Jews around the world just scrolled their Torahs back to the beginning in the yearly cycle of reading and rereading the stories of our ancestors. Eventually, we’ll reach the book of Devarim, Deuteronomy, when Moses recounts incidents from the previous 40 years. In his retelling, he often changes stories from their original recounting earlier in the Torah – after all, he is not talking to the same people who started out in the desert 40 years before.
I have greeted 2,000 Hillel Birthright Israel groups at Ben Gurion Airport upon their arrival in Israel over the past 20 years. We are also telling the stories to new ears, just as Moses recounted history to a new audience.
Participants who come on Birthright Israel today are not the same participants who went 20 years ago. Their knowledge base, their needs, their communities, their identities and their aspirations are different. These new cohorts require different thinking and strategies that reflect a deep understanding of who participants are today.
Students today are looking for authenticity and some are questioning basic assumptions of Zionism and the legitimacy of the state of Israel. Some come from campuses where BDS and anti-Israel sentiment is rampant. Others come from backgrounds wherein Israel is not a topic with positive connotations, and still others are concerned about the stereotype that Birthright presents only a single narrative.
These students want to learn more and understand the complexities of Israel’s history and modern realities. And they want this reflected in their experience as they visit Israel.
The goal of Hillel Birthright trips is strengthening Jewish identity and community, helping students connect with the land of Israel, Jewish ideas and values, and creating a meaningful shared experience with their peers. And as one of the largest providers of Birthright trips, Hillel is also the organizer that had the most diverse programs for the summer of 2019.
Birthright Israel and Hillel International are intentionally adding to its programs the topic of diversity and its impact on Israeli society. Nearly three-quarters of the Hillel International groups had a diversity program involving Israeli Arabs this past summer season. We are working toward 100 percent for the winter 2019/2020 Birthright Israel season.
Many trips include an experience at the Center for a Shared Society at Givat Haviva, which aims to build an inclusive, socially cohesive society in Israel by engaging divided communities. They also meet with women at Sindyanna of the Galilee, a unique nonprofit organization led by a team of Arab and Jewish women working to create social change and economic opportunities for Arab women by selling Arab producers’ olive oil and other products.
Sue Silberberg, executive director of Hillel at Indiana University, told me that the visit to Sindyanna was one of the best experiences of their Birthright Israel trip last May. “It gave hope for peace and showed how Palestinian and Israeli women can work together and that they share much in common,” she said. “It was very powerful. The women who spoke were excellent and the hands-on activities helped everyone feel a part of the experience.”
These diverse experiences and narrative-sharing add to my thinking about leadership and education and the need to constantly adapt and change as students are changing. How do we best meet them, challenge them and propel them to ask more questions on a Birthright Israel trip? How do we provide authentic, inviting and challenging stories and experiences for the wide range of students who now enroll in Hillel Birthright Israel trips?
Whenever we tell a story, people of many backgrounds are listening and interpreting and trying to make sense of what is being told. The power and beauty of Birthright Israel is the chance to enable participants to hear, listen and grapple with different narratives together with rich conversations with their staff and peers.
This was highlighted for me in a comment from Leigh Dennis, a member of the Class of 2022 at the University of Michigan, who wrote to her staff: “My trip to Israel would not have been complete without the opportunity to visit Givat Haviva and hear from Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. In doing so, I began to grasp the complexity of the Israeli geopolitical state in a way that only genuine dialogue and experience can yield.”
My goal is that all students who come on a Hillel Birthright Israel trip leave with stories in their pockets, more questions than answers and a keen desire to figure out who they are in relation to the beautiful, complicated place that is Israel.