Positive Identity Creation – a Response to Joel Frankel – Jewish/Judaism as a Modifier

by Rabbi Mordechai Rackover

In a recent post on eJewishPhilanthropy.com Joel Frankel identified some of the core challenges in the Taglit-Birthright Israel enterprise. Specifically he focused on the following: the quality and training of staff, the variety of avenues for Jewish identification for the participants and the role of local Federations in following-up after the trip.

I think Joel, while being a little tongue-in-cheek, is doing a significant disservice to our colleagues who work diligently to make each trip a success. I’ve staffed three trips with two different providers and on each one have had excellent Israeli guides who challenge themselves to not only learn the names of participants but to craft the experience in such a way that enables their personal love of Israel to be conveyed to each and every American participant. True, our medics are prohibited from engaging in romantic relationships with participants, but they are encouraged to help our participants understand life in Israel from the perspective of an Israeli.

In regard to the American staff Joel writes, “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.” Apparently I’ve only worked with committed staff people. As leaders and educators we work hard to make sure that our participants understand the parameters and expectations. There will be time out on the town and there will be reflective time. There will be fun and the will be sadness. The participants are not kindergartners wanting at all times to run out to the playground. They are intelligent young adults who, if given credit and opportunity, want to learn and grow.

I want to suggest that there are a few relatively easy ways to remedy some of the challenges that Joel identifies.

  1. Change the way you think about the participants. Rather than thinking of them as “forty exhausted/horny/anxious twenty-somethings” think of them as forty individuals with different experiences. On our trips we always ask students to identify what they are most looking forward to and what they are most anxious about. We do it aloud so that everyone on the trip can be aware of similarities and differences. We do it publicly so that people can find buddies in their journeys. And so that the staff can begin to keep a mental record that will help them cultivate the participants’ identities.
  2. Change the way you think about the American staff. Rather than using the term ‘staff’ use the word ‘educator,’ or ‘trip-mentor,’ or ‘facilitator.’ It’s a small thing but would make the world of difference.
  3. Empower the staff vis-à-vis the Israeli guides. Making sure that American staff (I’ll stick to staff as it is the standard term) can identify the participants’ needs and convey them to the Israeli guides is critical. Very often the American staff are inexperienced, young and somewhat lost in the challenges of jetlag, language barriers and generally their impression of domineering Israelis. The guides and the American staff must be taught to work together. The guides must be taught to accede to the educational choices of the American staff.
  4. Training. While setting up his identification of the problem of under-trained staff Joel asks, “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?” On our Taglit-Birthright trips we ask a similar question and we ask it over and over and over again: “What is the content of your Jewish identity?” I believe that we need to be training staff to ask that question and to facilitate the discovery of the answer. As we said above, we ask students to publicly identify their interests and concerns so that we can help them key in to those moments where they can get what they are looking for. That question is part of the larger program of helping the participants recognize the vast scope of Jewish – [modifier] possibilities. Jewish-food, Jewish-mysticism, Jewish- art, Jewish-military history, Jewish-sexuality, Jewish-architecture, Jewish-jurisprudence to name a very few. Further, in almost all cases the word Israeli can precede the hyphen and can serve in places where ‘Jewish’ would be awkward. Israeli-club scene, Israeli-bikini designers, Israeli-geography, etc …

On our trips we’ve challenged our participants to find the content of their identify. To answer, “What follows their hyphen?” We use the trip and all of its opportunities to open their eyes to the infinite numbers of combinations of positive identities they can choose from. We insist that they answer the question at least once to fill in the blank of the content of their identity.

Another important question that Joel asked, ‘how do we train the staff?’ His suggestion of a conference is an excellent one but is likely cost-prohibitive and inconvenient for volunteer staff people who have day jobs. I’d suggest a series of webinars on the various aspects of Jewish identity that can be taught on the trips. Each webinar would be on a topic that will be encountered on the trip – Hebrew language for example. The participants would learn about Hebrew, its history and its revival. How it is used in modern Israel and how it can be taught about on the trip. Each webinar would include practical moments and most importantly would conclude with an explanation of the possibilities for follow up. For example: when participants return to North America where can they learn Hebrew? Another example: The Israeli fashion industry. How did it develop? What successes have there been? Where can it be encountered in North America? What opportunities are there for internships or hiring? Where can you study fashion in Israel?

These are just two examples of the infinite possibilities. Another training method: interactive web-based modules that would require check-ins and game-like tests that would prove the potential staff has ‘studied’ and ‘mastered’ the material. These modules would also be open to participants.

I hope we can continue to improve the quality and quantity of Taglit-Birthright Israel experiences. I’m sure that there are great minds working on these questions and hope that this may bring some new light.

Rabbi Mordechai Rackover is the associate university chaplain for the Jewish community of Brown University and the Rabbi of the Brown RISD Hillel Foundation. He can be reached at rabbi@brown.edu or on Twitter @mrackover