Just as I was about to head back into Hebrew class from the mid-session break on Monday, I got an urgent message from someone who has been a repeated source to me in the past, saying that I should call him immediately.
It’s true, he told me. Someone had died on a Birthright trip the week before, and no media outlets thus far knew about the situation. How they imagined to keep this information secret for that long, I had no idea, especially within an entire nation of gossiping Jews.
With no further information beyond the fact that yes, someone had died on Birthright during the previous week, my source and I hung up our call so that I could get to work. Luckily, The Jerusalem Post editors allowed me to get on this story even though I’m not a daily staff writer because it was most certainly my scoop – though as I said to my mom, it makes you feel pretty guilty to get a scoop out of someone else’s tragedy.
But knowing that I had a really chaotic issue on my hands, I nervously grabbed my belongings from the ulpan classroom, ran to the closest bus station and headed home to my apartment. How would I proceed with this story, I asked myself, realizing that thus far the participant had no name, no gender and no identified trip provider – the subgroups that bring the kids on the Birthright trips.
My first call was to my sources at Birthright, whom I knew might take hours to get me some kind of response, based on past experiences. The two people I normally deal with were, of course, in New York, where it was only 6 a.m. at the time. But the secretary did not deny that the death occurred.
The next step was to figure out the participant’s trip provider. So I instant messaged another consistently reliable source, who tends to be in the know with all of Israel’s Anglo gossip. He immediately and carefully began poking about his various grapevines and eventually somehow received confirmation that the trip provider was in fact Israel Experience, an offshoot of the Jewish Agency for Israel. No luck when then phoned them of course – aside from another confirmation that the incident did in fact occur – as they said that the trip they ran was actually under the auspices of Kesher (the American reform movement) and Taglit-Birthright Israel.
Crap, I thought. How am I going to get any farther on this? I was still stuck without any information beyond the fact that yes, the incident had taken place.
Prodding around Kesher’s website after having no success reaching them by phone, I at last found a section that listed all of their “summer” Birthright groups. Luckily for me, there was only one in October, bus 684 from October 17 through 27.
What was the first thing my Birthright group 3.5 years ago had done when we had received our bus number? Created and joined a Facebook group, of course.
With butterflies in my stomach, I switched over to the Facebook tab that is perpetually open in my browser window, and sure enough, when I typed in “Kesher 684” on the search bar, the group’s page popped up. To my sheer luck, the page was open to the public (most similar Facebook groups keep their content private, available only to the members).
And lining the group’s Facebook “wall” was post after post grieving their trip-mate’s death. Among those who left messages were, I discovered, his roommates throughout the length of the trip, as well as his girlfriend and his mother – neither of whom had attended the trip.
I fired off Facebook messages to every person who had commented about the tragic death of the young man, Michael Adam Kellogg, and sure enough, within a few minutes, I had heard back from his roommate, whose cell phone I then called via Skype. The mother’s privacy settings were more stringent, and I was unable to send her a message, but I was able to reach his girlfriend/fiancée Hope, who spoke to me on behalf of the family.
It was then that I realized that this story would have been impossible to write a mere five years ago, before the advent of Facebook across the globe, an unbelievable mechanism that now gives reporters access to literally anything and anyone. I had achieved the ultimate Facebook fluency.
Wow, I thought for a moment, my mind reeling back to my former neighbor Jesse Eisenberg’s stellar performance in the now-playing movie The Social Network, which highlights Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg’s rise to fame. As much as we enjoy condemning Facebook , its time-sucking mindlessness and its invasion of privacy – reporters could no longer do their jobs properly without Zuckerberg’s masterpiece.
But back to Kellogg’s story.
In my now four years of reporting regularly, this is perhaps the saddest story I have ever worked on – perhaps even sadder than the time I wrote about the lives of Gavi and Rivka Holtzberg, following the Mumbai massacre.
While the Holztberg story was horrific, to Kellogg’s persona l experience I felt more of a direct link – not that reporters are supposed to feel anything, of course.
This was the story of a young Zionist man, a student who had just graduated from university and had a whole life ahead of him with his loving fiancée, both of whom seemed to have their eyes set upon contributing to Israel and to the Jewish world at large. Just as I did, Kellogg embarked upon his first trip to the Jewish state on a Taglit-Birthright Israel program, just after he had finished his college degree.
His mind was wide open, and as his friends told me, he never stopped asking questions about his Jewish history and really hoped to be part of the Jewish future. I cannot even begin to imagine the pain that his parents, fiancée and family members will continue to feel for the coming years.
I just hope that I handled the story with enough care and sensitivity, commemorating this young man’s life rather than disparaging his memory. All too often, there is quite a fine line between a respectful reporter and a vulture, and I hope to always remain in the former category of the two.