to Israel on Aug. 21.

“I’ll be staying in Mitzpe Ramon for 10 months teaching English. I get to work two days a week at a religious school and then two days a week at a secular school. Then after the 10 months with the Masa fellowship, I would really like to move to Jerusalem and stay and make aliyah.”

Life in Israel

After a few months Markowitz says she’s happily living in Mitzpe Ramon, Israel and enjoys teaching so much more than she expected.

“The community has welcomed me with open arms and hearts. I have never felt more free or closer to HaShem. I am so excited to continue this journey and have maintained my new religious path. I have also made wonderful lifelong friends through the Jerusalem fellowship, which I am so grateful for.”

Sarah teaching students English.
Sarah teaching students English.

Markowitz says the Masa Israel Teaching Fellowship has taken away the pressures of life and has given her a chance to give back and reconnect with her Judaism.

“The point of the Masa Israel Teaching Fellowship is to take away those pressures, providing us with necessities like rent, Hebrew classes, bus fare and a monthly stipend for food or whatever else we need,” Markowitz explained. “Now I have the time to focus on my Judaism and ask myself questions like, how can I get in touch with my Judaism today? What am I doing for the Jewish community? How can I grow spiritually, professionally, personally? I am taking this gap year to find myself and learn about who I want to be and how I’m going to give back to the Jewish community.”

Markowitz says Detroit will always be in her heart, but she finally feels at home. She encourages others who are in recovery to learn more about Israel Free Spirit, because it could change their lives, too.

“Being around people who understood me for the first time in spirituality and religion is such a big part of being in recovery from addiction. I felt like I could be my authentic, genuine self. It was the most magical experience, and I encourage anyone who’s eligible for Israel Free Spirit to check it out.”

To learn more about Israel Free Spirit and its next trip in July 2023, visit

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