Tour operators are setting aside more time today for group discussions.
Rather than jam-packing itineraries, tour operators are setting aside more time today for group discussions that help participants make sense of what they’ve seen. Photo by Taglit-Birthright
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Taglit-Birthright
There are only two specific requirements on all Birthright tours: a trip to the Western Wall and a Shabbat experience. Photo by Taglit-Birthright
Taglit-Birthright
Itineraries must include three core themes: narratives of the Jewish people, contemporary Israel and ideas and values of the Jewish people. Photo by Taglit-Birthright

For many, the main incentive for making this trip to Israel is that, well, it’s free. That’s certainly an advantage over vacationing in Hawaii or the Caribbean.

Connecting to their Jewish roots? The last time many of them remember doing anything like that was around 10 years ago at the bar- or bat-mitzvah ceremony they’d rather forget.

A not very promising start, which makes the challenge even more daunting: How do you provide these young people with a life-changing experience in just 10 days?

The programming staff at Taglit-Birthright, who believe they have the formula down pat, will tell you it’s about striking the right balance between fun and learning, adventure and downtime, history and high tech, nightlife and prayer, walking and talking. Knowing your audience − in this case, largely unaffiliated young Jewish adults − is also essential to figure out which buttons to press to elicit the desired results: lots of raw emotion, a sense of connection, and most importantly, a taste for more.

The tendency of Birthright participants to rely on cliched adjectives like “amazing” and “awesome” to describe their first Israel experience has made them the butt of Israeli jokes. But when it all began 13 years ago, this sort of unsophisticated gut feedback was enough to provide programming staff with validation that they were on the right track.

Today, the benchmark is higher. “Nowadays, our goal is not only for them to say ‘I had a life-changing experience’ but ‘I had a life-changing experience − and here’s why,’” says Dr. Zohar Raviv, the international vice president for education at Birthright. “We want them to be able to articulate what they went through on the trip. We want them to go back home better-informed and more-knowledgeable Jews.”

For that reason, the programming staff will tell you, the 10-day program is a work in progress, changing shape constantly as new feedback and findings come in.

“We have our fingers on the trigger and are checking ourselves every day to see what we can do better,” says Birthright CEO Gidi Mark.

Perhaps the biggest change in the past 13 years has been a greater focus on what connects Jews in the here and now and less focus on what united them in the past. “We’ve put a lot more emphasis on what’s happening in modern-day Israel in areas like ecology and environment, business and science, and arts and culture,” says Mark, who started out as Birthright’s marketing director when the program was first launched.

“Yes, it’s important for participants to go back to their roots, but it’s also important for them to connect to Israel’s future. We have found, for example, that art and music are big connectors among young people. It’s always a topic of conversation on the buses when Birthright participants get together with their Israeli peers, so we’ve put more focus on that element in our tours.”

According to Prof. Leonard Saxe, the director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, which conducts research on Birthright’s impact, this encounter on the buses, known as the mifgash, has been more critical than any other factor in explaining the program’s success.

“At first, only one of the tour operators incorporated the mifgash in its itinerary,” notes Saxe. “It took a while for the others to figure out that engaging Diaspora youth with Israelis was critical, and once it became a requirement in 2005, the program started having a much bigger impact.”

And how is success measured in this case? The 2012 Jewish Futures Project update, an ongoing study overseen by Saxe, found that Birthright participants are more likely to feel connected to Israel than young people who did not go on the program. They’re also more likely to feel they can explain the situation in Israel, more likely to be married to someone Jewish, more likely to raise their children Jewish and more likely to belong to a Jewish congregation.

From foodies to fashionistas

Another significant change in the program in recent years has been the introduction of niche tours − tours that cater to groups with common professional or other interests. Special tours for foodies, fashionistas, bloggers, gays and lesbians, doctors and the physically and mentally challenged are just some examples. It’s a change that has brought with it a slight shift in the demographics of Birthright participants − the share of post-college-age participants has increased as a result.

Various other revisions to the program have recently been instituted with an eye toward strengthening its educational component. Rather than jam-packing itineraries, tour operators are setting aside more time for group discussions that help participants make sense of what they’ve seen and experienced and draw connections along the way.

“We don’t want this to be a checklist of sites to see, and at the same time, we don’t want it to be all about addressing things on the emotional level,” says Raviv. “It also has to be about imparting knowledge.”

Last year, as part of this change, Birthright, in conjunction with the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, set up a school to train a new cadre of “tour educators” − licensed tour guides trained to work with participants in educational programs. “We realized it wasn’t enough for a tour guide to be knowledgeable about the history of a specific site,’ explains Raviv. “It’s also important that they know who the participants are and be familiar with the Jewish world.”

Today, 20 percent of the 300 tour guides working with Birthright have already been certified by this school. “Our goal is that within three or four years, all of them will be certified,” says Raviv.

The school offers three different training tracks: for tour guides already licensed by the Tourism Ministry who work with Birthright, for tour guides already licensed by the Tourism Ministry who haven’t yet worked with Birthright, and for aspiring tour guides who have yet to be licensed.

From day one, Birthright has prided itself on being a customer-based organization, very much attuned to the needs and preferences of the people it serves. For that reason, it offers trips when it’s most convenient for its clientele − in midwinter and over the summer, when many of them are on school break. And for that reason, it doesn’t just offer one itinerary, but many different ones, each with a specific customer profile in mind.

In fact, there’s only one site that’s a requirement on all Birthright trips, and that’s the Kotel, the Western Wall − the holiest of Jewish sites. And there’s only one activity that’s a requirement, and that’s providing participants with some sort of Shabbat experience. Aside from these two musts, tour organizers are given considerable leeway in designing their packages.

Is anywhere off limits? Officially not, though it’s rare to find a Birthright tour that crosses over the Green Line into the West Bank, the main consideration, according to Raviv, being safety.

Still, as he and the rest of the Birthright top brass understand, the key to the program’s success in connecting unaffiliated Jews to Israel and engaging them in Jewish life back home − beyond the encounters on the bus, the boutique tours and the customer-centered philosophy − is its determination to steer clear of political controversy. The program maintains its nonpartisan profile while operating in what is arguably the most politicized place on earth. In that way, it keeps all its advocates and patrons happy − both on the left and right.

To quote from the latest draft of the Birthright educational platform, which articulates this principle in unequivocal terms: “Taglit-Birthright Israel is an affirmation of the value, meaning, and relevance of Jewish life and Israel to the personal and communal lives of Jews, but it in no way comes to inculcate specific ideologies, belief system, or political positions. A culture of openness and respect for divergent viewpoints underlies the ten day experience as a whole.”

Beyond that, Birthright also sees its role as dispelling the myth that life in Israel is all about conflict. “We see one of our main purposes as changing the rhetoric − the rhetoric of crisis,” says Raviv. “The reason to celebrate being Jewish is not because of the doom but because of our common values and ideas. It’s important to put the conflict in context and show that there’s a lot more going on here.”

Although it’s not a requirement, many Birthright tours include in their itineraries encounters with Israel’s non-Jewish minorities, particularly Bedouin and Druze.

Critics on one extreme argue that in the best-case scenario, these interactions comprise a negligible part of the Birthright tours, and therefore, participants are not exposed to some of the burning issues facing Israel or to the challenges of maintaining a Jewish-democratic state. On the other extreme, some contend that since Birthright’s purpose is to create bridges among Jews in the Diaspora with Jews in Israel, any encounters not directly relevant to Jewish identity are a waste of precious time.

“When I say that I have a shared history with other Jews and feel a deep sense of commitment to the Jewish people, that doesn’t mean that I don’t care about non-Jews or about their fate,” says Raviv.

“But we have to bear in mind that our audience is young Jewish adults who wrestle with questions of Jewish identity, and that is what informs our guidelines for these trips and the choices that are made. That isn’t to say we don’t discuss Israel as a Jewish-democratic country and what that means for the minorities here.”

Saxe of the Cohen Center for Jewish Studies believes the best place to address issues like the Israeli-Arab conflict and minority rights is the more-specialized tours. “If you have groups of law students, these are the types of issues that would be of interest to them,” he says. “But otherwise, because these trips are about Jewish identity, I don’t think they are a critical element.”

Around 40 participants per group

Since its inception, Birthright has outsourced most of the planning work involved in organizing tours to a group of about 15 companies and organizations that run the gamut in terms of affiliation.

Some have specific religious orientations like O.U. Israel Free Spirit ‏(Orthodox‏) or URJ Kesher Israel ‏(Reform‏). Some cater to specific age groups like Hillel ‏(college students‏) and Israel Experience ‏(post-college and professionals‏). Some specialize in niche tours, others in hiking and extreme sports. All must submit their itineraries for final approval 21 days in advance and all must be completely transparent about their affiliations.

To qualify for the 10-day, free trip − provided courtesy of private Jewish donors, the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency − applicants must be Jewish ‏(though the definition of “Who is a Jew?” is quite flexible‏). They must also be between 18 and 26 ‏(though increasingly older applicants, especially if they are members of high-priority professions, are being accepted‏) and not have traveled to Israel before on an organized tour ‏(here again, exceptions are made‏).

To date, more than 300,000 Jews abroad have taken part in Birthright, in addition to tens of thousands of Israelis who have joined them as part of the mifgash. Generally, there are 40 participants in each group, accompanied by a tour guide, and two to three staffers from Israel and abroad. A few days into the trip, they are joined by a group of six-to-eight Israelis, many of them soldiers, who generally stay on for five days.

The tour operators, who ultimately decide where each group goes and what it sees, are required to include in their itineraries three “core themes”: narratives of the Jewish people, contemporary Israel, and ideas and values of the Jewish people. In each of the three core categories, they are required to choose among a list of sites or activities that fit into other subcategories.

But even then, there is considerable flexibility. “Once they’ve fulfilled all the requirements on our list, what we call the thematic skeleton, they’ve filled up 45 percent of their time,” says Raviv. “That gives the tour operators the opportunity to put their educational thumbprint on 55 percent of the program.”

The basic rule they need to follow when putting together their itineraries is not to pack more than three sites into one day and not to spend less than two hours at a given site. “Since our research shows that 40 percent of Birthright participants come back to Israel for a second visit within five years, my philosophy in this case is that less is more,” explains Raviv.

Although not officially required on the itinerary, some classic attractions like Masada, Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl are visited by 95 percent of the groups, if not more, he says. Other popular sites that appear on many itineraries are the Golan Heights, the Upper Galilee, Safed and the Old City of Jerusalem.

Also, a number of sites have joined the ranks of Birthright favorites, even though they’re “generally not on the radar of most Israelis,” says Raviv. High up on the list is the Salad Trail, an ecologically friendly hydroponic farm in the northern Negev that is visited by about 90 percent of all Birthright tours these days.

“When our tour operators see a good thing, they respond with their feet,” he notes. Another Birthright hit is the fairly new Ariel Sharon ecological park, built on the old garbage dumping grounds of greater Tel Aviv.

Ultimately, at least in Saxe’s view, the details of where participants go and what they do are not all that significant. “I think the gestalt of the program is more important than the specifics,” he says. “Our results make clear that while educational content is important, much of the strength of the program is in building groups that engage Diaspora and Israeli peers.”