Some two years ago, just before the outbreak of the Lebanon War Part II, while still in the midst of my tour guide course, I was employed by Oranim College to put together itineraries for Birthright groups. It also involved spending time and doing some traveling with the incoming groups. It was my first hands-on introduction to Birthright. Taglit (as it is referred to in Israel)-Birthright Israel provides a free 10-day educational trip to Israel, for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26 who have not visited Israel before on an organized trip. "Taglit-Birthright Israel's founders created the program to send young Jewish adults from all over the world to Israel as a gift in order to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants' personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people." "Founded in 2000 by Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt in cooperation with the Israeli government, private philanthropists, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Jewish communities around the world, the Birthright Israel program has, since its founding, received, and spent, over $200 million on its trips. As of Summer 2008, over 160,000 individuals from fifty-two different countries have participated since the trips began. 70% of trip participants come from the United States." Yes, the trip is free and for the most part, that is the key to the success of Birthright's recruiting efforts. Still, over 160,000 participants is quite an impressive number. Many of those who take advantage of the gift, and actually make the trip, overcome personal safety concerns and quite often pressure from friends and family not to take the chance. The war in Lebanon II actually broke out smack in the middle of a Hillel Birthright trip I was accompanying. The group was from California. Of course we were on the Northern border of Israel on the very same day the war began. As you might imagine, security is always a very serious concern on any Birthright trip, with many precautions taken, such as providing a 24 hours per day armed guard. Try to imagine what happens if a war should break out. Security is increased, as is the concerns of parents back in the States worrying about their child traveling around Israel often for their very first time. We were enjoying a fun-filled water-hike in the Jordan River that first day of the war. Most of us were still unaware of what was transpiring only a few miles away from us. The sound of distant tank-fire is not necessarily uncommon background noise in this part of Israel. Nearby army bases are often involved in different training drills. Except that this time, unbeknownst to us, the continuous booming we heard was not a drill. The next day, we changed our plans of traveling to Safed. Safed had alread been hit by kayatusha missiles. It was decided that, without question, it would be safe to stay over Shabbat in Tiberias. What ever happens in Tiberias? Needless to say, Tiberias was hit during Shabbat by a kayatusha missile which fell in the general area of our hotel. After a real Israeli experience of spending a few hours in the hotel's bomb shelter, the group was evacuated to Tel Aviv. The trip then continued on as scheduled. The hotel management in Tiberias was non too happy with us. Thankfully, my Birthright trip which just concluded this past week was not as dramatic. Thank G-d, we are celebrating Israel's 60th birthday and the tourists are coming. This was my first opportunity to actually serve as the official tour guide of a Birthright group. The experience was indescribable, one which I will never forget. Birthright involves many partners. In addition to all those who provide the financial means to make it all happen, there are the many different and diverse groups involved in recruiting, planning and implementing the trips. "Trip Organizers are organizations, institutions and establishments who are approved by Taglit-Birthright Israel to operate trips. Trip Organizers are responsible for recruitment, determining eligibility, interviews, deposits, itinerary, staffing, security, insurance, lodging and meals on the trips." Hillel, NCSY and Mayanot are three of the many trip organizers. Each of these groups often has different representatives in the USA and Israel. The Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies, located in Jerusalem, attracts young Jews from around the world who wish to explore Jewish learning and experience Israel. Mayanot Israel has teamed up with many Campus Chabad Houses to do Birthright recruitment. For the campus Chabad House Rabbi who accompanies a group to Israel, this is a wonderful opportunity to further their own outreach activities. The idea of Birthright is that the 10-day trip should also serve as the beginning of a long –lasting relationship with Israel and Judaism, specifically for those who might otherwise not have one. In this area, Mayanot has enjoyed great success. Besides, their trips are loads of fun. I should know. I just led one. One final technical note. Each trip organizer needs to hook up with one of the many vendors here in Israel who actually put these trips together. For this past trip with Mayanot, and my next, I was employed by Israel Experience Educational Tourism Services Ltd., a subsidiary of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Like I said, a lot of partners are involved in putting this all together. The company specializes in providing organized trips to Israel for teens, university students and adults from all over the world.
The group I led was made up mostly of students from the University of Colorado of Boulder, Colorado. I was paired up with Nadia, a recent immigrant from New Zealand who served as the hands on logistics person for the trip. She was great. So was our driver, Benney who could sing as well, and Tal, our armed guard. There were two busloads, accompanied by their Chabad House Rabbi, Rabbi Yisroel Wilhem, originally from England. He celebrated his 30th birthday during the trip. I led Bus # 16.
After their morning arrival, we headed off to Caesarea to enjoy breakfast and our welcoming ceremony on the beach. From there it was off to do wine tasting in Zikhron Yaakov and then on to our hotel.
The ten days flew by. Kayaking, hiking, mini-jeeping, Tel Aviv, Rabin Square, Friday night at the kotel (and a 2 hour walk back to our hotel!), Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, Camel riding, biking in the Negev, Masada, the Dead Sea, and much, much, much more. Most important though were the relationships forged. After 10 days, the students even became accustomed to all of our countdowns, my "Joisey" accent and my constant refrain as I guided of "Mayanot 16 … follow me!"
Any Birthright trip involves required stops, such as a visit to the Kotel and to Yad Vashem. But the one thing that in my opinion has possibly the greatest impact upon all the participants is the "mifgashim".
For five days, eight soldiers, not in uniform, the same age as these students, join and very much become part of the group. They room with the students and are spread out throughout the bus and the dining area whenever we eat. They become part and parcel of the group, including the late night programs. For the American students, it is their opportunity to have a real "in your face" experience with an Israeli. It's often much different than the impression they had from watching CNN.
Any visit to Mount Herzl and to the military cemetery can be very moving. But it takes on a whole different perspective when the person your age who you just became good friends with suddenly stands at the gravesite of a friend of his or hers who died recently in battle. Like I said. A whole new perspective.
The trip ended with very moving goodbyes from all. The impact of the past 10 days upon the students, myself included, was quite tangible. When I told them that for now on I would feel that I have more than just 12 children, I meant it. And with Facebook, we could all continue with what just started.
I was away from home for 10 days. My wife Ella did a great job holding down the fort, but it's not easy. For Shabbat she was able to join me in the hotel with a few of our kids for the day. That was nice. It's a very, very, very exhausting 10 days. Not much sleep. There is more money to be made guiding individuals and families, but the opportunity to impact individuals who more often than not have absolutely no connection, not in the least, to Israel or Judaism, is an opportunity I treasure to experience. As I've often been heard to state, that "a good teacher gains more from his students than the students from him". And I mean it.
I gotta' go pack. My next Mayanot Birthright group arrives in two days at 2AM. And then it's up to the Golan for some fun, kayaking on the Jordan and later in the trip it's on to Jerusalem for Yom Yerushalayim. I can hardly wait!
To sign up on a Birthright trip to Israel, go online to mayanotisrael.com for more details.