(September 9, 2015 / JNS)
Chances are, if you are Jewish and have a close connection with a young Jewish adult, you have heard of Taglit-Birthright Israel. Most people know it as the “free 10-day trip” to Israel for adults ages 18-26. But it’s definitely not free.
From what I’ve seen this week, it takes a village (and more) to create the meaningful experiences that Birthright participants enjoy in Israel. It’s more of a gift than a free trip. We know it takes a lot of money. But I think it takes more man/woman power than I expected, and I still don’t know the half of it. There are the tour educators, leaders, soldiers, medics, and more who guide the participants through Israel. The goal is to facilitate meaningful Israel and Jewish experiences for the younger generation who are less connected to Jewish identity, the global Jewish community, and Israel.
So last week, I flew from Israel to the U.S. to participate in the Birthright Fellows conference, the training program for past and future elite leaders of Birthright. We are required to lead at least three trips in the next three years. Based on the training that I underwent as a future leader, I can only imagine what the tour educators and guides go through.
I have never led a trip before, nor have I gone on Birthright—not for lack of trying (I applied before the eligibility rules were changed). But I have heard a lot about the Birthright experience, to say the least. Some people (the ones who haven’t gone on Birthright) call it “brainwashing.” Others (the ones who have) call it a life-changing experience. It’s actually not surprising that a group of Jewish emerging adults who explore Israel together would return home transformed by the experience. Usually, when we travel outward, we learn inward. And this is even truer when the land to which we travel speaks to us about our own heritage, history, values, and culture. It’s not exactly a journey outward bound; it’s a journey home.
I remember hosting my best friend, Hannah, and a friend of hers, Grace, who had just finished their Birthright trip—they slept for about two days before they could coherently speak. You could tell that they were not only worn out by 10 full days of touring, hiking, and interacting, they were exhausted because the experience was emotionally intense. Not the kind of way where your emotions immediately present themselves (although I’ve heard that sometimes they do on Birthright trips!) but the kind of way where what you’ve seen changes the way that you think, act, and interact with Israel and with the Jewish community. And that’s a big deal—it’s identity giving and even life-changing.
At first, when I asked Hannah and Grace how the trip was, they simply said, “Amazing!” But what I’ve seen the two years following their trip was the truly amazing thing! Hannah immersed herself in the pro-Israel community following her trip and has now worked for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) since graduating from college. She is returning in October, and this time she’s bringing her dad. Shortly after her trip, Grace decided to return to Israel and live here permanently. This is coming from a Southern girl who, at first, was taken aback by the directness of the Israeli people. After seeing my friends react as they did to their Birthright trip, I was inspired.
Each of us had our own personal journey to Israel and to Judaism that had inspired us and created meaning in our lives. Whether Israel was at the center of Hannah’s career or Grace’s life, they had both proven that Birthright was achieving its mission. All three of us had been inspired by our experiences in Israel—inspirations that have carried over into our adult lives. If Israel can prove to be so central to our lives, then bringing more people here to Israel is definitely something I want to help lead.
That impression was further ingrained at the conference. I learned “to create moments in real time that tomorrow will be someone’s memory,” as one speaker so eloquently put it. I was mesmerized by some of the academics and leaders at the conference who addressed our group. Dr. Zohar Raviv, the international VP of education for Birthright, talked about what we must do in order to tackle the problems that distance my generation from Judaism and Israel. One way (one that truly spoke to my liberal arts education) is to change our approach from classical to counter-intuitive—the educator’s role is not to give closure or answers, but quite the opposite. Their role is to deconstruct supposed answers, to make answers into nuanced questions. The educator pushes the student beyond comfort. Going through education should be difficult. Not because you’re memorizing dates, people, and events, but because you need to be able to embrace ambiguity and perceive it as a friend rather than a threat. This humbling process that is education flies in the face of those who say Birthright education is “brainwashing.”
Another speaker, Dr. Barry Chazan, a pioneer in Israel education and the founding international director of education for Birthright, said the goal of Israel education is not about Jewish identity or Jewish continuity, but rather, it’s about meaning making. We need to ask ourselves not how to be Jewish, but why to be Jewish. And to put it bluntly, why continue living as a Jew?
One suggestion was that we don’t go to historical sites to “remember” the experiences of the Jewish people; we go to sites to “re-member” to re-become a member of the Jewish people through placing ourselves into the narrative of the Jewish people. What an intriguing way to see an individual’s Jewish journey!
The entire conference was inspiring, and I connected to many other leaders and “Israel junkies,” as one of them put it. And the best consolation for the conference ending was that I was headed back to Israel, the place I had been talking about for the last week. Many friends I met in Chicago told me how lucky I was to be going back, and this time, I acknowledged it even more than when I left for Israel the first time. Many of the Birthright leaders I met hadn’t been to Israel since their own Birthright trips, and for some, that was years ago. Yet their lives and careers are still largely dedicated to Israel. I felt so lucky to be able to go back.
On the journey back to Israel, there were some pretty hilarious TII moments. Before we took off, one middle-aged man passed around his packaged Swiss cheese that he bought in the U.S. for a friend in Israel, asking row by row what they thought of the kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) implications. During the flight, the man in front of me lost his kippah while he was sleeping, so everyone around him began hunting for the head covering amidst the blankets, pillows, hand luggage, and trash that had accumulated on the plane’s floor. When we landed, the flight crew wished us a happy new year. When I went through passport control, the Israeli agent saw that I was a new immigrant, looked at me directly in the eye, smiled, and said, “Welcome HOME!”—stressing the “home” part. Outside of the airport, a tiny British girl with a very serious looking face walked directly up to me, and in the sternest voice I’ve ever heard from someone so little, stated matter-of-factly, “I like you.” And then she walked onto a bus before her mom wheeling the girl’s stroller behind her. What chutzpah! I imagine she’ll fit in well here. Her mom and I exchanged a good laugh, and I smiled, because this is Israel.
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought and the author of the new “Aliyah Annotated” column for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied International Relations and Jewish Studies. She was published in USA Today and Forbes after writing about her experiences in Israel last summer. Follow her aliyah column on JNS.org, Facebook, and Instagram.