Last week, I celebrated a major life milestone as I received my doctorate. Since my childhood, Israel has always been the raison d’etre of my existence. As a Jew who grew up in the Diaspora, made Aliyah, served in a combat unit in the IDF, and then worked as a Jewish Agency shaliach (emissary) in North America, I have had extensive exposure to both Israeli and American Jewish cultures. Having also served as an educational tour guide with Birthright since its inception, I felt uniquely qualified to explore the important topic of the influence of a Birthright Mifgash on the Israeli soldier participants for my doctoral dissertation.
“Mifgash” is the loosely translated Hebrew word for a “meeting,” that is, in this case, a direct physical encounter between Israeli and American peers during the Israel trip. The Mifgash enables Israelis and Americans an opportunity to spend time getting to know one another in both formal and informal settings. This is seen as a crucial aspect of the Birthright agenda. The Mifgash is a uniquely effective pedagogical tool for increasing the participants’ understanding of one another. It is a structured encounter between individuals and also, a meeting of two worlds.
Most of the studies regarding the effectiveness of the Mifgash focus on the American participants with limited, if any, focus on the influence of the experience on the Israeli participants. My study adds to the research in this emerging field and explores how the Mifgash affects the Israeli participants with respect to their understanding of the North American Jewish community, their own role as Israelis, and whether the Mifgash experience influences their connection to their land, military service and Jewish traditions.
A central conclusion of the research was that the Mifgash affected the Israeli participants in a meaningful and positive way with regard to their self-perceived sense of purpose of their service in the IDF, their connection to their homeland, their self-perceived role as Israelis, and their Jewish identity. To a significant but lesser extent, the program also made them feel connected to the Jewish people worldwide and cultivated a desire to learn more about Judaism.
I anticipate that the results of this study will have broad implications on planners, educators, and coordinators of the Mifgash. First, the attention placed on the Israeli participants will enlighten those involved in Birthright that this experience has broad-reaching impact on all participants. Second, planners, educators, and Mifgash coordinators will understand how the Mifgash can truly affect the Israeli participants on the studied subjects.
Gilad, one of the soldiers on accompanying a Birthright Mifgash I guided succinctly summed up the effect a Mifgash can have on the Israeli participants, 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).”