Spring semester of my senior year of college was coming to a close and I was having the “crisis” everyone else was having: What did I want to be when I grow up?
For some reason, mainly as an amalgam of my interest in leadership and the Jewish community, I thought to myself - “I should become the next CEO of Birthright Israel!” Never mind that I had never participated in a Birthright Israel trip, or even staffed one, but off to Google I went, where I found the first search result: “Gidi Mark” - the current CEO of Birthright Israel. Before I got too cocky, I decided to check myself and realized I should actually staff a trip. I then scrolled down to the third choice where I found the prestigious sounding “Birthright Israel Fellows” program, run in partnership with the iCenter for Israel Education.
Little did I know, but the well-designed Fellowship application foreshadowed the excellent experience, from start to finish, that I would have with the Birthright Israel Fellows training and subsequent Birthright Israel experiences.
Prior to arriving in San Diego for the four-day Fellowship seminar I was given “pre-work,” a video from NPR’s Ira Glass and other tasks to start curating my “Israel story.” I knew Israel and had spent two years studying in Yeshiva. I have plenty of family in Israel and I even had experience staffing teen tours of Poland and then Israel with NCSY. I thought I understood how to facilitate a Jewish education or engagement experience to maximize its impact for participants. But the Fellowship seminar modeled for me just how many meaningful and memorable experiences could be packed into four days of experiential education training. Along with nearly 100 other Fellows, I learned that the same approaches and skills that make someone a great educator also make someone a great Israel educator.
Through the seminar’s intentional learning experience, each educator shared insight into strategies and approaches that contributed in new and compelling ways to the educator I would be—both during the Birthright Israel experience and once I returned back home to my community. Dr. Zohar Raviv, Birthright Israel’s International Vice President of Education, deftly explained the story of the Stove of Achnai and the heavenly voice that gave the halakhic ruling that the rabbis rejected because the majority went against it. He explained that there needs to be a mediating factor between God and the people, and once the destruction of the temple occurred it was in the hands of the rabbis. Rabbi literally means teacher, and the job of Fellows, as facilitators of Birthright Israel experiences, should be understood through the lens of a teacher. We have to help the Birthright Israel participants—regardless of background, prior knowledge, level of engagement in Jewish life, and any number of other factors—connect to Israel and its people in ways meaningful to them. Dr. Raviv’s teaching showed me how even texts familiar to me from other study could be relevant in completely different contexts, such as on a Birthright Israel bus.
Six months later, staffing my first trip - all the participants were in a circle at the airport introducing themselves to one another. Before I transitioned from introductions to further instruction, I asked them to move half of the circle across to the other half so they would all be on one side — a simple yet helpful educational tactic I learned in San Diego. I could make eye contact and begin connecting with everyone.
I also utilized newly refined storytelling skills at Har Herzl. I stood at the graveside of Michael Levin, a lone soldier who fell in the second Lebanon War. I retold how I was at that funeral nearly ten years prior. I tried to capture the sadness of the tragedy and the strength I found in the throngs of people who came to see Michael off to his final resting place.
So how has the Fellowship influenced my role as a Jewish educator outside of Birthright Israel? When not reviewing for exams for my rabbinical degree, I also run the Tikvah Institute for High School Students, based at Yale University in New Haven, CT. In that role, I use many of the social-strengthening concepts with teens that I learned at the Fellowship seminar. Because the program includes teens from nearly 35 different communities across North America, Israel, and the U.K., and only lasts for two weeks, we work to build friendships quickly. From my training as a Fellow, I am able to help build community and culture at the start of the program. I also follow the Fellowship’s follow-up training and set a reunion date before the program ends and identify program leaders to coordinate interesting and engaging alumni programs. Finally, just as I did for the Birthright Israel Fellowship I created a Tikvah alumni group so they can communicate and share ideas
Birthright Israel says that the trips are an adventure of a lifetime. In that vein, the training of Birthright Israel Fellows influences a lifetime as well. As educators, the ten days are only the beginning.
This story "How My Birthright Experience Turned Into A Fulfilling Career" was written by Gabi Weinberg.