The Times of Israel article, “Is Birthright in decline for neglecting ‘cool’ Tel Aviv-style Israel?” (26/3/14) by Jessica Steinberg is about the reaction to Benji Lovitt’s piece which, despite the common misconception, is not about Tel Aviv versus Jerusalem, nor is it an anti-Birthright harangue, rather, Lovitt posits, it was about a “reprioritisation” of Birthright’s itinerary.
The article extensively quotes Momo Lifshitz, the founder of Oranim, a tour operator that “has (“had” would be more correct) brought thousands of people on Birthright,” without contextualising that Lifshitz lost his license as a Birthright provider precisely because he was not meeting the educational requirement of the Birthright educational designers and donours. His trips put an enormous emphasis on the “3 S’s;” Sun, Sand & Sex, without too much substance. No wonder they were extremely popular amongst American college students. “This is great,” they thought, “we can go on a hedonistic Club Med for free, why waste our own money going to Cancun.”
Dr. Zohar Raviv, international vice president of education at Birthright, correctly states in the article that there is a disparity between “certain people’s” perception of Birthright, based largely on the years of cynical mismanagement of the Birthright ideal by Lifshitz, and the reality of the program which is a quality experiential education program.
When one is designing a Birthright itinerary, first and foremost one has to consider who the target audience is. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks astutely observed:
Today’s young Diaspora Jews are the most secularly educated and Jewishly illiterate of all time…they know about the Holocaust, about how Jews died, not how they live, They know about Israel, but that is somewhere, else not here.”
It is important to acknowledge that with all of Israel’s incredible successes in many fields since its creation, there are issues that Israel is wrestling and grappling with as it continues to stride in to the 21st century. The problems the Jewish State faces include topics as far-ranging as: security, religion, society, environment, water, education, and how to harmoniously co-exist with a minority population. This should not take away from the fact that the Jews in Israel have revived a dormant language, made the dessert bloom, rebuilt the ancestral homeland, ingathered our exiles and have the ability to defend our homeland and protect and inspire Jews worldwide as we continue to reach for the stars.
My “Amazing Israel” Birthright group on Mt. Herzl
As a Tour Guide/Educator for the “Amazing Israel” provider, and someone who has been deeply involved in designing programs and guiding groups since Birthright’s inception, I can say that in fifteen years of guiding I have always spent at least a day in Tel Aviv. This May I will be there for two days, including visits to “Save a Child’s Heart” and the campus of Tel Aviv University as well as a tour of Neve Tzedek, some all important free time and beach time.
I strongly believe, as this article illustrates, that the ten days is just a “taster,” the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If and when program alumni decide to extend or to revisit Israel they will have had a taste of different aspects of life and society in Israel, and met wonderful Israeli participants on their Mifgash, to base their decision on. Birthright is not a comprehensive in-depth tour of Israel and its society.
The “agenda” of Birthright is to give a positive connection to our heritage, society and country, and some of the issues it is wrestling with, for many of the participants who have either no previous or a limited connection. A “successful” outcome is when the participant realizes that it is not a burden to be a Jew, but rather a privilege. At the end of the day, the role of the trip provider and educator is to open the door and present an Israel, with all of its complexities, that will entice the participants to step over the threshold and begin their own journey of self-exploration.