|Benjy Spiro is flanked by senior educator Roni Levin and tour educator Itay Rotem at the Taglit Fellows conference in California last week. Courtesy Benjy Spiro|
Taglit-Birthright Israel, the organization that takes young Jews on a free 10-day tour of Israel, has been overwhelmingly influential, connecting the travelers to the Jewish state, and to their people, in ways that they never would have thought of and possibly never could have afforded on their own.
Birthright is run by professionals – in fact, it is famously tightly managed – but it offers far too many trips, organized by far too many separate trip providers, to be able to use paid staffers on the trips. Instead, staffers are young people who know Israel and the organization sponsoring the trip, and who have the leadership abilities that will allow them to do the job well. In return for their free trip, Birthright staff have the opportunity to return to Israel, and to shape the lives of young people who are seeing it as adults for the first time.
Now, Birthright Israel is offering its staff something new – the opportunity to train together, to learn how to do it from experts. It so far has offered two sessions of the Taglit Fellows program, which gathers about 100 prospective Birthright staff members for four days of in-person, intensive training as well as online follow-up.
Benjy Spiro – who grew up in Teaneck from the time he was 11, and graduated from the Yavneh Academy and then the Frisch School, both in Paramus – has staffed 10 trips for Birthright. (He and his wife, Leah, who are newlyweds, now live in Manhattan.) Last week, he left the snowy, iced-over Northeast for the second Taglit training in the aptly named Paradise Point in San Diego.
“They are very into taking experiences and turning them into educational moments,” Mr. Spiro said. The fellows, most of whom had far fewer trips, if any, under their belts, were divided into smaller groups, “and I was able to throw out ideas and suggestions based on my experience.” The less experienced leaders were able to learn from him, and together they all could brainstorm various situations and their solutions.
Mr. Spiro, who has been to Israel about 30 times, never went on a Birthright trip as a participant. Until a few years ago, the rules demanded that only people who had never been on a peer trip to Israel were eligible. He had been on two trips as a student. (Now peer trips during high school are not disqualifying, so he could have done it.) But he was active in Hillel as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, and the director there suggested that he accompany a Hillel Birthright trip as a staffer.
He loved it, and the rest just came naturally. Of his 10 trips, seven have been with the provider called Israel Experts. “They are really so well run, with an amazing staff,” he said. “They are my friends.”
At the Taglit Fellows program, participants talked tachlis, describing real problems and solutions. “The logistics are always going to be hard, no matter what,” Mr. Spiro said. “The 10th trip is as hard as the first in that way. But you can learn a lot about how to run activities.
“For people who didn’t go through the Jewish education system from Day One – you are shaping those people. If you are doing that, you should be an expert in shaping their trips.”
Participants also shared information on dealing with the different models of stereotypical Birthright problem campers; you can always expect at least one on each trip, Mr. Spiro said. “How do you engage the participant who doesn’t want to be engaged? Who dismisses everything you say? Who is left wing? Right wing? Religious? Secular? The person who complains a lot? The person who just wants to drink? How do you get that person to stop being so annoying? They detract from the group. Some people come pushing their own agenda. Birthright doesn’t have an agenda.
“There is a lot of Jewish non-classroom education going on,” he said.
Mr. Spiro is a human resources consultant, and he has to time his trips around his work schedule. That differentiates him from many trip leaders and most of the Taglit Fellows in his cohort, he said.
Although making his schedule work can be difficult, he plans to keep staffing Birthright trips. He loves it, and he loves knowing that he is changing lives. “I have a really strong understanding of Israel,” he said. “It is a really awesome place, a great place, and I love going there. There is something very enjoyable about sharing it with people who haven’t gone, of being an advocate for it.
“Jews are about .2 percent of the world’s population; Israel faces challenges all over the world, it’s in the news all the time, most of the time for negative things. You take people who think they know about Israel, but they’ve only seen the negative things.
“There is so much to see that you can’t explain virtually. We are a small country. We need all the help we can get.”
Many Birthright travelers have known few Jews outside their families, Mr. Spiro said. “Numerous participants go to college in the middle of nowhere, where there are no other Jews on campus, and there is a little bit of anti-Semitism there too. It is hard for them to practice their Judaism. So to go to Israel, to have Shabbat with 40 other people, not to feel like a minority, not to feel like they’re weird…” That’s a powerful experience,” he said. Often they forge deep connections to Israel and to Jewish life. “And each time, it gets to me.”
Mr. Spiro, like other tour leaders, is able to draw on his own expertise and connections as he plans the trip – he is given broad guidelines but allowed flexibility within them to adapt to the particular needs of any group of Birthright travelers. For one thing, he said, tours for 18-year-olds, the youngest groups, are very different than the ones for travelers in their mid- or late 20s. Beyond that, he knows a great deal about Israeli politics – his sister is an Israeli journalist – and he shares that knowledge with Birthright travelers. And if they have interests or hobbies, he can connect them with local experts.
“I have a good network,” he said. “I once had a participant ask me about urban design. I am not an architect – I know what a house and a parking lot are, but that’s it. But I know someone.” The connection was made. “On my last trip, I had a professional farmer from southern California,” he added. “We were able to find him lots of information.”
Applications for this summer’s trip to Israel are now online at www.birthrightisrael.com.