This week 63 Birthright groups (2,520 participants) will be arriving in Israel from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Holland and the United States of America. Every ten-day trip will consist of a “Mifgash” (informal meeting). 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 ability of the Mifgash to bring the outside in is best summed up by an American Birthright alumna, Lila Feinberg (2010), who recalled:
Suddenly, our world was extended and deepened beyond the microscopic scope of a bus isle…a true Mifgash”
– “What We Brought Back,” p. 164
I am currently completing my doctoral dissertation in Israel education focusing on how the “Mifgash” element of Birthright affects the Israeli soldier participants. One of the most tedious parts of any dissertation is the analysing of raw data. I have been guiding Birthright groups since the programs inception back in 1999 and have interviewed many soldiers. As I now wade through the transcripts “coding” them (looking for patterns that relate to my research questions) I am awed by some of the mature and thoughtful responses. Rather than be lulled into a sense of tedium as I wade through the transcripts, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for these young boys and girls who give the best years of their life, and sometimes their very lives themselves, and are the people who step forward to keep our Zionist dream alive! Below are some excerpts from some of the soldiers of Birthright who come to give, and yet also take away a lot from these encounters:
I was amazed, to experience, without me realizing it, how this journey changed me. I had already been to all of the physical locations where we went on the trip. I had already done everything and was familiar with most of the stories. But to do it all together over five days with a group of people who hadn’t done it gave everything a new and different dimension. It opened my eyes as to what I am doing in this State and why I am fighting (in the IDF).”
Now I understand the meaning that there are Jews who live outside Israel and are cut off from what is happening in Israel. Their understanding of the reality here in Israel before they come is based on what they see on the media, and sometimes this is a mistake. One of the things I learnt is that while they (the Americans) are occupied with their prom from high school and getting into college people in Israel are fighting wars to defend their dear ones.”
Of all the places we went to, bringing the group to my home in Ein Karem was really special. It meant so much for me to show them how modern Israeli Jews LIVE (especially after having spent the day at Yad Vashem and Mt. Herzl.)
I feel that Taglit is a great project and that, in addition to the Tour-Guide, it is important for us soldiers to continue to give a meaningful connection to the Americans to Judaism and the Land of Israel.”
On a visit to Yad Vashem with one of my “Amazing Israel” groups, one of the Israeli soldiers, Dor, a sniper in an elite combat unit, told the us 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.