I have just had the privilege and honour to guide a wonderful group for the Amazing Israel provider. The program included a “Mega Event” where thousands of Diaspora and Israeli youth, together with major donours, including the Adelsons and Steinharts and PM Netanyahu celebrated with a massive party reaching the impressive 600,000 mark. I have been guiding Taglit-Birthright Israel groups since the program’s inception. People ask me after all these years (and having ascended Masada in excess of 200 times) if I ever get bored of it. My answer is an unequivocal “NO!” Every time I guide a new group I thank my lucky stars for the privilege of playing an active part in the greatest revolution in Jewish experiential education in recent memory.
In my opening speech to my Birthright participants, I always mention the quote of Rabbi Nachman from Breslav: “Everybody has his/her own special place in the Land of Israel.” I teach that we are on an odyssey following our ancestor’s footsteps through the length and breadth of our homeland in order to fulfill the first commandment the first Jew received; Lech L’cha! (“you go”) and explore the land. We must seek and search for what will help us to forge a meaningful connection to our heritage, people and land. Mark Twain once laconically observed, “Don’t let school get in the way of your education.” The best education is through experience and travel with cross-cultural peer education is the ultimate experience. Every trip is a radically different experience for me because the participants, both those from abroad and the IDF soldiers, are different. All bring with them their own set of skill sets and unique personalities. This is what makes it fresh and special every single time!
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. 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.
In addition to the Diaspora Jewish participants, the Israeli soldiers and students on the “Mifgash” (informal cross-cultural peer meeting) component add a unique dimension. The exposure to a wide spectrum of opinions from Israelis of different religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds facilitates a broad based understanding of issues within contemporary Israel. A successful, thought-provoking Mifgash should negate the viewing of Israel through a simplistic lens. The Mifgash is a tool for inductively gaining knowledge of Israeli society and issues, and have a positive effect on all (Israeli and American) the participant’s Jewish/Zionist identity. An educationally valuable Mifgash allows the setting of the Mifgash location in Israel itself to become an inseparable part of the learning experience.
Taglit Birthright Israel has brought over 600,000 young Jews to Israel and involved over 150,000 IDF soldiers and Israeli students. It is one of the most significant quality positive Jewish educational identity building experiences, and our global Jewish community needs to do whatever it can to keep this program running. Together we need to pull an entire generation back from the abyss of assimilation and apathy, and positively reconnect them to their Identity, religion, people and land.