Chai: Birthright at 18

“The last ten years, we realized that in order to be relevant all the time, we need to keep changing in order to be one step ahead of the curb and not behind it.”

Birthright Israel participants at Taglit Week, May 2018
33,000 Birthright Israel participants from 33 different countries are scheduled to arrive in Israel during this summer season, which also happens to be the organization’s 18th year in operation. From its founding in the winter of 1999, Birthright Israel, known as Taglit in Hebrew, has brought over 600,000 young Jewish adults from 67 different countries to the Holy Land.
“When birthright started, only 2,000 Jewish college-age young adults used to come to Israel every year,” said Gidi Mark, the current CEO of Birthright International. “We are now at a level of 50,000, I would like to see it grow until the stage that we give the opportunity for every young Jew to celebrate his or her birthright.”
Throughout the week of May 27-31, Tel Aviv was filled with young Jewish tourists from around the world, sporting white Taglit t-shirts and colorful lanyards. An annual event, this year’s Taglit week brought in more than 6,000 participants, aged 18-26, to see all that the city has to offer.
Each day of the week brought in about 1,200 participants, with a set schedule of activities, which included various outdoor activities at Jerusalem Beach, workshops with the Mayumana dance group at the Habima Theater and a tour of the Center for Israeli Innovation by Taglit Birthright Israel, in partnership with the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.
Every day ended with a performance by Israeli band Hatikvah 6 at the Pisga Garden in Jaffa. A number of politicians and other officials also spoke to the participants about Israel, which is a first for the organization.
By having events like these, the Birthright leaders and educators are aiming to have participants as fully immersed into Israeli culture and society as possible throughout the 10-day trip and have many different methods of doing so.
Meredith Abel is a coordinator for Mayonot Birthright, a New Jersey native who made Aliyah over a year ago. She believes that the presence of Israeli soldiers and students is crucial for Birthright participants to really get a chance to understand what Israeli society is all about. Since all of the Israelis have different backgrounds, they are able to share their experiences and knowledge with the participants and help them gain a better understanding of what it is like living in Israel.
“From an educator’s perspective, we really believe in experiential learning, we brought them here because we wanted to show them for themselves, so they could experience it,” said Abel. “I guarantee you, a bus of 40 participants, not a single one of them has the same experience.”
The fact that participants stay in a variety of different places, such as hotels and kibbutzim, also helps participants experience a variety of different Israeli lifestyles. However, Abel said that even though participants see most of the geographic parts of Israel, they are not as immersed in all of the political aspects.
“You can talk about it, you can show it but I think at the end of the day, as much as a provider can give context, can give educational background, you’re sending them off with a tour guide, and 40 random participants and whatever they make out of that trip is what they make of that trip,” said Abel.
Israeli participants themselves also believe that for a ten-day trip, Taglit does a good job integrating its participants.
23-year-old Hebrew University Bar Somech is on her second Taglit trip, with her first one being four years ago when she was a soldier. She still keeps in touch with many people from her first trip and said she really enjoys getting to know people from different places around the world.
“I would say a few aspects of Taglit are really representative of Israeli life but they are tourists seeing a country for the first time, so you see the more touristy places,” said Somech. “But you also meet the actual culture, you meet Israeli people and I think it gives them a full experience of Israel.”
As for the foreign participants themselves, it seems that collectively everyone is enjoying their time in Israel, and particularly in Tel Aviv. Hailey Hiss, 22, is a Taglit participant from the bay area in California, who is in Israel for the first time.
“Everyone’s been super welcoming, and it felt really nice to be welcomed like that. Tel Aviv a really cool city, it’s really beautiful. It was nothing like I expected, it’s a cool mix of some US cities with a really historic aspect,” said Hiss. “I came on birthright to learn more about my heritage, to meet people that came from similar backgrounds. I didn’t grow up practicing that much, so it’s nice to kind of learn more and see things that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”
Gidi Mark said that an integral part of Taglit is the fact that the participants get to spend time with Israelis that are around their age and get to know them on a personal level.
“We know that connections are being made by personal contact and the more Israelis that we can bring, the much bigger impact the trip is going to have,” said Mark.
Mark also said that the organization is always looking for new ways to add more activities to their itineraries that reflect contemporary Israeli society, such as cultural activities and learning about the various start ups in Israel, as well as increasing the amount of days of having Israelis on the trips.
Mark credits much of Taglit’s success to the fact that they are always finding ways to make Taglit a more customizable experience, particularly by the creation of more niche trips that would peak the interests of any young Jews living in the diaspora.
“When we started 18 years ago, most of the itineraries were almost identical, so it was very much focused around the past,” said Mark. “The last ten years, we realized that in order to be relevant all the time, we need to keep changing in order to be one step ahead of the curb and not behind it.”