How American Staff on Taglit-Birthright Israel can Strengthen Jewish Continuity for Future Generations

by Joel Frankel

Identifying the Gap

In my work as the Israel Engagement Professional at the Jewish Federation of Saint Louis, I have been privileged to meet hundreds of young Jews who have visited Israel on Taglit-Birthright Israel. And while almost all of them wax nostalgically about the Israeli soldiers with whom they traveled, or the moment they saw the Kotel for the first time, or sleeping under the stars in the Negev, there is always one common element to each of my conversations.

Birthright affects each participant’s Jewish identity and their relationship to Judaism and Israel in a unique way.

That each participant has their own individual relationship with Judaism both before and after they go on Birthright does not represent a problem per se, but there is a potentially mammoth underlying issue encapsulated in that idea. The Birthright experience as it is currently structured is ill-prepared to capitalize on the opportunity that “Jewish Diversity” presents. The role of the Israeli tour guide is to educate, entertain, and deal with daily logistical issues, but many of them do not even learn the participant’s names. The job of the guard/medic is responsible for creating a “secure travel environment” and dealing with any minor medical issues should they arise, but they are expected to keep fraternization with the group to a minimum for safety purposes.

What about the American staff? Officially, they are “responsible for group dynamics, educational enrichment, and general support.” (1) Realistically, they are responsible for babysitting the participants (making sure they understand and abide by all of the rules of the program, waking them up in the morning to keep on schedule, letting the bus driver know when bathroom stops are necessary, answering questions about the days’ itinerary and what needs to be brought on the bus versus what can be kept at the hotel, etc.). They are also responsible for leading two to three educational modules over the course of ten days. However, it takes a pretty committed staff person to try and organize and lead a productive and meaningful “tie-in discussion” for forty exhausted/horny/anxious twenty-somethings who just spent the past eight to ten hours getting on and off a tour bus, especially when the preference of the participants is that sharing time be pushed aside in favor of an extra bar night. As a result, a gap has developed whereby no one is genuinely responsible for developing personal relationships with the participants while also challenging them to put all of these tremendous experiences in the old city or at the Bedouin tent in perspective as it relates to their individual Jewish identities.

Filling the Gap

Taglit-Birthright Israel is big business. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying to you or to themselves. It is big business in Israel, having contributed more than $535 million to Israel’s economy since the trip’s inception in 2000. (2)  And it is big business in the United States, where hundreds of people at the local and national level are employed to help fundraise and allocate the hundreds of millions of dollars that will eventually be spent in Israel. So it should be of no surprise that with financial stakes this large, the concept of focusing on the individual has slipped through the cracks.

So how do we begin to fill the gap? How can we embrace the “Jewish Diversity” on each Birthright trip while simultaneously empowering participants to take ownership of their Jewish Identity and personal relationship to Judaism and Israel? I believe it starts with requiring additional training for the American staff on all Taglit-Birthright trips compared to what is currently required, which can amount to as little as a conference call or webinar. As that is an extremely tall order for an umbrella organization that sends thousands of busses to Israel each year, it seems logical to me that the champions of a project to enhance the quality and training of the American staff on Birthright should be those Jewish Federations that are already heavily invested in community-specific Birthright trips.

Since it is such a struggle to engage and involve young adults and these Federations are already in the relationship management business, why wouldn’t they want to target the low-hanging fruit that Birthright trips provide for them? They will be the primary beneficiaries of better trained American staff because they will have direct access to the alumni who travel on their busses and already have a connection to that specific community. In addition, the leeway provided by the Birthright Foundation and the trip providers for Community Buses in selecting their own American staff gives them the opportunity to require additional training for their staff if they so choose. And in the long-term, requiring additional training not only ensures that the trips will be me more impactful for the participants, it also weeds out those prospective staff who are truly committed to “leading” these participants from those who are just looking for another free trip to Israel.

What does this additional training look like? Honestly, I am not really sure. I imagine it will be part social work, part regional geopolitics, part Israel advocacy training, and part Jewish education, or something to that effect. And logistically, whether it is a mobile consulting unit that travels from Federation to Federation across the country educating all of the Community Bus staff (and perhaps some of the other Birthright staff who are staffing trips and living in those cities) or a 2-3 day conference held twice a year (prior to each round) for people staffing Community Buses is somewhat irrelevant at the moment. Why is it irrelevant? Unfortunately, we operate in a world where fundraising efforts are still stagnating from the recession and budgets for local Federations are not equipped to commit any more funding to something that will likely not see any “real” return in the next few years. So what I think the training should look like does not matter nearly as much as what someone who has the funds to actually execute an idea like this thinks it should look like. Perhaps the place to turn is the same group of philanthropists who gave the Jewish people the gift of Taglit-Birthright Israel some thirteen years ago.

It was a HUGE and unprecedented idea to send young adults to Israel and simply pray that it enhances an entire generation’s connection to Israel while strengthening each participant’s Jewish identity. But even with the unequivocal success Taglit-Birthright Israel has achieved, lost in that success is the notion that concepts like Jewish Identity and Jewish Continuity have evolved over time and now mean different things to different generations. Jewish young adults no longer simply think of Judaism as a religion. It is a culture (think Matisyahu (3) or TV characters like Josh Lyman and Jeremy Goodwin (4) ), a tradition (from the shtetl in Fiddler on the Roof to bagels and Lox on the Upper West Side of Manhattan), a heritage and history, a moral compass, and countless other things to countless other people. That means to successfully cultivate and foster Jewish Continuity within the greater Jewish Community, in the future we need to focus more on the individuals in that community. Birthright trips give us the opportunity to facilitate the process of connecting group experiences in Israel to a participant’s individual Jewish Identity. And the more success we have forming those connections, the more we can strengthen not only the state of Israel, but Am Yisrael, the nation of Israel.

Joel Frankel is the Israel Engagement Professional at the Jewish Federation of Saint Louis.

1 Israel Outdoors Staff Manual

2 The contribution to Israel’s tourism industry comes from providing transportation, lodging, food, training, security, entry to tourist sites and air travel during the free 10-day trips to Israel for Jews aged 18 to 26. Since the beginning of the project, more than 7,100 groups have come to Israel, filling more than 2.2 million hotel beds and traveling around the country for more than 71,000 days in buses. The participants have spent more than $75 million in gift and souvenir shops.