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Ten Things I’ve Learned by Staffing 10 Birthright Trips

I’m a practicing attorney with a fire in my soul that burns for the Jewish people and Israel. And I’m obsessed with Birthright. Taglit-Birthright Israel is famous for offering a free trip to Israel for any Jew ages 18-32. Each Birthright group of approximately 40 participants is assigned a tour guide, two American staff, a medic/security guard and bus driver. Over the course of the past six years in addition to managing Rosenblum Law, I’ve had the merit to staff more than 10 Birthright trips as a volunteer, bringing groups of young Jews to Israel for seven to 10 days at a time. I’ve staffed several trips of each age group (18-22, 22-26, 27-32) across multiple trip providers. I’m also a Birthright Fellow. Here are some of my takeaways from the varied experiences that I’ve had:

1. It’s not all about having fun. Birthright Israel has often gotten a bad rap for being a “party trip,” nothing more than an opportunity for Jewish youngsters to party hard on a free trip. While it’s undeniable that certain participants do come on the trip with this as a motive, in general there are many (low-cost, if not free) options that college students have if that’s their primary goal. Birthright trips are structured to give participants a good time, but the majority of the itinerary is focused on education, not partying.

2. There is no “right-wing” agenda. Left-wing groups such as J Street and IfNotNow have made significant efforts to deter young Jews from going on Birthright. Their claim is that Birthright presents a myopic, unbalanced viewpoint that is intended to delegitimize (or at least ignore) the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In my personal experience, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The tour guides I’ve had have been balanced, straightforward and open to any question or issue raised by the participants. Every trip includes a geopolitical lecture in which timely issues are addressed, which also gives participants an opportunity to ask questions in an open forum.

3. Age matters. Birthright trips are roughly divided between three age groups (18-22, 22-26, 27-32). There are vast differences between the various age groups in terms of engagement. In general, the older the participant, the greater the level of engagement. While some have criticized Birthright for expanding the upper age limit due to concerns that it would cause younger Jews to procrastinate, it’s clear that expanding the limit not only gave participants who had “aged out” a second chance, but it also meant giving more mature and engaged individuals an opportunity for a meaningful experience.

4. Distance is a plus. One of the greatest challenges facing educators today is the significant number of distractions, technological and otherwise. It’s very difficult to expect sustained focus in this day and age. However, bringing an individual across several time zones and immersing them in a different culture and language helps reduce that challenge significantly. While participants still do bring their phones to Israel, the itinerary is packed and gives participants a more appealing alternative to their digital screens (especially if the tour guide is engaging!).

5. The tour guide and American staff can make a huge difference. Just as with teachers, Birthright tour guides (or “tour educators” in Birthright parlance) can vary. Some are more articulate, some less. Some are newer and seem to be more invested in giving participants a great experience, and some are more tired and weatherworn, having staffed dozens of trips. Some organizers select U.S. staffers who are very educated in terms of Israel and Judaism, and some have very little background and know very little Hebrew. Birthright Fellows is a training program that aims to better prepare and educate U.S. staffers for their Birthright trips. Yet not all staffers are fellows. Having experienced, educated and spirited staffers can mean a totally different experience for participants than the opposite.

6. The Israeli “mifgash” is often the highlight of the trip. Every Birthright trip is joined by a number of Israeli peers for part (or all) of the Birthright trip. Known as the mifgash, it’s an opportunity for the participants to connect with Israelis of the same age. While at the beginning the contrast seems stark—not just as a result of the language barrier but also the fact that the Israelis have all served (or are currently serving) in the IDF—by the end of the mifgash most participants remark with surprise regarding how similar they really are to their Israeli peers.

7. The seven-day itinerary is limiting, but still better than nothing. Some years ago, Birthright started experimenting with a shorter itinerary, ostensibly intending to make it easier for working participants to come on Birthright and not have to take that much time off from work. Invariably, a shorter itinerary not only means that certain experiences will have to be omitted, it also means that there won’t be as much time to work on group and relationship dynamics.

8. Shabbat and the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony can be very powerful. Not every Jew (and especially these days) has a bar/bat mitzvah and many haven’t ever been in a shul. Some participants have never experienced a Shabbat, and some don’t even know what Shabbat is.

9. The most understated part of Birthright is the idea of community. I’ve been saying for years that if the founders wanted every Jew to have a free trip to Israel, they easily could give everyone a free plane ticket and some travel vouchers to see the sites. The fact that Birthright is a group trip is by design. Many participants don’t have any idea of what a Jewish community (or a community in general) is. I’ve had participants who have said that they were “the only Jew in my high school” and things of that nature. One of the most powerful parts of Birthright is the gelling of the “bus community” into a cohesive unit. Participants feel like they are part of something greater and not just a random Jew living in the isolation of the American exile.

10. Levels of post-trip engagement can vary greatly. A study recently released by Brandeis University found that Birthright has a significant impact (in terms of Jewish identity and connection to Israel) on virtually all types of participants, despite their disparate Jewish identities and backgrounds. I’ve found that this impact varies greatly. Some participants jump right in after the trip and connect with their local JCC, synagogue or Chabad House. Most Birthright groups these days create a WhatsApp group that allows them to stay in touch. These groups are often jammed with 100 messages a day in the days following the trip, yet over time most participants become less active. Yet for others it takes time for that seed that was planted on Birthright to germinate. I’ve had participants who said they never considered marrying Jewish or raising their children Jewish until Birthright.


Rabbi Chananya (Adam) Rosenblum is a practicing attorney who lives in Clifton, New Jersey. He is the principal of Rosenblum Law and www.traffictickets.com, the largest traffic violations law firm in NY and NJ. He is the executive director of the Center for Jewish Outreach and the founder of Jewish programs on multiple college campuses. He is also a Birthright Fellow, having staffed Birthright trips biannually since 2013.

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