This winter, thousands of Taglit-Birthright Israel participants are returning home from Israel. It’s time for us to create authentic, ongoing opportunities for them and their peers to engage with Israel right here in the United States.

Birthrighters, already in direct relationship with Israel and Israelis through their trip experience, tell us they want to build on this by further exploring the country, culture, people, and current events. They need to continue to engage with Israel to deepen this relationship. But as we’ve seen through our work in communities across the country, Birthrighters too often return home only to find radio silence. Even as campuses—and some of our communities—continue to simmer with anti-Israel sentiments from this past summer, we have noted a substantial lack of opportunities for deep, challenging, homegrown discussions about Israel in which Birthrighters and young Jewish adults can engage at this critical time.

To find a root cause for this absence, we tested our assumption that Jewish engagement professionals — ”engagers” who are responsible for Jewish millennial engagement and programming — often avoid challenging Israel conversations with their young adult constituents. Through surveys, a series of engager consultations and one-on-one meetings, we learned that many engagers opt to bring in outside experts to facilitate Israel discussions, or, more often, avoid the topic altogether. We uncovered three key barriers they face:

  • Engagers feel they are unequipped to host these discussions. They told us they felt a need to possess an “expert” level of Israel knowledge and experience in order to open the conversation.
  • Engagers fear their personal perspectives on Israel may clash with their constituents’ opinions and/or organizations’ official “party lines.”
  • They have minimal provocative facilitation training or experience.

So how can all of us, working to engage Birthrighters and young adults in our communities, help facilitate and support authentic Israel engagement opportunities? Here are four actionable steps to take:

  1. Help engagers feel more comfortable and confident in their roles. Based on the Taglit-Birthright Israel bus trip staffing model, it’s helpful for engagers to see themselves as the American madrichim(counselors), and not the Israeli tour educator (i.e. the Israel expert) in Israel discussions. An engager’s job is to create a safe space/framework for Israel discussions, ask intentional questions, add depth and perspective, and unpack the conversation’s content with their young adults. Participants fill these conversations with their own unique thoughts, questions, and experiences. Enagers don’t need to have all the answers, nor should they pretend to.To increase engagers’ fluency and comfort talking about Israel, we recommend providing them with practical resources such as Anita Shapira’s Israel: A History and Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. These books provide essential knowledge that engagers can use to provide context for their Israel conversations. Additionally, Makom has produced a My Promised Land facilitator’s guide, which engagers can use to help frame discussions about the book and its topics.
  2. Model how to facilitate constructive Israel conversations with engagers. Through our work, we found engagers need provocative facilitation training and a flexible toolkit to help facilitate Israel conversations with Birthrighters. Modeling Israel discussions with engagers is helpful, as well as enabling engagers to practice facilitating these conversations with each other. We have found that it’s best to host these conversations in safe “third” spaces, as shared by my colleague Andrew Fretwell, which are conducive to deep sharing and exploration.
  3. Emphasize personal experience. We’ve worked closely with experts, including Sheila Katz of Hillel International and Dr. Eyal Rabinovitch of Resetting The Table, who teach that people should bring their “full selves” to these conversations. A good example of an intentional question to ask is, “What does Israel mean to you?” This Ask Big Question, which can be answered by anyone, provides a platform to explore Birthrighters’ feelings and thoughts following the trip, but isn’t exclusive to Birthrighters. It focuses less on providing answers to black and white questions, and more on translating personal experiences and exploring our relationships with Israel.
  4. Provide open and honest forums to talk about Israel with the engager(s) on your team. Ask what they’re feeling and observing from their discussions with Birthrighters. What are engagers learning about their target audience through these activities? How comfortable are the engagers feeling about leading Israel conversations? What are the additional barriers they’re facing, and how can your team address these barriers together? Facilitating Israel discussions, like any craft, requires practice and constructive feedback to improve fluency and confidence.

What are the Israel engagement needs of your Birthrighter and young adult community, and what are you doing to address them? We want to know what you’re doing and learning. Reply in the comments or feel free to email me directly: daniel.fast@birthrightisraelnext.org.