Billboard Judaism

Indelible Connections

Crossposted at The URJ Israel Programs Blog

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There is a resonant story we hear from many Birthright participants throughout their experiences in Israel. Before coming to Israel, many feel nominally connected to Judaism and Jewish people, but by the end of ten packed, intense days most were lamenting the absence of Jewish community and connection in their lives back home. Wandering through the old city in Jerusalem, jam sessions with guitars extending late into the night, waking up together in a large Bedouin tent – so many experiences on Birthright solidify the group as a cohesive, supportive Jewish community.

One of the eight Israelis who traveled with our group shared the surprise she felt when she saw American Jews crying over the graves of fallen soldiers at Har Herzl; she couldn’t imagine Israelis doing the same at, say, Arlington cemetery. Clearly this group felt connected to Israeli soldiers and their mission, and that touched and awed her.

Birthright is an incomparable catalyst for young adult engagement. The experience of ten days in the Jewish country – developing deep relationships that only an immersive experience can allow – gives participants time to cultivate, and (for most) reengage with Jewish content and ideas.

We know that Birthright has immense potential to shift young adults towards greater Jewish connections. In fact, our group found the concept and term “kesher,” or connection, extremely apt. They used it often as a group and even considered getting tattoos with the word on our last night in Israel. Ultimately, they decided the relationships and photographs were indelible enough to keep the memories from the trip alive.

But what is it that makes the connections through Kesher different from some of the other Israel program options available? When asked by a number of our participants, here’s some of what we told them:

Kesher is a Reform Jewish experience. Out of the field of 16 different organizations running Birthright trips in North America, 10 are non-denominational, 5 are Orthodox, and only 1 offers a progressively religious trip: Kesher. Our Jewish background influences all that we do – from our pluralistic approach to Judaism in Israel; to our dedication to a liberal vision of Zionism; to encouraging a lovingly nuanced relationship with the State of Israel; to nurturing an active relationship with Jewish life upon returning to North America.

Kesher is more than just a tour. One of the strongest messages we reinforced is that Kesher is not simply a whirlwind ten-day tour of a foreign land, rather it is a pilgrimage to our homeland. The most moving and resonant expression of this ideology was framed through sharing with our participants that tourists walk through a land, however for those on a pilgrimage, the land walks through them.

With that sense of Reform Jewish community and pilgrimage in mind, one of our favorite experiences from this trip was the ongoing discussion of three concepts of community (tzibbur, kehillah, and eidah) introduced during our Torah Study for Shabbat Vayakhel-Pekudei. Listening to the way the members of our trip discussed what Jewish communities meant to them, as their feet pounded the pavement and paths of the Old City, the trail up Masada, and the cobblestones of Tzfat was astounding and breathtaking.

Over the past ten days, we were moved and rejuvenated as we watched a new community form, while the land of Israel walked through 39 North Americans and 8 Israelis in new ways – for them, as well as for us.

Israel

New Birthright Staff Training Program Focuses on Centrality of North American Staff

Check out my new piece for eJewish Philanthropy! Originally posted here.

In the past year, the North American Jewish community became more aware of the critical role North American madrichim play in the Taglit-Birthright Israel experience.

Many in the Birthright community have observed the challenges associated with the North American staffing model, where there has been a less than tongue-in-cheek acceptance that the real substance of the trip “magically” happens at the hands of the Israeli tour guide, while the madrichim are viewed as little more than glorified babysitters. Thankfully, we’ve also heard responses from some (here and here) who are working to address these crucial challenges.

While Birthright participants do experience Israel with elements of surrealism and awe; and while we often speak of the “magic” of the Israel experience; Birthright is no magic trick. It involves great dedication, knowledge, skills, passion, and real work in both the months leading up to the trip, and in the months and years following the trip. Far from an elaborate illusion, Birthright is deeply rooted in reality.

So perhaps it is particularly poetic that a significant change within the Union for Reform Judaism’s birthright program – Kesher – took place just days before the start of Hanukkah, a holiday often associated with the magical story of oil lasting for eight days. We know that the reality of Hanukkah’s story is actually of a monumental change in the Jewish community that involved the real blood, sweat and tears of many Jews. To be sure, the name of the holiday itself teaches us of the inherent importance of dedication and rededication in shaping a lasting Jewish community.

With more than 40 Kesher Birthright trips per year, including over 1,700 participants and Israelis and upwards of 80 madrichim, it had become increasingly apparent that it was time to rededicate ourselves to the importance of our Birthright madrichim.

Empowering Madrichim as Experiential Educators

In early December, Kesher staff flew from all corners of North America to New York City for an intensive two-day in person staff training program. This rejuvenated, rededicated program was fully funded at no expense to the madrichim, who significantly volunteer their own time and energy with no financial remuneration. The training program was designed to bring the staff community together to learn from professionals in Jewish Experiential Education, share their own best practices, and meet and work with their co-staff in the months leading up to the trip (instead of at the airport just four hours prior to their trip).

Our goals were to empower the madrichim as Jewish experiential educators in their own right, to create an understanding of and dedication to our educational vision and mission, and to foster a strong staff community that would continually be a mutually supportive cohort. Through both a practical and theoretical paradigm, we examined the vision and mission of the URJ Birthright program, studied concepts of Jewish identity formation, explored the educational themes and goals of the sites we visit in Israel, and dedicated ourselves to the importance of fostering community before the trip itself begins. We also explored the importance of the 11th day of the program- what happens to participants upon their return to North America. Significantly, the madrichim also moved beyond the “babysitter” approach to staffing, and learned how to look after the participants through a model of “Caring for the Whole Person.”

Valuing Madrichim as Partners in Our Mission

This was an ambitiously designed program, and one that reveals its value over time. We immediately heard from our staff – both seasoned alumni as well as first-timers – that training together in an experiential environment has been rewarding and will contribute greatly to the excellence of the URJ’s Birthright program.

Joining the madrichim for a session was Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ. He spoke passionately about his own first encounter with Israel, and about the centrality of the role that dedicated madrichim play as mentors in the Jewish journeys that Birthright participants undergo.

In the coming weeks and months, we look forward to learning more from our madrichim and participants about how this rededicated focus on our staff contributes to the excellence of the Israel experience for all those involved with the KESHER Taglit-Birthright Israel program.

Jesse Paikin is the Israel Programs Coordinator for the Union for Reform Judaism Camp & Israel Programs

Israel

Seeing Israel Transparently and Holistically in Ten Days: It’s Possible. Sort of.

A few weeks ago, Ha’aretz published an article criticizing the scope and educational content of Birthright Israel trips, arguing that participants don’t get to interact with the real Israel, instead seeing a “romanticized” and idealized “Jewtopia” that is carefully constructed by the trip organizers to gloss over the truth of life in Israel.

In the article, author Leah Molayem writes that,

“While Taglit offers an undeniably unique opportunity that encourages Jews who have never been to Israel to learn more about their historical roots, it is important to recognize the one-sided conditions under which participants are introduced to Israel, and ultimately depart with an understanding and appreciation that deviates from reality.”

While I can’t speak for all Birthright organizers – and I was disappointed to read that Molayem had an unengaging experience on her own trip – I was immediately taken aback by her thesis. I’ve been fortunate enough to lead a number of Birthright trips through the Reform movement, and happened to have just returned from leading one the day the article was published. My own first trip to Israel was also with Birthright. Her description is the polar opposite of what I’ve experienced on all trips.

It is true that each trip organizer has its own focus and paradigm, and the Reform movement’s trips by nature are certainly more inclined to cover a wider swath of Israeli society, providing a holistic and mostly transparent view of daily life there. I’ll also grant that a ten-day trip can only cover so much; by nature, Birthright is intended to be an introductory experience.

But do all Taglit trips present a “one-sided” view of Israel where participants “ultimately depart with an understanding and appreciation that deviates from reality”? Let the experiences recorded here testify to the falsehoods of these accusations.

Molayem writes that she “found that the Arab-Israeli conflict, socioeconomic divisions and the ethnic and religious rifts within Israel are carefully avoided in discussions by the trip organizers, who work tirelessly around the clock in an attempt to create that Jewtopia.”

It is unfortunate that Molayem didn’t have the chance to engage with these important issues. A URJ-Kesher Birthright trip engages with each of these issues, and more. Participants visit an Arab-Israeli village for a dialogue at a Mosque and in the home of a villager, tour the separation barrier, volunteer in a poor neighbourhood of Ethiopian immigrants, explore the difficulties of life for the northern Druze population, and interact with members of Israel’s progressive Jewish community, discussing religious pluralism.

I don’t want to turn this post into a brochure for one organization’s trips, but do want to highlight that the very lacunae that Molayem identifies are a central and significant part of the Reform Movement’s pedagogy on its trips. This is important and should not be ignored. There are organizations that provide an enriching, engaging, and holistic view of Israel.

Of course, given the laws of physics, there really is only so much that you can see, do, and talk about in ten days. And of course, a good chunk of time on the trip takes advantage of the fun and entertaining activities Israel offers as a tourist destination. But Molayem is dead wrong in her characterization of Birthright participants as “tourists.” On a URJ-Kesher trip, it’s emphasized that participants are pilgrims, engaging with a land they already have a deep-seeded connection to. The purpose of the trip is to let those seeds begin to grow into a stronger tree. Does that tree fully grow on the trip? Of course not, it’s only ten days! But it certainly pushes up through the ground and begins to flourish.

Molayem – to her credit – concludes the article with a number of suggestions of issues to engage with to improve the Birthright experience: daily life in Jaffa, the Haredi sector, and gender-equality at the Kotel. What she failed to realize is that there are trips that are already doing this, and doing it well!

Don’t want to take my propaganda at face value? I highly suggest reading the eloquent blog posts written by a participant of mine, Angela, summarizing her own experience. You’ll see it’s the antithesis of the trip Molayem describes.

You can read her reviews here and here.

You may also want to read Brandeis University’s research and report on the long-term impact of Birthright.