Birthright offshoot traverses nation

‘Israel Challenge’ is like 'The Amazing Race.'

israel challenge 311 (photo credit: Noah Rayman)
israel challenge 311
(photo credit: Noah Rayman)
“Are you ready to get challenged?” shouts the group leader, standing in the center square of the Jewish quarter in the Old City.
A collection of 41 young men and women, prepared and dressed for the new day’s challenge, respond with a loud affirmative.
No, this isn’t the Israeli premier of the American reality television show The Amazing Race. But it is not far from it.
In fact, it is Taglit-Birthright’s first ever “Israel Challenge,” an alternative to the traditional all-expenses-paid trips that have brought 250,000 Diaspora Jews from around the globe to Israel since Birthright was established ten years ago.
The brainchild of Shorashim, a Birthright-accredited trip organizer, the “Israel Challenge,” is a ten-day series of daily challenges and competitions across the nation. According to organizers, the idea was spawned from such reality television shows as The Amazing Race and The Biggest Loser, in which contestants race to particular locations and compete to lose the most weight, respectively.
Organizers hope that this twist on the popular national tours could encourage even larger enrollment while also offering an alternative means of exploring Israel, parallel to specialty trips accommodating outdoor adventure-seekers and even dancers. Journalists and video crews have already tagged along with this experimental trip that set off last Thursday.
The first group – guinea pigs of sorts in this pilot trip – arrived in Israel from across the United States, Canada and even Brazil. A group of 10 Israeli soldiers joined the 31 foreigners on their trip as part of Birthright’s goal to expose the newcomers to Israeli society.
Their adventure has taken them from the Golan Heights – where the challenge sent “contestants” hiking into the waterfalls – to a bike trip into Jerusalem, to scavenger hunts that double as neighborhood tours in Safed and Tel Aviv.
The group has broken up into ten teams, each with three or four foreigners and one Israeli soldier. One team has already come out in the lead, having proven itself in a variety of stages. But there are still several days left, and the participants have come to compete – as well as experience Israel for themselves.
The challenge in Jerusalem on Tuesday is another scavenger hunt, Lior Chacham, the group leader, explains to the crowd. “You will be challenged,” he says, “to find the people of Jerusalem.”
The task? Aside from identifying artifacts from four monumental periods in Jewish history, the groups must interview three tourists from around the world and three locals of the Old City – a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim.
For one participant, it was his first time speaking with a Muslim person. For everyone involved, it was a creative alternative to the traditional Old City tour.
“I don’t like to be a traveler,” said Samuel Lara, a participant hailing from Denver, Colorado, who explained that the “Israel Challenge” offered an opportunity to personally discover the area without the typical tour guide. “I like to be an explorer.”
The scavenger hunt has already facilitated a more natural interaction, of sorts, among the participants and the locals. In Safed, Lara’s group turned to an Orthodox Jew to ask for directions. Glad to help, the pedestrian asked for a favor in return. For their first times, the two young men in the group performed the religious Jewish practice of binding tefillin.
But the trip does see its share of reality television drama. Lara’sgroup found itself traversing the Jewish quarter in the noon heat,missing two key artifacts (photographs) from the list in the finalminutes of the hunt.
Finally, the group asked for directions from a family familiar with the area, who pointed them in the direction of Jaffa Gate.
“That’s what I said,” Lara complained, walking several paces behind the others. “But they never listen to me.”
David Weissman, an 18-year-old from Springfield, Massachusetts, joinedup along with his brother. They chose “Israel Challenge” primarilybecause, unlike other Birthright trips that have long waiting lists,there was still space on the trip.   He said the voyage has fulfilledhis wish to see Israel, but lamented the high-paced nature of thecompetitions.
Rushing along the bustling Rehov David at the heels of his fellow groupmembers who were in search of artifacts from the Six-Day-War, Weissmanlooked around.
“Instead of stopping in the shops, we’re walking around looking for bullet holes,” he said.