Avi Liberman

Birthright saves

On the life or death value of encouragement and appreciation

Ask most standup comics and they often can’t remember a lot of the great shows they have done, but we always remember the bad ones. I can hear my buddies now, “Well then Liberman, you must have a ton of stories to tell!” Yeah, yeah.

Poker players are the same way. Ask them about a good hand they once got and they may recall one or two, but ask them how they got screwed over on a hand and the stories will be endless about some idiot who stayed in when he shouldn’t have and caught some miracle card, etc. I guess it’s why a lot of comics play poker. We seem to be gluttons for punishment, and the choice to try and succeed at this profession is a gamble in itself.

But every now and then, the gamble pays off. You have that one show, get that one compliment, and get that one great hand that you remember.

I remember the best compliment I ever got. I was lucky enough to be able to do shows for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, the late great comedian, Scott Kennedy (may his memory be for a blessing — he went once a month for over a year) took me along with Eddie Gosling, another great comic. In Afghanistan, I went with Butch Bradley, who has since come to Israel twice on the Comedy For Koby Tour. After one of the shows, a soldier came up to us and said, “You guys just saved some lives today.”

I was a bit confused and responded, “I think you’ve got it backwards. It’s you guys who save the lives. We’re just out here telling some jokes and hoping that they are funny enough that you don’t leave us behind in a convoy.”

He smirked and then responded seriously. “You don’t get it do you.”

Clearly I didn’t.

“Research shows that soldiers have better reaction times when they are in better moods. You guys just did that. There may be some soldier out there who may respond a split second faster now, and in the field, that can be the difference between life and death.”

It was a bit much to take in, and obviously compared to what these guys do every day, our shows pale in comparison, but it was still nice to hear. It may apply to the guys we did shows for, it may not, but there was no way to know for sure. But, lets say that it does.

I’m sitting on plane right now with a group of young adults staffing a Birthright trip geared for people in Arts and Entertainment, just as a ceasefire with Hamas was announced. Not sure if it will hold, and we know that rockets could start flying again at any second.

Ten of the people on our trip cancelled, but thirty of them didn’t.

Plenty of parents called concerned, plenty of the participants on the trip had a lot of questions, but in the end most showed up in an era where news splashes only the most horrific things on the screen. If you haven’t been to Israel before, you’d think you would be flying into a war zone where you’d be running for cover every two minutes, so I give them a lot of credit.

Most people who know anything about Birthright, know that part of the program includes soldiers joining every group so the participants can interact with other Israelis their own age. I’ve staffed three trips and it almost always ends up being a highlight not only for the Birthrighters, but for the soldiers also. We meet them at a bus stop, they are immediately welcomed and usually by the following morning you’d think they were on the trip from the beginning. When they leave the group, there are tears, and some (even though they are not supposed to) surprise the group later by meeting them out during one of our nights in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

On the last trip when one of them did that, a flood of about twenty of the participants went running towards him and engulfed him in a giant hug. Our guide Zev just looked at me, smiled and we both gave a “What can you do?” look to each other. Bottom line, those Birthrighters put him in a better mood.

I know there have been some things written about Max Steinberg, a Birthright Alum and IDF soldier who was killed in this most recent conflict. That somehow, Birthright was used as some kind of recruitment tool to get him to join the IDF. While being patently absurd and just plain false, even if you took that warped view that Birthright somehow contributed to a young man dying because he was inspired enough by the program to join the IDF, I’ll take the other point of view. Maybe Birthright saves lives. Maybe it saves them in the thousands.

I asked some of the soldiers if they felt any animosity towards the people coming on a free trip, and the answer was always no. They love seeing them come. How much more do you think they like it when times are a little tough in Israel? Some soldier walking by may see a group of Birthrighters and think, “Look, they are still coming and haven’t abandoned us.” It may put him in a better mood. No way to know for sure, but no way not to know either.

So, I salute the thirty with no prior knowledge what the reality on the ground is, who decided to go. In my opinion they are saving lives. Is it a gamble to go to Israel now? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I get more nervous playing poker. “The way you play Liberman, you should!”

Yeah, yeah.

About the Author
Avi Liberman is a stand-up comic who was born in Israel, raised in Texas and now lives in Los Angeles. Avi founded Comedy for Koby, a bi-annual tour of Israel featuring some of America's top stand-up comedians.