Google Israel – the Hottest New Attraction for Birthright Tours?

Among the ever-expanding array of niche trips for young Jews is #DigitalIsrael, targeting social media people, bloggers and digital mavens.

Taglit Birthright Israel

Masada, the Western Wall, camel rides and Tel Aviv beaches simply don’t cut it anymore.

To sell today’s generation of loosely affiliated young Jewish adults on the free trip to Israel that Taglit-Birthright has on offer, it helps to have a gimmick. And it helps even more when they can tell their boss they’re not just going on vacation, but deepening their knowledge of the secrets of the Start-up Nation.

That seems to be the thinking behind the latest “niche” Birthright trip – named #DigitalIsrael – which was advertised over the summer as being designed for “social media managers, masters of digital communications, bloggers and digital journalists,” and took place over the winter holidays.

As they sat in the cafeteria of Outbrain, in a nondescript Netanya office building, the 42 twenty-somethings bore little resemblance to the stereotypical party-oriented Birthrighters as they listened to a Powerpoint presentation by the company’s cofounder Ori Lahav. They seemed more like conference attendees than fun-loving Birthrighters, leaning in intently as Lahav told them the tale of how he and his colleagues invented a whole new industry – the “content discovery” market – and today deliver Web surfers to 25 billion Web pages each month – driving traffic between top media brands.

Lahav recounted the company’s false starts, dead ends, and how they eventually hit on the formula that helped them grow into an international powerhouse valued at more than a billion dollars. Afterward, his audience peppered him with questions and he offered them bit of Israeli start-up wisdom.

“Failures are essential for start-ups and everything you do in life," Lahav explained. "It is important, though, to fail fast – you have an idea, take it to market, if you see it doesn’t fit, you pull it and learn for your next try.”

These days, he said, “planning is worth nothing” because nobody in digital media knows what the future holds, and “even now, the way youngsters are consuming content isn’t yet reflected in technology.”

From OutBrain, the group climbed back aboard their bus to Tel Aviv and the Google Israel offices – for most, the highlight of the trip – and to meet other Israeli digital and social media entrepreneurs.

Samir Mezrahi 32, a senior editor at Buzzfeed, who helped to plan some aspects of the trip and was visiting Israel for the second time, said he had heard about Birthright when he was younger, but was too busy with his career to consider going.

“I definitely wouldn’t have come” on a standard Birthright experience, he said, adding, “When I learned about this trip, the tech aspect of it and the places I would see on it – like Google Israel – made it exciting.”

Of course, the digital content didn’t dominate the itinerary: The company visits were sandwiched between the standard Birthright destinations. The group had come to Outbrain fresh from jeep rides on the Golan Heights and had been to Jerusalem.

'Combination of old and new'

Tyler Wetzel, 26, a participant on the trip and an engineer from Los Angeles, said that “the combination of the old and the new we are being exposed to is fascinating.”

The trip leaders said that the makeup and orientation of the group colored many aspects of the tour. An extensive discussion took place over Shabbat of the pros and cons of “disconnecting” on the holy day from computers, phones and Tablets. And speaking of Orthodox observance – while the fact that a Birthright tour provider should initiate a digital and social media trip isn’t surprising, but the group that actually made it happen was an unlikely candidate: Maayanot, an Israeli company affiliated with the Chabad movement, although few of the participants in its Birthright experiences are religiously observant.

The trip was the brainchild of Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone, director of social media for Chabad.org, who runs a program in New York called #openShabbat, which brings together Jews in tech and digital media for events. Lightstone brought the idea to Levi Margolin, director of marketing and recruitment for Maayanot, a busy operation which brings more than 100 groups to Israel annually.

Margolin said the Israeli companies like Outbrain and Google who were asked to host the visitors were welcoming. “It’s definitely something we plan to do every year.”

#DigitalIsrael will be added to a growing list of “niche trips” designed to hook the potential Birthrighter.

Two new career-centered niche trips that Maayanot has coming up this summer may not have hashtags, but they do have catchy names – one for film and TV professionals – “Isreel” – and one for Jewish teachers – “EduJewcators.”