The Birthright Mission: Leading and Empowering Jewish Leadership

by David Eckstein

Having staffed five Birthright trips, I often wonder what the Birthright participants will remember about their trip in 20 years from now. Will it be the beaches of Tel Aviv? Sleeping in the Bedouin tents? Praying at the Western Wall? Hiking up Masada? While there are so many places that people visit and dozens of items which they purchase, it is the experiences that people have which last a lifetime. How do we, as educators, define an experience for the participants so that Israel is not just displayed in a picture on their wall, but rather an experience that they remember, think about, act upon and pass on to the next generation?

I might suggest that there are two parallel conversations going on in the Jewish community. One focuses on the building of Jewish identity and peoplehood and one focuses on the next generation of Jewish leaders. As a matter of fact googling ‘building Jewish identity’ yields over 5 million results; googling ‘Jewish leadership next generation’ yields over 10 million results. I might further suggest that our community has both the passion and the ability to facilitate both conversations and hopefully the staying power to address both issues. My last suggestion is that the point of intersection of these two formative issues for the Jewish community is Birthright and its progeny.

With 340,000 Birthright alumni and two madrichim for every trip, there are approximately 17,000 people who have served as Birthright madrichim. How do we best utilize this talent and existing infrastructure to successfully build the next generation of leadership, combat assimilation, and strengthen Jewish identity?

I believe that if we want to provide the best possible experience for the participants, then a focus has to be on the follow-up programing and it must be done by taking advantage of the current infrastructure that has been built. The strongest relationships that develop on the Birthright trips are built with the American madrichim who staff the trips and the Israeli soldiers who join it. Madrichim have the ability to cultivate relationships with their participants, and upon return, can act as a resource guide to them for opportunities to return to Israel, as well as ideas for involvement in the Jewish community. While it may not be a stated goal of the Birthright experience, the group of leaders that is created is a tremendous resource to the community, and they need to be trained and developed properly. The madrichim staffing trips (many times without compensation) have the passion, care, and the skills which our community so importantly needs. We need them to act as the foundation of a bright future, painting the picture of involvement and excitement in the community.

In a similar vein, Rabbi Seth Winberg in his piece “Birthright Follow-Up On A Large Scale“, discusses his involvement in the Michigan Hillel, by empowering student leaders to follow-up 1-on-1 with participants, and encouraging these students to join the community. This model of 1-on-1 relationships has been successful on a small scale, and with the existing leadership of Birthright madrichim, they can be developed as conduits to follow-up programming by our community.

Additionally, there are many practical training skills our community can do in order to enhance Birthright trips. I defer to Sharna Marcus on her piece “Staff Training in the Taglit-Birthright Israel World“, who discusses the different skills that Birthright madrichim need for the trips and how they can be trained with them.

Responsibility is a mindset that can and needs to be imparted to the madrichim. As Rabbi Moshe Zvi Neriah once reflected on what his teacher, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook taught him, “I learned that each and every person is obligated to think of, worry about, and care for Am Israel, the people of Israel, to see himself as responsible for the people of Israel.”

The next generation of Jewish leadership needs to be able to internalize this idea, and feel the responsibility to the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

What are the values that we must impart to our madrichim in order for them to be successful leaders? I once heard from one of my teachers that in order to properly understand what responsibility is you must break down the Hebrew word for responsibility, “Achrayut” (Aleph-Chet-Reish-Yud-Vav-Tav).

  • A (Aleph)Represents Ani which is myself and my family. A person is always responsible to his/herself for his/her actions and ideas
  • Ach (Aleph-Chet)Brother – When a person is responsible they have to think about others as his/her brother, someone who is close to them
  • Acher (Aleph-Chet-Reish)Someone else – Responsibility includes those who are different from you, recognizing and celebrating their differences
  • Acharay (Aleph-Chet-Reish-Yud)Someone behind you – Responsibility means knowing when to be a leader
  • Acharav (Aleph-Chet-Reish-Yud-Vav)Someone in front of you – Responsibility means knowing when to follow the ideas of others
  • Acharayut (Aleph-Chet-Reish-Yud-Vav-Tav)Responsibility – Only when a person understands all these values, do they reach the essence of what responsibility truly is.

There are a few additional questions our community must also answer. What are the expectations of the madrichim on the trip? Are they educators specifically for the trip itself, or are they also responsible to show a bright and energetic community in the United States? Additionally, have any studies been performed/in commission regarding the benefits and outcomes of what Birthright madrichim have gained from their experience? What ways can our community take advantage of this fringe benefit of the trip?

Our community has built unbelievable programs for young Jewish professionals to become involved in the community. We must continue to foster opportunities for Birthright madrichim to develop relationships, build friendships, and be trained in what our community stands for and believes in. It is our community’s duty not to lose this opportunity, but to share with them the responsibility they should feel in building a strong and unified Jewish people and State of Israel.

David Eckstein recently completed Rabbinic Ordination at Yeshiva University, as well as his Master of Public Administration at Baruch College.