Staff Training in the Taglit-Birthright Israel World

by Sharna Marcus

Staff training is a hot button issue in the Taglit-Birthright Israel world. Two questions are being posed: How do you better train moreh derech and madrichim to increase their effectiveness on the trip, and how do you utilize staff as a bridge for participants to connect to the Jewish Community when they return from Israel? My familiarity and expertise lies more with the first question that I will address here.

Who to Include in the Conversation

The world of Jewish education is filled with great minds. Their voices and ideas are important, but an idea is only as good as the effectiveness of its implementation. In relationship to Birthright staff training, the great thinkers should practice backwards design. In this method, described by Wiggins and McTighe in Understanding by Design, the instructor considers what are the larger understandings that should be achieved by the learners? However, what differentiates good and great practice of this method is how it is determined what exactly those understandings should be and concretizing accurate outcomes.

For the purposes of Birthright staff those exact understandings should be identified through appropriate research, by surveying the practitioners:

In its almost 14 years of existence, Birthright has amassed a database of thousands of staff who should be sent a brief survey asking them what skills they wished that they had to lead a trip and how they could have been better prepared. Interpret the data and base future trainings on their responses.

There is a cohort of madrichim who have staffed multiple times. They are asked back and volunteer season after season because of either their incredible skill set or they work for a partnering Jewish organization. Survey these “senior” madrichim a bit more intensely, perhaps in an interview. Not only do they have their own experiences to draw upon, but they also will have reflections on good and bad co-staff and morei derech. Among these madrichim, identify the most talented, thoughtful and articulate among the group, and invite them to sit on a virtual committee where they will provide feedback to training materials and sessions. For the upper echelon, invite them to lead trainings.

Include the morei derech in the conversation. The Israeli tour guides who staff with American participants can identify the skills in madrichim that they have been impressed and disappointed by. They can also express what is lacking in their own skill set that could be strengthened by co-staff and enhanced through professional development. However, the same should be asked to American staff about the morei derech. As I understand it, the morei derech certification course is focused on the history and the land of Israel. I’m not sure how much discussion there is on Shabbat or preparing the group for Yad V’Shem. Much of the skills that will be discussed here should be honed and included in guide certification and continuing education.

Bring the educational staff from the trip providers to the table. Between all of the providers there are a few hundred years of Israel experience. Their approval of specific training isn’t totally necessary, but they can identify objectives and offer insights into best practices and resources.

Skills Inventory

Adapting Howard Gardner’s assessment of Multiple Intelligences, I sat down with my colleagues at Shorashim and we developed a long list of skills and attributes of great staff that have been modified from season to season. The list was given to new staff and they were asked either during the interview process or during training to give each skill a numerical value on a scale from 0-3. Examples include knowledgeable about Jewish history, fluent in Hebrew, athletic, Judaic knowledge and much, much more. Together with the person they were staffing with or with the interviewer, the staff person would identify their 3s (strengths) and how they would be useful on the trip. They would then look at the 2s and discuss if there was any room for educational growth before the trip in those areas, and how they would accomplish that growth – and how we could help. The focus of the 1s and 0s was to see how the other staff could help with those deficits or how those deficits could be improved. In the context of an interview, it demonstrated to the applicant their ability to staff vs. waiting until they had more educational prowess.

This technique could be applied to all new madrichim and morei derech. Identifying strengths and weaknesses provides an opportunity to provide appropriate professional development and brings the staff person into the process creating buy in for more serious training. The inventory could be given to a person after a staff training and then again after the trip as an assessment for educational growth.

Specific Professional Development Needs and Challenges

There are four areas that Israeli and American staff could use significant professional development across the board. Those areas include presentation, facilitation, communication and execution of evening activities and Jewish rituals.

  • Presentation: I have had the opportunity to work with incredible Moreh Derech in Israel. The best ones, mostly unknowingly, incorporate Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences when they guide a site, specifically visual and musical tools. However, those who do not, and just drone on and on, are ineffective. On a meta level, the reason Israel trips and Jewish camps are so much more effective than regular schooling in terms of Jewish continuity is that by nature they speak to numerous sets of intelligences such as kinesthetic, naturalistic and interpersonal sills. Shorashim also asks its American staff to lead two sites or portions of two sites. This is very difficult for some staff. They need support and resources to develop these skills.
  • Facilitation: An integral part of a Birthright trip is the formal conversations that take place at the end of the day. Facilitating a discussion between 40 Americans and 7 Israelis is challenging for even the most experienced educator and is a skill that needs to be honed before, during and after the trip.
  • Communication: A challenging part of leading a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip is managing some of the cultural communication differences between American and Israelis. This complicates staff-staff relationships and staff-participants interactions and decreases the effectiveness of the trip.
  • Planning Evening Activities: After a long day, evening activities, if not executed very well can cause resentment among the participants and are indeed a waste of time. The time that is spent with these 47 participants is holy and what they encounter on the trip must live up to this high standard.

    Shabbat and Jewish Rituals: Staff struggle with planning a great Shabbat for their participants. Going to the Western Wall or a synagogue is often impossible for trip providers, because hotels in Jerusalem are cost prohibitive. Groups often end up staying on the outskirts of the City or on kibbutzim. However, Shabbat is so important! It could be the first Shabbat some participants ever experience in their lives, and unfortunately maybe the last. The same is true for bar and bat mitzvahs and naming services on the trip. How do you facilitate these rituals to be meaningful, long lasting and impactful?


There are many experts in the Jewish community who can run training sessions on presentation, facilitation, communication and execution of evening activities, and Jewish rituals. However, these sessions must be followed by practicums and the implementation of those practicums can be creatively executed whether the madrich or moreh derech is in Seattle or Tiberias.

Having staff simply present what they are “going to do” isn’t good enough or very effective. They need the practice, a scaled down version to what is offered in student teaching.

For example, a person can go back to their offices or their friends and family and facilitate a discussion, present a site or teach a text study. The participants in the session can evaluate their pedagogies and those evaluations can be processed with a coach or teacher. For the Israeli staff, their practicums can take place on their trips, other trips or with other morei derech.

When addressing communication issues, we have piloted teaching American staff skills adapted from Marcia Linehan’s Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. This therapy was originally intended to help individuals with personality disorders and those were suicidal. You may ask, how can this possibly apply to staff training? There is a strategy she uses on how to communicate effectively. As I understand it, individuals with psychological issues tend to bring so many emotions to the table that they become ineffective at communication. This failure to communicate leads to a cycle of despair, depression and anger.

Because Americans are typically less direct than Israelis, the madrichim have difficulty communicating their needs, observations, and ideas while morei derech can leave a conversation having no clue what the American wanted. This skill helps them to communicate better which then leads to a better trip.

Training Beyond the Training

Staff training is not a one-time event or even a series of classes. American staff need ongoing conversations to help them especially with mastering the itinerary. Both American staff and Morei Derech need to engage in reflective practice through follow up feedback session with constructive feedback, not necessarily criticism. This feedback should be mutual where the staff can discuss with the trip organizer areas that need to be improved by their direct supervisors as well as Taglit-Birthirght Israel.

The question might be posed, why would anyone invest this much time to staff a trip when staff are not paid? Well, the Israeli staff is paid, but for the American staff, this would have to be seen and incentivised as a worthy professional development opportunity, as do their supervisors who allow them to devote some hours to training. Most of the above skills are useful in any setting and can help a 20something with their future endeavors. Another option is to pay staff a stipend.

For the past five years it has been my pleasure and honor to train Taglit-Birthright Israel staff. I look forward to learning of how future plans of enrichment will be implemented by Taglit-Birthirhgt Israel and individual trip organizers.

Sharna Marcus is the Director of Education at Shorashim. She has Masters Degrees in Education and Journalism. Before Shorashim, Sharna taught history and literature at the Chicagoland Jewish High School. She is returning to the classroom in the fall when she will be joining the staff of the Walworth Barbour International School in Evan Yehuda, Israel.