by Jesse Paikin
In the past year, the North American Jewish community became more aware of the critical role North American madrichim play in the Taglit-Birthright Israel experience.
Many in the Birthright community have observed the challenges associated with the North American staffing model, where there has been a less than tongue-in-cheek acceptance that the real substance of the trip “magically” happens at the hands of the Israeli tour guide, while the madrichim are viewed as little more than glorified babysitters. Thankfully, we’ve also heard responses from some (here, here and here) who are working to address these crucial challenges.
While Birthright participants do experience Israel with elements of surrealism and awe; and while we often speak of the “magic” of the Israel experience; Birthright is no magic trick. It involves great dedication, knowledge, skills, passion, and real work in both the months leading up to the trip, and in the months and years following the trip. Far from an elaborate illusion, Birthright is deeply rooted in reality.
So perhaps it is particularly poetic that a significant change within the Union for Reform Judaism’s birthright program – Kesher – took place just days before the start of Hanukkah, a holiday often associated with the magical story of oil lasting for eight days. We know that the reality of Hanukkah’s story is actually of a monumental change in the Jewish community that involved the real blood, sweat and tears of many Jews. To be sure, the name of the holiday itself teaches us of the inherent importance of dedication and rededication in shaping a lasting Jewish community.
With more than 40 Kesher Birthright trips per year, including over 1,700 participants and Israelis and upwards of 80 madrichim, it had become increasingly apparent that it was time to rededicate ourselves to the importance of our Birthright madrichim.
Empowering Madrichim as Experiential Educators
In early December, Kesher staff flew from all corners of North America to New York City for an intensive two-day in person staff training program. This rejuvenated, rededicated program was fully funded at no expense to the madrichim, who significantly volunteer their own time and energy with no financial remuneration. The training program was designed to bring the staff community together to learn from professionals in Jewish Experiential Education, share their own best practices, and meet and work with their co-staff in the months leading up to the trip (instead of at the airport just four hours prior to their trip).
Our goals were to empower the madrichim as Jewish experiential educators in their own right, to create an understanding of and dedication to our educational vision and mission, and to foster a strong staff community that would continually be a mutually supportive cohort. Through both a practical and theoretical paradigm, we examined the vision and mission of the URJ Birthright program, studied concepts of Jewish identity formation, explored the educational themes and goals of the sites we visit in Israel, and dedicated ourselves to the importance of fostering community before the trip itself begins. We also explored the importance of the 11th day of the program- what happens to participants upon their return to North America. Significantly, the madrichim also moved beyond the “babysitter” approach to staffing, and learned how to look after the participants through a model of “Caring for the Whole Person.”
Valuing Madrichim as Partners in Our Mission
This was an ambitiously designed program, and one that reveals its value over time. We immediately heard from our staff – both seasoned alumni as well as first-timers – that training together in an experiential environment has been rewarding and will contribute greatly to the excellence of the URJ’s Birthright program.
Joining the madrichim for a session was Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ. He spoke passionately about his own first encounter with Israel, and about the centrality of the role that dedicated madrichim play as mentors in the Jewish journeys that Birthright participants undergo.
In the coming weeks and months, we look forward to learning more from our madrichim and participants about how this rededicated focus on our staff contributes to the excellence of the Israel experience for all those involved with the KESHER Taglit-Birthright Israel program.
Jesse Paikin is the Israel Programs Coordinator for the Union for Reform Judaism Camp & Israel Programs