For over a decade, I have had the privilege of guiding Taglit/Birthright groups in Israel. A recent group I guided was a rather special Routes Travel “Amazing Israel” group called “Through the Shutter.”  This was also a niche trip which consisted of 41 Americans and eight Israeli soldiers who were mostly photographers or students of photography.

The trip encouraged the group to look at Israel through different angles.  To try and comprehend the reality behind the medias distorted perception.  In addition to producing beautiful and thought-provoking images of Israel it also set me thinking about the Birthright participants that rarely get the attention they deserve, the Israeli IDF soldiers who take time away from their units to serve as informal ambassadors of Israeli youth.

Birthright is an intensely powerful and enriching educational phenomenon for the Jewish American participants, made all the more enriching in recent years, by the inclusion of a mifgash element in the 10 day trip.  This is when eight soldiers join the trip for five (or sometimes the whole ten) days and travel together with the American participants.  They stay in the same lodgings, participate in the same activities, which include hikes and discussions and, perhaps most importantly, enjoy a lot of unstructured downtime with the group.  The mifgash provides opportunities for Jewish adolescents from the Diaspora to interact with their Israeli counterparts, and vice versa.  Such interaction creates a more representative encounter with Israel.  The mifgash also challenges negative stereotypes both sides have about the other.

Observing the initial meeting between the two groups is nothing short of amazing.  The soldiers meet the group in uniform and one can almost feel the barrier between the two worlds.  However, once the soldiers dress down into civilian clothes, the wall quickly comes down and the group is generally amazed by how much they have in common culturally.

The two other occasions the soldiers once again don their uniforms are at the powerfully symbolic sites Yad Vashem and Mt.Herzl.  This only serves to emphasize the fact that these bright affable youngsters are giving some of the best years of their life to their land and our people.  Quite often these encounters lead the American participants to question their own ties are to their community, faith and to their land.

On my most recent trip, at Yad Vashem one of the Israeli soldiers, Dor, a sniper in an elite combat unit, told the group that during his high school trip to Poland he made a decision to serve in a combat unit to ensure the safety of the Jews in Israel and worldwide.  We live in a fortunate age where Jews are in control of their own destiny, largely because of selfless and proud young men and women like Dor, who give some of the best years of their lives (and if necessary are willing to sacrifice those lives) to make the world a better and safer place for all Jews.