For 14 years, Taglit-Birthright Israel has focused its educational efforts on the thousands of 18-to-26-year-olds it sends to Israel each year. Now, the organization is broadening its sights to the Americans who staff the trips.
In May, Taglit-Birthright Israel launched “Taglit Fellows,” an educational program that will provide training to 200 American trip leaders each year.
The program has a dual goal: deepen the educational experience of its participants during the trip and do a better job of helping them stay connected to the Jewish community when they return home.
“Birthright has really struggled with methodologies and mechanisms of engaging the alumni upon their return to the U.S.,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Fund, which is funding the first few years of the program through a $4 million grant.
Follow-up by local Jewish groups generally doesn’t work, he said.
“In focus groups, alumni have made it very clear that they don’t want to hear from people who weren’t on their bus,” said Charendoff, who is on the boards of Birthright and The Jewish Week.
Each Birthright trip includes 40 participants and four staff members, two from the students’ home country and two Israelis who serve as tour educator and medic/security guard. Birthright contracts out the actual running of the trips to “trip organizers” — both commercial and nonprofit — that follow a core curriculum exploring Jewish history, Jewish studies and contemporary Israel.
On American-led programs, the trip organizers have been responsible for training trip leaders. Two years ago, Birthright started a training institute for Israeli tour educators.
“We realized that the single most important component that impacts on the quality of the trip is its education,” said Gidi Mark, Birthright’s CEO.
“Now we are approaching our largest market, which is the United States,” he said. “We are going to be able to give a professional upgrade to about 200 North American educators. It’s going to be much, much deeper than anything that is given now.”
The program is designed for people already working in the Jewish communal world. "For them, it's not about getting them in the door, it's about raising the level of what they can do," said Adam Stewart, director of education at The iCenter For Israel Education, which is collaborating with Taglit-Birthright Israel on the program.
The Fellows program includes a four-day, in-person seminar that focuses on both Jewish/Israel studies and teaching skills. After that, participants will complete three online training modules that expand on both areas though individual assignments. Fellows will develop teaching materials in advance, which they will be able to share with each other in an online library.
After the trip, fellows are required to serve as “bridges” between their trip participants and Jewish groups in their local community. They also must commit to lead three trips in three years.
Despite the time requirements, more than 1,000 people have applied for the first 100 spots. Elizabeth Sokolsky, vice president of education and operations for Birthright Israel in North America said she thinks the extra work is, in fact, the draw.
Such is the case for 37-year-old Brian Mitchell, who applied to be in the first Fellow cohort. Mitchell, who directs a Jewish camp in Arizona, has already been a trip leader eight times. But the opportunity to be a Birthright Fellow brings the experience to a whole new level.
“To be in a room with people just like me, to be so geared toward this experience, I would just jump at the chance to learn from them,” he said.
“Before, Birthright just used to be about the participants,” he added. “But now they’re making it about the staff as well. They’re professionalizing the staff.”
This professionalization is the third major benefit the Fellows program will bring, said Zohar Raviv, Birthright’s international vice president of education.
“The people who have been trained by us will not only help us excel in the field here, but also on return will benefit the American educational community at large.
Charendoff agreed. “Within five years, we’ll have 1,000 Jewish educators that have been trained on not only to maximize the Jewish experience but also how to connect their alumni with their local community when they get back,” he said. “We’ve never had a resource like that available to us before.”
While the Jewish community is still trying to figure out the best method to keep Jews connected to the Jewish community, the Fellows program will connect professionals across the country working on the question, he said.
“The issue and challenge has always been identifying people and being able to activate them,” Charendoff said.
“We don’t have the answers,” he added, “but now we have the manpower.”