When we bring participants to these sites who have been there “like 4 times,” we need to challenge ourselves as educators to create unique experiences at these sites that will enable and allow our participants to reflect on their previous experience and relationships with them.
By Samantha Star
[This is the seventh in an annual series of articles written by participants and alumni of the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education (EJE), highlighting EJE related ideas and practices.]
In February 2014 Birthright Israel made a dramatic change to its eligibility criteria allowing those who had already been on a peer oriented trip to Israel that was longer than 6 nights and 7 days to be eligible for Birthright. I knew what this change looked like on paper; however, last summer I experienced the reality of this change. I was standing with my Birthright group on the top of Har Bental, in northern Israel, and a group of participants were standing next to the breathtaking view of Syria and talking amongst themselves instead of listening to the educator. I walked over to them and asked them to quiet down and they responded, “I’ve been here like 4 times.” I had nothing to say back to that; they had heard this “spiel” four times already on their previous Israel trips and despite the majestic view and symbolism and history of where they were standing, simply put: they were bored. My eyes scanned the group of 40 participants and it was only then, in that moment, that I realized that only a handful of participants in this group had never been to Israel before. Those participants were the ones standing at the front trying to listen to our tour educator. The rest were mulling around impatiently waiting to get back on the bus and move on to our next site.
This change in eligibility was meant to aid in strengthening the identity of Jewish young adults and students, to make sure their ninth grade trip to Israel wasn’t their last and to encourage them to make more Jewish choices leading up their most transformative years – presumably those in college and in emerging adulthood. While this change led to significant changes to the profile of the population Birthright was now serving, my experience with a group that was reflective of this change led me to realize that we also need to be making significant changes to these participants’ trip itineraries. We need to create a trip that gives these seasoned participants an equally incredible, exciting, and inspiring trip full of “aha” moments and transformative experiences parallel to those of a “first-timer” that would accomplish the goals stated above.
My training through the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education program taught me that the success of experiential education relies heavily on the quality of the experience and this includes taking into account any previous experiences that the participant may have had when creating your program. Experiences need to be innovative and engaging. Standing at the top of Har Bental that day, I felt like I had let my participants down. I should have seen their prior Israel knowledge and experiences as an opportunity to engage them in deeper and more creative ways, not a challenge that I needed to address to just keep them from “getting bored.”
In order to ensure that every single participant is getting the most out of this gift, we need to remember that the best programs are those that are participant or learner- centered and there are several ways of doing this:
The creation of more “niche programming”: I’m excited to share that Canada has begun thinking about niche programs for these “experienced” Birthright participants. New programs revolving around the artistic, technological or culinary side of Israel for example are being proposed and would allow participants to have different experiences at familiar sites by utilizing their senses and creating truly unique and immersive experiences. A trip centered on health and wellness is being offered this summer.
“Chose your own adventure” days: Some trip organizers introduced these days into their winter 2015-2016 trips as a trial before the busy summer season. These days allow participants from one trip to choose between 4-5 different touring options in one city, on one day. For example, participants could choose to view large cities such as Tel Aviv through a graffiti tour if they are drawn to arts and culture or visiting start-ups if they are interested in business and/or technology. Allowing participants the freedom of choice will allow them to take ownership over their own experience.
The creation of a “Birthright 2.0” will allow participants who feel that they have a good base knowledge of Israel to participate in a program that visits sites that wouldn’t normally be seen on an introductory or the classic Birthright program. In addition to adding new and different sites, we can also allow them to spend more time at specific meaningful sites. For example, due to tightly packed schedules and timing constraints, visits to the Kotel are typically short and in my experiences, participants don’t get to spend enough time at the wall. (I know this through anecdotal feedback from my participants who have asked me for more time there.) Changing the itineraries to perhaps include fewer sites but more time to experience specific sites that many participants find very meaningful will enable them to have the time to experience the site, reflect, process, and make sense of what they are seeing and doing. We know through the Kolb Learning Cycle that reflection; processing and meaning-making are critical in experiential learning.
We could also add meaningful volunteer work or service opportunities to the Birthright 2.0 itineraries.
Of course there are some sites that I believe should continue to be included in all itineraries, due to their historical, religious and cultural importance such as the Kotel, Masada and Yad Vashem. When we bring participants to these sites who have been there “like 4 times,” we need to challenge ourselves as educators to create unique experiences at these sites that will enable and allow our participants to reflect on their previous experience and relationships with them. This can come in the form of our framing the visits to these sites, focusing on specific parts of the site that might be less well-known, and developing reflection exercises that ask our participants challenging and thought-provoking questions about their experiences at the site.
When Birthright first made this eligibility change, I heard some professionals in the field argue that these newly eligible participants have already formed a deep attachment and connection to Israel and therefore we should not be spending the precious resources on them to give them another free trip. And certainly, if we were to provide them with a cookie-cutter Israel experience, we would surely be selling their gift of Birthright Israel short. This new eligibility is a call to us as educators to take responsibility to always ensure that we are not just simply filling buckets, but also lighting fires.
Samantha Star is the Director for Birthright Alumni and Development at the Bronfman Israel Experience Centre in Montreal and a graduate of the second cohort of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education.
Applications for Cohort VI of the Certificate Program will be accepted through March 14, 2016. For more information and to apply visit www.ejewisheducation.com
The YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education is generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.