By Sammy Kanter
I’m coming off of a Birthright high. You know the one. You’re happy, tired, fulfilled, and full of Jewish identity.
We just finished a wrap-up session. You know the one. Tears are shed and hugs, pictures, and commitments to stay in touch keep you in the room longer than you’re permitted.
What was unique here is that after this particular session, I drove home.
It’s no secret that one of the biggest questions facing the next generation of Jews is: What is the best way to keep engagement high after Birthright? We also know that pluralism remains one of the biggest internal issues in the state of Israel, with many young adults identifying as secular and not connecting with Judaism at all.
Reverse Mifgash is what happened recently in Cincinnati, Ohio. And I believe it’s a solution for both issues.
Mifgash is the Hebrew word for exchange. It’s a term used to describe the six to eight Israeli soldiers and students who travel with the group on Taglit-Birthright Israel. Many cite this experience as one of the highlights of the trip, sparking the formation of many lasting and meaningful relationships. The Mifgash program makes the Israel experience personal.
The Jewish Federation of Cincinnati requested and received funding from The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati for a Cincinnati Birthright trip to Israel that included a reverse Mifgash with our partnership city of Netanya, a P2G program of the Jewish Federation. First, in December of 2014, 25 Cincinnatians, ages 22 to 26, traveled on a 10-day Birthright trip to Israel with peers from Netanya. Ten months later, those Israeli peers came to Cincinnati to get a taste of American Jewish life.
This program did two incredible things. First, it allowed our Taglit-Birthright Israel group to have a meaningful and tangible follow-up to the trip. We built a committee of six to plan the Reverse Mifgash. We hosted Shabbat dinners and a Seder, volunteered at the Jewish Federation’s Super Sunday, and shared weekly Shabbat updates via e-mail and Facebook. This kept the group together, and helped us build Jewish engagement opportunities that were comfortable for us, alongside Jews we liked and connected with.
Within the planning committee, certain leadership opportunities were available. Members got to take ownership of projects and see the outcome of their efforts. The result was an investment in the development of leaders among the younger members of our community.
For our Reverse Mifgash, 35 young adults participated at one time or another. Some traveled from New York; others, from Chicago and Columbus, Ohio to be with us. Getting the group back together brought back the same chemistry we enjoyed on the trip. We continued trip traditions, songs, and discussions. For the American participants, showing off their own Jewish community allowed them to build pride in their hometown.
What I underestimated as we were planning the reverse Mifgash was the profound impact this would have on Israelis. For these young, secular Israelis, who were struggling to connect with the Orthodox traditions in Israel, coming to Cincinnati, the birthplace of Reform Judaism in America, was completely eye-opening.
They couldn’t believe women can lead services, that a synagogue can have the architectural style of a church, or that the words to Shabbat songs can be projected on the wall. Many expressed feeling more comfortable being Jewish in a Reform synagogue than in Israel. They marveled at the effort we American Jews put in to observe our faith in a society where one religion isn’t implied.
“We take being a Jew for granted because, in Israel, everything around is Jewish. But here, American Jews say they’re a minority. They say they need to put a lot of effort into being Jews. And for us, you don’t even think about it,” remarked Bar Torbatti, one of our Israeli visitors.
That realization provided them the perspective necessary to rebuild their pride in their own Jewish identity. They’re now returning to Israel with a renewed passion for finding ways to get more Jewish young adults connected to the religion.
The biggest roadblock to more reverse Mifgash trips is the need for funding. Perhaps in the future, trip participants can donate and fundraise to help bring their Israeli counterparts to the US. That way, not only are these young adults keeping the Birthright flame alive, but also, they’re learning firsthand the importance of investing in their own community.
Sammy Kanter is a Mentoring Coordinator with the Becker Center (Jewish Federation of Cincinnati).