With Taglit-Birthright Israel recruitment in full swing, and Birthright season just three months away, I wonder if recent articles by Benji Lovitt and Zohar Raviv will have any tangible effect on itineraries of the groundbreaking program’s 15th season. The January article in eJewish Philanthropy about the Case for Tel Aviv on Israel Trips by educator/comedian Benji Lovitt (of whom I am a big fan), and the subsequent response by Taglit’s VP of Education, Zohar Raviv (of whom I am a big fan) articulated the struggle for finding a balance on short-term educational programs in Israel, mainly through spending time in Tel Aviv.
Lovitt wrote about the need for Birthright and other such taste-of-Israel trips to adapt and find relevance with the participants of today, who would relish time in Israel’s young, sexy, secular city, perhaps more so than the sites that Israel trips have been highlighting since anyone can remember. Raviv responded by writing about the program’s need to include many of Israel’s traditionally historical sites on Birthright itineraries as part of presenting the whole of the Israel Story, and he noted that, during a typical season, something like 97% of Birthright groups spend a night in Tel Aviv (or the Tel Aviv area) – at least when the city is not being targeted by Hamas rockets.
As a veteran Birthright staffer, I agree with both of these articles, but I can’t help consider other factors not mentioned in Lovitt’s argument. This first of which is: logistics. Birthright trips are groups of 50 people traveling together with backpacks, water bottles, hats, and oftentimes, hangovers. If you’ve been to Tel Aviv, I wonder if you can think off the top of your head of 10 physical spaces, besides the Namal, that can hold a group, or even multiple groups of 50 people at a time. Sure, you can bring a group of 50 people to a Start-Up office – if those 50 people are well-behaved, showered, and not hungover. But can you bring a group of 50 people who just came from a hike in the Negev, ate lunch at a gas station, and has to be at their hotel in time for dinner at 6PM? Probably not.
There are incredible opportunities out there for young people to visit the hippest and most hi-tech sites in Israel, where the group will travel to start-up offices, see the latest in wireless technology, and agricultural innovations – but that trip is not Birthright. Birthright is for any Jewish young person aged 18-26. Birthright groups are often made up of incredibly well-behaved, mature individuals who gain a lot of importance and meaning from this 10 day journey through the Holy Land, but occasionally its participants include a group of loud-mouthed frat brothers with all the trimmings. After 6 trips (only 6), I’ve seen every extreme, either in my own group, or in one of the other 4 groups who we seem to tail around the country for 10 days.
For places like Yad Vashem, Har Herzl – places that demand appropriate behavior and respect – Birthright participants are prepped well in advance. They are actually required to sign a paper that outlines that they are not allowed to drink alcohol the night before these activities, and they are asked to dress in whatever “nicer” clothing they brought with them. I do not think tours in Tel Aviv require this kind of prep, however I think taking Birthright groups to Tel Aviv for days at a time (we’re talking about hundreds, if not thousands of people at once), would not only be a logistical nightmare, but might also take away from the magic of the city. Again, this is my opinion. Tel Aviv is a traveller’s city – it is the city where old and young, secular and religious, athletes and stoners, can come together to smoke a cigarette at a trendy cafe – but it is not Manhattan. Large groups of 18-26 year olds would not go unnoticed, and in many cases, they would probably embarrass themselves in front of Israel’s only concentrated hipster population.
Here’s what happens in the trips I have led: participants tour Independence Hall (recently renovated!), have a program at Rabin Square where they learn about the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin (who most of them have never heard of), stop at the beach for a dip in the Mediterranean, grab a frozen yogurt or ice coffee, and then later get to enjoy the Tel Aviv nightlife on their “night out” (a rousing 2.5 hours where groups of new friends solidify and new couples form). When the group inevitably complains about not spending enough time in Tel Aviv, I hand them the phone number for the travel agency, and suggest they call to extend their stay. Yes, Tel Aviv is the city that young Jewish Americans fall in love with and want to return to. But a large part of that magic exists outside of a Birthright context, when travelers can explore the city on their own timeline, without a panicked tour guide waiting for them to gather at their assigned meeting spot.
If Birthright started spending several of its precious 10 days in Tel Aviv, at the expense of a day hiking in the Golan, cutting the Jerusalem Old City tour in half, and axing the sunrise on Masada, a lot more people might discover the beauty and unique aspects of Tel Aviv, and probably many would want to spend even more time there, but that is not the point of Birthright. Contrary to popular belief, the point of Birthright is to strengthen the Jewish identity of participants on the program. The point of Birthright is for all those North Americans, South Americans, Russians, Ukrainians, and Western Europeans to go back to their home countries and figure out how being Jewish can be part of their lives. Strengthening one’s Jewish identity can happen in many different ways – which is why Birthright exposes participants to a myriad of sites, sounds, flavors, experiences, and opportunities. Discussions that happen on a bus ride on the way to Tzfat may end up being way more pivotal than an office tour of Google Tel Aviv in terms of one’s development of a Jewish identity. Really, you never know when the aha! moment will come, and therefore, the Birthright itinerary is only just a platform for something greater – the conversations that happen between Jewish individuals.
Undoubtedly, as both Lovitt and Raviv agreed, Birthright organizers should constantly be improving on trip itineraries, just like any program should. Whether it is allowing more free time in various cities, creating more niche trips to focus on different aspects of Israeli society, or evaluating why every group still climbs Masada, there is always room for improvement. And perhaps beyond itinerary improvement, is a need for expanding the opportunities and options for informal post-Birthright experiences. In either case, in my humble opinion, spending more days in Tel Aviv is not necessarily the answer here. As Birthright season approaches, I am eager to see what changes will be made, how its new staff training program will be implemented on the ground, and what kind of experiences their 500,000th participant will have.