The Case for Israelis: A Flaw in the Birthright Educational Curriculum

man-pushing-rock-up-hill-ok-to-useby Joel Frankel

“The Taglit-Birthright Israel Community Trips Manual” describes the Mifgash peer-to-peer component of each trip as a five- to 10-day meeting between young Jewish adults from abroad and from Israel that constitutes a cornerstone of Birthright’s educational platform. Having recently returned home from staffing our St. Louis Community Birthright trip for the third time, I have no doubt that the time our participants spent interacting with their Israeli counterparts was the most tangibly meaningful connection they made to the State of Israel. Though this essay represents my own views, and not that of my employer, I am incredibly proud that the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, for which I work, contributes supplementary funds to ensure that our participants have the opportunity to spend the full 10 days in Israel with their Israeli peers. Those extra five days exponentially enhance the Birthright experience for our participants, giving them considerably more opportunities to ask questions of their peers and understand what life in Israel is like for someone their age. This begs the question, if this is such a cornerstone of the educational platform and the participant experience, why do the vast majority of participants on Birthright trips have only five days with their Israeli contemporaries?

It is not as if the people in charge of Birthright procedures are powerless to improve the participant experience. Scott Copeland’s recent article discussing his efforts to train tour guides to become “tour educators” for Birthright trips made me incredibly excited; his success in enhancing the participant experience by improving the quality of the Israeli staff is worthy of significant praise. Yet I feel the outcome of his labor is not at all representative of the Sisyphus-like exercise most Jewish professionals go through when focusing on improving the Birthright experience for participants. Instead, we are constantly frustrated by an opaque decision-making process within a giant Taglit-Birthright Israel umbrella organization bureaucracy.

With its fundraising functions being carried out by the Birthright Foundation in one country and tours being operated by SIXTEEN different trip organizers in another, the organization’s inability to be anything other than reactive to most issues is certainly understandable. While it truly is one of greatest gifts given to the Jewish people, Taglit-Birthright Israel has grown to where they have a multitude of constituents, each of whom has different priorities and constraints. I believe this has led them to focus on the easiest metric to tout to those constituents, the number of participants physically going to Israel on Birthright trips. When simply getting young adults to go to Israel for free is part of the struggle, it is easy to see how improving the experience can get lost in the shuffle.

Assuming Taglit-Birthright Israel truly believes the Mifgash component is crucial to the participant’s educational experience, I can think of only two reasons why it would not last 10 days for each and every Birthright trip:

  1. Either the donors who fund Birthright trips don’t want to spend money on something that doesn’t increase the number of young adults participating, or
  2. The trip organizers who run Birthright trips don’t want to absorb the additional cost.

At $65 per Israeli participant per day, it costs us an additional ~$2,000 cumulatively to make sure our participants spend the entire trip with their new Israeli friends. That breaks down to about $50 per participant, or less than 2% of our total cost to send them across the ocean to spend 10 days in the Holy Land. For that $50, we have the opportunity to:

  • Double the number of opportunities each participant has to individually interact with their Israeli peers, enabling a more personal examination of Jewish life and Jewish values in the Diaspora versus in Israel;
  • Facilitate more educational programs that include Israeli young adults, enabling participants to more deeply explore their relationship to Jewish peoplehood and Israel;
  • Encourage each participant to spend more time building long-lasting friendships with their Israeli peers that strengthen their collective Jewish identities and empower them to “do Jewish” beyond their 10-day experience in Israel however they choose.

The decision was an easy one here in St. Louis, and from my perspective, it should be just as simple for the decision-makers at Taglit-Birthright Israel … or maybe I will be pushing this particular stone up Masada for another 40 years or so.

Joel Frankel is the Israel Engagement Professional for the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.