Birthright Israel’s education committee: Still updating after all these years
These days, while the rest of the Jewish world should be concerned with how to secure more funds for Birthright Israel due to the surge in its waiting list and its expenses, we are keeping our focus on guaranteeing each participant the best possible experience.
As one of the greatest Jewish educational interventions since the day school, the summer camp, the Zionist movement, the yeshiva and the Talmud itself, Taglit-Birthright Israel is often targeted. Critics stereotype Birthright’s Israel trips as the Jewish world’s big, fat, mindless, propagandistic frat party. But the caricatures clash: faultfinders have to choose between bashing Birthright Israel as a mindless romp or as serious indoctrination. Beyond their inconsistencies, these crude cartoons insult over 800,000 overwhelmingly satisfied Birthright alumni, treating them as patsies in either scenario. They also disrespect the thousands of top-notch educators who have made Birthright Israel’s educational vision thoughtful, subtle, contextualized, person-centered and genuine.
I admit. I am biased. I have chaired Birthright Israel’s education committee as a lay leader since 2010. From that vantage point, I have been honored to participate in many of the most pressing debates shaping Birthright Israel’s curriculum, while watching the program evolve educationally to meet our participants’ changing needs. As one of the bright spots in the Jewish world, running a nonpartisan, inspiring Israel program people are happy to join, Birthright Israel offers a model of constructive identity-building and Israel-associating, that transcends the politics and passing headaches of any particular moment.
Thanks to Birthright Israel’s current educational leaders, who have continuously updated the project’s philosophy and approach – alongside the entire Birthright Israel team and the by now-legendary Birthright Israel brand – I have been lucky to work with my own dream team of educators over the years. It’s remarkable. Beyond simply enjoying meeting these impressive teachers, rabbis, professors, activists, tour educators, trip organizers, Hillel staffers, foundation heads, community professionals, thought leaders and Birthright Israel alumni – all volunteering their time – I have benefited from so many soaring, mind-expanding thought-provoking conversations with them.
Perhaps most surprising is that, during this highly polarized era, we have tackled all kinds of explosive issues, while keeping it civil. We have debated how to teach about Israel’s tensions with its neighbors and its broader geopolitical place in the world. We have addressed the challenges of how to engage Israeli-Arabs within our various program offerings, and complement such initiatives with rigorous staff-training protocols. We have grappled with pedagogies regarding how to experience Shabbat, Israeli politics, the Holocaust, Jewish values, or social diversity to young adults, many of whom keep growing – as studies show – less Jewishly-literate and more Jewishly-distant.
While navigating all these pedagogical and ideological minefields, I don’t ever recall one partisan outburst – or even thinking that someone was trying to hijack the meeting or the issue to advance some political goal. We all understand that Birthright Israel is a non-partisan program. As such it invites us to leave our religious and partisan affiliations outside, or at least put them on mute.
Moreover, regarding one of the most contentious issues surrounding Zionist education, there is an ironclad left-to-right, religious-to-secular Education Committee consensus: Birthright Israel is an introductory, identity-building program – not an Israel advocacy program. Our non-partisan, open-minded, you-get-the-gift-with-no-strings-attached promise is the keystone to our credibility.
Birthright Israel distinguishes between goals and outcomes: our goal is to invest in thoughtful and meaningful explorations of Jewish identity, communal associations, the Jewish story, the Jewish people and Israel – the land, the people, the state. Should one of the outcomes be participants’ desire to promote Israel on campus, great – but that’s not our goal. That’s why there’s no tactical training on Birthright Israel to that end. Simply put, that’s not what Birthright Israel is about.
I should add that I have never received an educational demand from any donor. That’s not the Birthright Israel institutional culture – and everyone knows that would end my tenure.
These days, while the rest of the Jewish world should be concerned with how to secure more funds for Birthright Israel due to the surge in its waiting list and its expenses, we are keeping our focus on guaranteeing each participant the best possible experience. For the last year we have done most of our work through five task forces. Together, they illustrate many of the different dimensions all of us in the Israel experience world keep juggling.
The first is a sustainability task force. This task force reveals the many different layers involved in our conversations. We start with the participants, for whom environmentalism is an important value. Respecting their impulses and building on them, we add layers of the Jewish discussion about appreciating nature and being in sync with nature. We start with our classical Jewish bookshelf, wherein our ancestors and the land are bound within a covenant of “mutual sustainability.” And we integrate the Zionist story too. By hiking, experiencing and immersing ourselves in the land authentically, organically, we see how those values were realized anew in modern form.
Finally, we go universal, demonstrating how Jewish life thinks small and big. More practically, we ask how can Birthright Israel be a leader and a role-model in this field, in terms of reducing our collective carbon footprint, on the trip and thereafter?
Next, is a wellness for the Jewish mind, body, and soul task force. We acknowledge the stress and distress afflicting so many participants today. But, characteristically, our approach is proactive, rather than reactive. Going beyond the questions of how to deal with participants experiencing emotional difficulties, we ask how to support participants to avoid such distress when possible – how can they be more open spiritually, more balanced emotionally, and more anchored personally?
While that Task Force, like the sustainability task force, has both Jewish and universal accents, the third and fourth task forces zero in on two major challenges facing the Jewish world – namely, how to use Jewish ritual as a tool for building a life of meaning and how do we update the conversation about Zionism, Jewish peoplehood, antisemitism and Israel in the current environment – on campus and off.
Finally, we end with a more Birthright-specific challenge, namely, “The Ongoing Jewish Journey,” or what we insiders call “The 11th Day.” We ask: how can we help participants on the trip think about their Jewish lives beyond the trip.
Obviously, we have been addressing these issues since day one. And the program would not be getting the consistent, knock-your-socks-off feedback from participants it has received over the decades, if we didn’t already have effective approaches to these and other core issues. Still, like a crackerjack programming team, we are constantly checking for bugs, anticipating the next challenge, refusing to get complacent. And we are aware of how quickly the youth-conversation changes, how powerful different trends are – and yet, how eternal most of the identity issues we deal with remain.
Clearly, any one of these issues could take years to reach adequate resolution. That’s where the extra fun of working on Taglit-Birthright Israel’s international education committee kicks in. While we are the most disconnected, head-in-the-clouds corner of this $100 million-a-year operation – we, too, don’t have the luxury to get too theoretical, too ponderous, or too long-winded.
Season after season, planeloads of participants land, forcing us to be decisive, to keep updating, and to continue thinking big and long while making sure that we also think small – personal, appreciating each participant – and immediate – understanding that each trip is that participant’s only trip. We won’t make the perfect the enemy of the good – but we will never allow the rush of the trip to tolerate any form of mediocrity.
Ultimately, all of us, the lay members of this committee and the impressive professionals who make our educational dreams come true, put all our lovely educational ideas, visions, and values in perspective. We know that, as proud as we are of our educational platform, the real stars of the Birthright Israel show are the ongoing Jewish journey, the beautifully multi-dimensional and inspiring land, people, and State of Israel, and, most important of all, the Birthrighters themselves. They may come as individuals, but they leave as members of a small instant family – their bus; as members of a larger community of Birthright Israel alumni; and as members of an even larger and more eternal community called The Jewish People.
Gil Troy is a professor of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and four books on Zionism. He is the editor of the new three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People. Troy chairs the Taglit-Birthright Israel international education committee as a volunteer. All the views expressed here are his own.