Hillel’s Model for Training Trip Leaders

by Raina Goldberg

As trip registration opens this week, marking the advent of the winter 2012-13 season of Taglit-Birthright Israel, Hillels around the world are spreading the word to thousands of students about the opportunity for a 10-day free trip of a lifetime. By all accounts, both research-based and anecdotal, the Taglit-Birthright Israel trips have made a tremendous impact on hundreds of thousands of young Diaspora Jews. We at Hillel are honored and privileged to have been a part of this undertaking since the very first trip, nearly 13 years ago. During this time, Hillel has enabled more than 50,000 young people to experience the Taglit-Birthright Israel gift.

Since the founding of Taglit-Birthright Israel, we have strived to continuously evaluate and update our Taglit-Birthright Israel program, ensuring that it remains relevant and appealing to the students we serve. One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is our commitment to excellence in training our trip staff, many of them campus Hillel professionals.

Our madrichim see themselves as informal Jewish educators – primarily because this is an expectation for them in their daily roles as campus Hillel professionals. Developing meaningful relationships with students, finding opportunities to infuse every-day experiences with Jewish meaning, and authentically sharing their own Jewish journeys are all part of their job description, which naturally extends to the work they do as staff on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips.

In addition, prior to each trip season, Hillel holds mandatory staff training specifically designed to prepare madrichim for the Taglit-Birthright Israel experience. Staff groups are organized by level of previous Taglit-Birthright Israel trip staffing experience, and sessions are led by senior professionals from Hillel’s Schusterman International Center. Utilizing a Web-based, interactive platform, staff from around the U.S. participate in four or five weekly sessions as they explore group dynamics, learn to frame educational opportunities during the trip and support students’ emotional responses to the experience, and discuss logistics and follow-through expectations.

Conducting Conversations

Most importantly, we train staff to conduct the four main conversations that are at the heart of Hillel’s educational framework for Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. The madrichim are equipped with a variety of texts and resources to enhance these conversations with both traditional and modern wisdom. Each conversation allows participants the opportunity to pause, reflect on what they have experienced, and relate their newfound knowledge to their “real lives” back home. In pairs and small groups, students engage in conversations regarding the importance of Jewish memory and their personal relationship with Israel, learn to connect with a sense of spirituality, and delve into what being Jewish means to them. Participants often reflect that these conversations were one of the most meaningful parts of the entire 10-day experience.

For the madrichim who accompany Hillel’s trips from the Former Soviet Union (FSU), we supplement the training they receive in Israel with several online meetings, adapted from our training series for U.S. staff. To better connect with our FSU students, all of our materials – including our extensive staff manual and the resource-filled journal that is shared with each participant – have been translated into Russian. We have even created a special Siddur in Russian to use on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips.

Analysis, Feedback and Continuous Improvement

Over the years, Hillel has experimented with different modalities and topics for staff training. Each season, we make modifications to our curriculum based on feedback from staff and our own observations of their work during the trips. For the upcoming winter trips, we have convened an ad hoc committee of Hillel professionals with varying levels of experience to look in greater depth at the training we offer and how it can be improved. We are fortunate to have both the flexibility to make necessary changes and thoughtful, candid colleagues to assist with the process.

Part of Hillel’s Vision

Hillel’s vision is to inspire students to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel. Taglit-Birthright Israel trips and the follow through afterward are an incredible opportunity for Hillel to enact this vision. These trips, and the trainings that we run, are an excellent incubator for much of Hillel’s work. In developing new educational models for our madrichim, we infuse the Hillel system and by extension the larger Jewish community with more Jewishly educated, better trained Jewish communal professionals.

Finally, to quote just one participant: “My first experience with Hillel was participating in a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip and it changed my life. Now I understand more clearly what it means to be Jewish … the Jews have a great history but I believe that the best is yet to come.” (Alisa Goshtein, Yekaterinberg, Russia)

Raina Goldberg is Director, Taglit-Birthright Israel and Follow-Through, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.