Training Birthright Trip Leaders: A Response From The Field

by Benji Lovitt

In recent weeks, several articles (here, here and here) were published about the need to provide better training for American madrichim, successful training already being implemented by Hillel, and suggestions for future madrichim to create the best possible experience for the chanichim.

No one can debate the critical role that staff plays in the reaching of our educational goals during the Birthright (or any other Jewish) experience. While I completely agree with Joel Frankel’s identification of the problem, I disagree with the solution. Talk to almost any Israeli tour guide across the majority of providers and they’ll tell you the unfortunate stereotype of the average American madrich, someone who is more a participant than a leader whom the guide can’t rely on to be a strong educator or a dependable logistics person, someone often just along for the ride. (Does this describe everyone? Of course not. But we have to look at where it comes from.)

I think by far and away the biggest question we need to ask to improve the staff is not “what tools can we give our madrichim to do a better job?”, but “what are we looking for in a successful madrich/educator?”

Just a few years ago, all it took to become a madrich for certain (not all) organizers was getting ten of his/her friends to sign up, even if that person had just been on a Taglit trip six months earlier as a participant. While this is no longer the case, I think we need to ask ourselves if we are satisfied with the current level of madrichim and if not, why this isn’t a higher priority? The problems with education in the United States are well-documented; no one disputes the urgent need to improve the level of teachers for the future well-being of the country. When talking about the future of the Jewish people, why would we take staffing and education any less seriously?

How can we justify spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a single group and yet disregard their educational experience? If someone simply lacks the skills to do a job, better training isn’t going to help. Morgan Stanley could provide me the best training in the world but it’s not going to change the fact that I’m not qualified to be an investment banker. Now imagine they can only train me for a few hours and not in person. Now we’re talking about the typical training situation for Birthright staff. We simply cannot afford to not have a better crop of applicants before we even begin to discuss training and preparation.

So what skills/experiences are we talking about? How about past participation in a Masa program? Should someone who has never been to Israel before be allowed to staff a trip? (It’s happened.) You can disagree with the Masa requirement but it’s a starting point for a conversation. Does someone who cannot facilitate a group discussion have any business leading a group? (Many can’t.) What about if you’re so early on in your own process of exploration (or simply “Jewishly experienced”) that you can’t talk about the meaning of/importance of Shabbat or present different ideas of what Jewish identity can mean? When a participant on their final day of the trip asks how they can come back and lead a trip, can anyone honestly say that they have any business even sniffing a job interview six months later? Come back to Israel, learn more, figure out where you stand, travel a little further on your own Jewish journey, and then we’ll talk.

Since I believe employees of various tour operators who have told me that they absolutely take the staffing process seriously and that they can only choose the best candidate from the pool who apply, I have to assume that there’s simply a lack of good applications for the job. Whereas a free ticket to Israel is enough of a reward/salary for a lot of people, you get what you pay for (which is currently nothing more than a free ticket) and our best possible candidates are probably not in position to justify taking the time off without compensation.

Almost all changes in the program requirements, rules, and practices over the years have been top-down, from Birthright to the tour operators. If staffing is going to improve, I think it has to come from the top. Since it’s too easy to just spend someone else’s millions, let’s keep the existing budget as is. What if Birthright dictated that each group would bring one fewer participant, instead earmarking the land cost for the 40th person to hiring the best darn Jewish educator/madrich we could find? If a stronger madrich were to mean a significantly greater number of people extend their tickets, attend a Masa program in the future, go to local Federation events, visit a synagogue on a Friday night, etc., how can we not treat this as of critical importance?

How many incredibly qualified potential staff members are here in Israel who either recently completed their Masa program or have made aliyah? While the group needs at least one madrich to fly over with them, isn’t it worth exploring how we can take advantage of the large potential pool of incredible madrichim in Israel? Unfortunately very few people will ever volunteer to staff a trip without being compensated with something for their time.

Thank G-d for the incredible philanthropists and Jewish communities who have given billions of dollars to send over 300,000 people to Israel. But if we continue to act as if staffing is an afterthought and, as the Israeli tour guides say, “anything they can offer is a bonus”, why would we be surprised at not reaching the levels of success we all dream about?

Benji Lovitt formerly worked as a Birthright trip coordinator for the Israel Experience and recently staffed a trip through Israel Outdoors. When not doing marketing and PR for Young Judaea Israel programs, he works as a stand-up comedian, having performed for audiences throughout North America and Israel including Hillels, Birthright Israel and Jewish Federations. He has been featured on Israeli television and radio and in The Times of Israel, Jerusalem Post and Haaretz. Benji works regularly with Jewish organizations to promote Israel. He also likes chumus a lot.

Benji’s views are his own and do not represent those of any organization, trip operator or employer, past or present.