“So, let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves by saying our names, where we’re from, our most memorable Birthright Israel moment, how each of us defines our Jewish identity, a value that represents how we live our lives, and what each of us is hoping to get out of being here at Birthright Israel Fellows.”
And, this is how it begins…
Once a year, the team at Birthright Israel partners together with The iCenter, and together we run an elite-level madrichim (Hebrew for “staff”) training seminar for approximately 100 current, and future, Birthright Israel trip leaders from across North America. Over 3 ½ days, Fellows are introduced to some of the best Israel educators in the world and are immersed within an intentional learning environment designed to affect Jewish meaning-making. What participants walk away with is a fresh perspective on what their role as madrichim can be, and a fuller understanding of the educational philosophy that guides every aspect of a Birthright Israel trip.
Arriving at the training seminar, each Birthright Israel Fellow brings with them their own unique Jewish and Israel story. Building upon these stories and working with each Fellow to become more comfortable in relating them is something that we focus on during our time together. We view storytelling as a critically important tool in any educator’s toolbelt, and we believe that this skill will enable staff to become better mentors to their future trip participants, who, we hope, will then begin to consider their own narratives and place within the ongoing story of Israel and the Jewish people.
The Goal of Birthright Israel Fellows
The goal of the training program is to provide our trip participants with the most meaningful gift we can offer by ensuring that their trip leaders are in the truest sense of the term “positive Jewish role models.” Although our educational viewpoints stem from a participant-centered approach, we know that it is the staff team who will make or break any trip. In the parlance of Forrest Gump, a bus full of Birthright Israel participants is “like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” But, in terms of who leads our trips, this is a variable that we can control by investing our time and resources into helping our madrichim become the best Jewish experiential educators as is possible.
Birthright Israel Fellows builds upon the work of our Institute for Tour Educators in Israel by creating a more holistic educational team. Recognizing the need for complementary and contextualized voices on the trip, Birthright Israel Fellows are trained to bring context to content and to offer a North American articulation of the themes and values introduced while in Israel.
The Value of Diversity
The most recent cohort of Birthright Israel Fellows took place on February 23-26, 2020 at the Kona Kai Resort & Spa in San Diego, CA. About 50% of this group was comprised of Jewish professionals – including many who work on-and-off college campuses or within their local community. Of the non-Jewish professionals in attendance, they included doctors, lawyers, engineers, students, teachers, graphic designers, entrepreneurs, and sales representatives, amongst other professions. Fellows’ ages ranged from 22 to 62 and spanned the spectrum of Jewish identity and affiliation.
Having such a diverse group of individuals may be somewhat unique in the Jewish educational world, but it’s nothing new to those familiar with Birthright Israel. In fact, the diversity of our madrichim is very much a reflection of who Birthright Israel participants tend to be – with all their varied identities, backgrounds, and viewpoints. This inclusive environment, which promotes “unity,” but not necessarily “uniformity,” offers a unique landscape in which these formal and informal Jewish educators are able to learn together and form Jewish community.
Though we love to hear stories of positive outcomes, we don’t rely purely upon anecdotal or even empirical-based evidence that our training seminars are accomplishing the goals we’ve set. Instead, we hire research companies to analyze our efforts. To date, these evaluations have shown consistently, that our trained madrichim are having increasingly positive impacts on the trip experiences of our participants, and that these positive viewpoints are more widely held on trips where at least one of the staff is a Birthright Israel Fellow.
Since its launch in August of 2014, Birthright Israel Fellows have staffed more than 1,500 trips. In 2019 alone, Fellows were madrichim on over 300 buses, which accounted for 35% of all North American groups.
Birthright Israel Fellows is part of a larger framework of madrichim training programs that we are modeling across the globe. Similar programs occur with local partners in the former Soviet Union, Germany, France, Argentina, and Brazil. To ensure that all of them are similar in content, we have now adopted a “shared language” and core set of principles that are to be introduced and understood by all staff and educators. These concepts include things like “Ritualizing Time and Space,” “Framing the Ongoing Jewish Journey,” “Giving Voice to the Experience,” and “Using Themes and Values to Create Meaningful Learning.”