10 Days in Reverse: bringing Israelis to the US
by Jason Langsner
The Hebrew character that represents the number 10 is very significant. It is yud – the smallest character in the alphabet, but the one with the holiest denotation. Two of these characters together represent Adonai, showing that when a connection is made – from even the smallest of things – something deeply meaningful can be created.
Since 2000, 10 also has been the number of days that over 260,000 young Jewish adults from around the world have spent on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. Partnered with Shorashim, one of 15 Birthright trip organizers, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington has sponsored 18 Birthright trips since 2005, sending more than 700 participants from the Greater Washington area to Israel.
Post-Birthright, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and Birthright Israel NEXT DC (the Taglit-Birthright Israel Alumni network), provide alumni with additional opportunities to inspire, connect, educate, and support a thriving Jewish community.
One such opportunity is the Reverse Mifgash. Since 2008, this program has offered a free 10-day American experience to Israeli alumni of DC community trips, where they are reunited with their friends from their buses, connected to hundreds of other young professionals from the DC area, and introduced to America’s Jewish pluralism. Together, the Reverse Mifgash participants and the Washingtonians experience social, educational, cultural, and religious programming.
Rachel Cohen, now 32, was a participant in the inaugural Taglit-Birthright Israel program in 2000. Since her trip, Rachel has become an inspirational figure for the DC community. She has traveled back to Israel six times, serves as the co-chair of Birthright Israel NEXT DC, and has testified before the Knesset about the need to continue to fund Birthright. She, along with 30 other Taglit-Birthright Israel alumni, orchestrated the third annual Reverse Mifgash, held in November, collectively fundraising $26,000 to support the program and bring seven Israelis to America.
Joined by over 400 Jewish young professionals from DC, Maryland, and Virginia during their stay, the participants toured Washington, DC, attended Shabbat services at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue with family, friends, and Birthright alumni, and spoke with students at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD. They also took part in events including a Birthright photo exhibit that raised over $3,000 for PACT (Parents and Children Together), a program of The Jewish Federation that supports Ethiopian immigrants in Afula, Israel. They traveled to the Jewish Museum of Maryland to speak with the curator of an exhibit on Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People, and attended the ADL Concert Against Hate at The Kennedy Center.
This year, The Jewish Federation also invited three Taglit-Birthright Israel alumni from Moscow to participate with the support from a grant by the NADAV Foundation, which is dedicated to exploring and furthering Jewish peoplehood.
One of the Russian participants was Lena Shterman, 27. “If my Taglit-Birthright Israel trip in winter 2010 opened the doors to my Jewish identity, the Reverse Mifgash gave me understanding and, more importantly, a feeling of global Jewish ‘peoplehood’,” said Shterman. “It was an amazing feeling to be a part of a big Jewish family.”
Growing up in the former Soviet Union, Shterman had not been able to explore her Jewish identity. Today, she has that opportunity, but according to the most recent Russian Census, after over 100 years of mass emigration, Jews constitute only 0.16% of the country’s total population. Birthright and the Reverse Mifgash allowed her to experience Jewish life beyond her local community.
Another Lena’s story is much different. Yelena Barakh, 25, moved with her family from the former Soviet Union to Baltimore when she was a child. Like so many new immigrants, they did not speak a word of English, but dreamed of a better life abroad. Through their own perseverance and the support of the Jewish community, Barakh and her family achieved the American Dream. This past year, Barakh served as one of the co-chairs for the Reverse Mifgash.
“This was the first time that my parents joined me for a Jewish event,” said Barakh. “It’s hard for me to put words to the feelings that I experienced when I saw their eyes tear up as they witnessed the Reverse Mifgash and saw Jewish Israelis, Russians, and Americans coming together as equals. They were able to see, first-hand, what they thought was the impossible.”
Jason Langsner, 29, is a DC resident and recent participant of the Reverse Mifgash.
This post is from the just-released PresenTense Jewish Social Action Now issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.