Taglit-Birthright Israel: Getting it Right, the Russian Way

Hillel Russia in Israelby Alexander Shlimak

Without a doubt, Taglit-Birthright Israel is one of the most important global Jewish projects of the 21st century; with enough resources and support that have demonstrated a positive impact on Jews living in the diaspora. The concept that every young Jew has the right to directly connect with our historic homeland makes so much sense, that it was no surprise that the North American initiative quickly spread to other countries with large diaspora communities.

For the past thirteen years, nearly 350,000 young Jews from around the world have visited Israel on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. For many of them, the trip is a turning point in their Jewish journey; young people who had known of their Jewish roots but attached little value to them suddenly discover their personal connection to the past and present of our people and our ancestral homeland.

How do we achieve the purpose of the program? Young people are returning to their countries of residence with a clearer and stronger Jewish self-identity. However, the reality is very nuanced. Both formal studies and our experience on the ground in Russia prove that as the original emotional feeling from the trip passes, participants return to their daily lives and leave the memories of the trip behind. After a year and a half, the impact of Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trips can be almost negligible. Some may say that somewhere in each participant’s soul, a memory of the gift received from the Jewish people will remain and one day this memory will play a key role in each person’s life. I believe we want to transform a grateful participant to one who becomes active in community life and begins taking responsibility for tomorrow’s Jewish community today.

How can this be achieved? At Hillel Russia, we have developed an approach which, we believe, can significantly increase the effectiveness of a Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel Trip. This approach is based on the idea that in order to develop a sustainable Jewish identity, ten days, no matter how rich they are, are simply not enough. So, Hillel conducts intensive work with participants over a period of at least three months prior to the trip.

First of all, we strive to ensure that our participants get to know each other well before they board the airplane to Israel, and that they have some basic knowledge about Jewish traditions, history of the State of Israel and the Jewish people – plus the colossal role Russian Jewry played in Israel’s creation and development. This is particularly relevant for us in Russia, where in contrast to communities in North America, an overwhelming majority of young people never had a bar/bat-mitzvah or attended Jewish day school. Hillel Russia provides basic knowledge, and creates group cohesion during a series of at least three meetings before the trip. One of these meetings is scheduled for Friday night, which for the vast majority of our participants is the first Shabbat they’ve experienced in their entire lives.

We know that to effectively integrate young people into the Jewish community, participants need the opportunity to see how their involvement in the community leads to new knowledge, a richer social life, useful contacts and a continuation of the emotional surge they had previously experienced in Israel.

To achieve all of this, we have developed a thoughtful system of post-Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trip activities. At its center are always madrichim, the Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trip staff, who are well trained to guide students on the ten-day journey to Israel. The madrichim for Hillel Russia Taglit-Birthright Israel trips are the most prestigious positions for members of our organization, with training for the position lasting a minimum of a year. Only the best are sent to the annual seminar, held in Israel for all FSU madrichim under the auspices of the Genesis Philanthropy Group.

Our madrichim understand that they are responsible for the participants’ safety and well-being in Israel, and are trained to build relationships with all the participants and help them reflect on and process the experience. Hillel Russia approaches the experience a bit differently than Hillel in North America, which also requires Taglit-Birthright Israel training for staff and pre-trip education for participants. The Hillel Russia team also expects their madrichim to acquaint participants with the legacy of the sage Hillel and to teach them about great contributions of Russian-speaking Jews to the creation of the State of Israel, as well as sharing their contributions to Russia and the world of culture and science.

In addition, our madrichim are responsible for continuing the work with the group after returning from Israel. This key strategic element helps keep the participants in the orbit of the Jewish world. A Hillel madrich provides all the necessary resources to ensure that members of the group are in constant contact with one another and with the madrichim, both online and in person. The coordinator informs the participants of the events that are taking place at Hillel and at other places like cafés and universities, as well as events happening in the Jewish world; invites them to join communities of interest; and creates and updates the online Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trip groups on social networks.

Maintaining constant contact among the group members is a very powerful tool that engages participants in community activities. We believe that in order to create a lasting impact on students, an additional serious emotional lift is required. That is why our post-Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trip strategy includes a three day intensive seminar 4-8 weeks after participants return home. During that seminar, participants can plunge back into the atmosphere of Israel, remember funny stories and thrills, and, most importantly, feel the exciting connection to the Jewish people again. This program is fun and consists of lectures, games and competitions, discussions, a Jewish community fair, meetings with famous people, etc. Our aim is to refresh memories, and to show the great opportunities available to those involved in the Jewish community.

Today we are pleased to report results – that the percentage of Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trip alumni who remain in the Jewish community as participants and activists has grown substantially to about 50%, compared to 15-20% just a few years earlier. A relatively small additional investment in program activities before and after a Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trip can significantly improve the effectiveness of our overall effort to keep Jewish youth involved in Jewish life today and long into the future.

Alexander Shlimak is Hillel Russia Director. Hillel Russia oversees Hillels in Moscow, St.Petersburg, Ekaterinburg, and Khabarovsk. During the last two semesters these Hillels sent 580 young Russian Jews to participate in Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel Trip.

photo courtesy Hillel Russia