Someone asked me what I thought the problems were with the Birthright trips to Israel, and I didn’t have to think very long.
You have these trips that are supposed to foster a deeper connection with your ancestral land, yet more and more young Jews are turning against Israel rather than becoming connected.
The one question people have been asking me more and more lately is “What would YOU do differently if you were in charge of these trips?”
Funny you should ask, because being a bit of a know it all, I have a list.
- The itinerary needs to change, since yesterday. First it’s really cool to take the kids to Yad Vashem but you damn sure don’t lead off with that, and really it should only be a very small part of your programming. You don’t avoid the controversial places, you take the kids there and you give them a solid intelligent analysis along with time for Q and A. Don’t pack too much in, give the kids time to unpack what they have seen.
- Where do you go? I would take them to places like Beit El and show them the places like the valley where Judah Maccabee died. I would show them where their grandfathers and grandmothers are buried and talk to them about why that is important. At night, we would have dinner in a nice restaurant and they can enjoy the clubs and nightlife. I would take them to places that show the innovation and amazing accomplishments, but I would focus more on places like Susiya where they found a 1500-year-old synagogue, and the kids can do some archaeology themselves; Hevron, where King David’s first capital was they can see a 4000-year old stairwell; and the graves of Grampa Avraham and Gramma Sarah. I would take them to Sfat where they can see the old city being excavated themselves. I would take them to experimental farms but also to Neve Erez to listen to music in the desert. If they want to visit Europe or Miami, let them, I would show them ISRAEL. I don’t want to hear excuses about security – groups like Aish HaTorah take groups over the green line, StandWithUs took me, ZOA does as well; there are challenges but truthfully there are always solutions.
- We would have Shabbat twice, because nobody who has ever had a Shabbat in Hevron has ever said “That sucked”, and I would want the kids to forge that connection with Israelis. The second Shabbat would be with an Israeli family, and I would break the group up – some would do it in Petah Tikvah, some in Beit Shemesh, some in Karne Shomron, some in Haifa, and the following Saturday, we would all sit and talk about it. Some of the best friends I’ve made in Israel are all people I met online and spent Shabbat with.
- I would take them to some beautiful natural places up near the Lebanon border, to the grottos, Ein Gedi, Mitzpe Ramon, and the Dead Sea. They should see the wonders of the land God gave them, their ancestral home, and they should hear it in that context.
- I would focus on the food – they wouldn’t be eating shwarma every day but healthy great meals, salads, cheeses, and shipuddim (meat on skewers) lol. You can eat cheap but well in groups. We would do a shuk (market) day early on, so the kids could buy snacks for cheap.
- I would have Israeli tour guides, and I would make sure they knew what we were trying to accomplish,. We would meet with Arabs, Druze and other minorities, but I would also make certain that the kids had someone there who could dispel myths.
- I would not shy away from showing them checkpoints, nor would I shy away from showing them the Dolphinarium or Mikes Place, or Sbarro, or the convention centre where the massacre took place a few short years ago. I would show them Sderot where children play in bomb shelters.
- I would have average Israelis speak to them, my friend the neuropsychologist from Karne Shomron, my buddy from Jerusalem who made aliyah 2 years ago, another friend who works with Ethiopian kids in Lod – I would want them to ask Israelis questions about their lives and maybe for a while not focus on the conflict. what do Israelis care about? How do they live their lives?
- I would want them to see ISRAEL, not just tourist traps or Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, so when they go home, they will at least understand that Israel is complex and beautiful.
- They would meet Jews from communities who are demonized, talk to them, and get to know them.
Anyway, that’s what Birthright would be if Ryan was in charge.