Birthright Without Borders
by Smadar Bar-Akiva
One of the most thrilling moments in every Birthright Mega event, such as the special one celebrated tonight, is when delegations from various countries are being recognized and cheers in different languages and accents resonate around the stadium. I have heard many say that this is when they truly felt part of a global Jewish people. Yet, these Jewish young adults, from the four corners of the world, hardly have a chance to meet each other in person. “Birthright without Borders”, a new paradigm for Birthright trips, would like to break down these barriers.
The program was initiated by Philadelphia born Shira Kaiserman. After an inspiring Birthright Israel trip in 2010, Shira left the corporate world to pursue a career in the Jewish nonprofit sector as director of program marketing at the JCC in Manhattan. Shira was then chosen to participate in a two year WCJCC Global Fellows Program that was aimed at developing a cadre of JCC global leaders and social entrepreneurs (project partners are listed below.) So when the time came to develop a personal Jewish Peoplehood project, Shira decided she would like to pursue her new friendship with another Global Fellow, Ezequiel Hajnal from Lamroth Hakol, Buenos Aires and develop a more comprehensive Birthright experience. With the help of mentors Dava Schub, Associate Executive Director for Programming at the JCC in Manhattan, and Liz Fisher, Managing Director of Birthright Israel NEXT, Shira developed a Birthright trip for young adults from New York, Argentina and Israel. Shira strongly felt that the purpose of this trip was to create a positive sense of Jewish peoplehood: “So many times in history Jews have come together because of something negative like anti-Semitism, the holocaust, etc and this would be something that has the potential to be a force of good for uniting them.” Implementation required a special skill set that would bridge differences and will also add relevant elements to the program. Thanks to “Tlalim-Authentic Israel” a special program was put in place. And so Shira from New York, Uriel from Buenos Aires and Tete from Israel ventured to lead this special group.
The main challenges they faced were language and cultural barriers. How would they make Argentinians and Americans come together and then include Israelis as well? They decided to mix them in rooms for sleeping, in groups for programs, and began the first full day with team building activities. And it worked. One example was when the staff had to split them into English speakers and Spanish speakers for a tour of a museum, many Argentinians joined the English speakers and Americans joined the Spanish speakers. Not only did they want to practice the other language but more importantly, they wanted to be with their new friends.
And this is what the participants had to say:
“It’s very important for us, the next generation, to see with our own eyes how the Jews really do exist throughout the world and to experience that together in these 10 days. And it’s even more special that we get to share it together in our homeland.” Emily Feder Cooper (US)
“It’s really beautiful to see young Jewish people from Argentina and America that didn’t necessarily have a strong connection to Israel coming here and wanting to learn about Judaism and Israeli culture. It really means a lot to us as Israelis and we don’t take it for granted.” Noa Bar (Israel)
“The trip was eye opening. I was able to share stories and experiences with peers from such different backgrounds that do have common bonds. It validated my Jewish upbringing as an American Jew with Argentinian Jewish roots.” Andrew Kaplan (US)
“For me it was very special to meet Jewish people from the states and see how they live. I’ve never had the opportunity to live with them, get to know them, and really understand them like I did on this trip.” Jasmine Schreker Levy (Argentina)
“We were dancing to Israeli music at the Bedouin tent, Israelis, Argentinians, Americans and we were all just young people being together. In the end we’re not that different even though we come from many countries.” Einan Schapiro ( Israel)
As they go back to their communities they are now committed to keep the flame alive. In addition to follow up programs with Birthright Latin America and the Birthright Passport program at the JCC in Manhattan (generously funded by the Segal family and the Goldhirsh Foundation Inc,) staff members are keen to find creative ways to continue the New York- Argentina-Israel connections.
So tonight, when the delegations cheer for their country of origin, one delegation will be intertwined.
Smadar Bar-Akiva is the Executive Director of the World Confederation of Jewish Community Centers, an umbrella organization of more than 1,100 JCCs. The WCJCC Global Fellows program was developed in partnership with WCJCC affiliate organizations and supported by the UJA Federation of New York, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israel New York Connections office. It was implemented in partnership with PresenTense.