MY WIFE AND I recently led an adventurous, eclectic group of young adults from Southern California on a Birthright Israel trip. Before the journey began, I felt comfortable in my leadership role and believed my past four experiences wearing the “staff member hat” would help me set appropriate expectations for the trip.
I would lead an excited group of curious millennials throughout the entire country in 10-days. They’d begin the adventure as strangers and their social anxiety would be apparent. After quickly bonding due to the lack of personal space and the trip’s fast-paced nature, they’d be sitting on one another’s laps by the second day and lifelong friendships would be created. I’d ask challenging questions related to Middle East politics and encourage dialogue. Some participants would express interest in exploring their Judaism and how Israel took shape. Others may wrestle with the convoluted relationship between Israel and its neighboring countries. Many group members, however, would be more interested in Tel Aviv nightlife and seeing how many falafels they can fit in their mouth (the Israeli version of the marshmallow campfire game).
With my expectations set and participants accounted for, off to Israel we went. Then, five minutes into the flight, I realized my expectations were beginning to stray from reality.
Shortly after our ascent, I engaged in a riveting conversation with a participant about what it’s like being Jewish in Los Angeles, our views on the Middle East, and Israel’s challenges when making political and military decisions. There was enough material to fill our 15-hour flight and substantiate the “ask two Jews, get three answers” quip. In the middle of our dialogue, I realized the exposure to information participants have in 2017 is drastically different than years past.
Participants today show dramatic increases in their desire for politically driven conversations. They’re more open to exploring what Israel means to them and their opinions are increasingly informed and well-developed. It seems many have a clear purpose for embarking on their journey to Israel, motivated by intellectual curiosity rather than a desire to drink legally and find real-life Tinder dates. However, it’s noteworthy that while participant engagement has grown, many are still misinformed and often persuaded by anti-Israel groups on college campuses or media outlets with questionable, often anti-Semitic agendas.
In order to become accurately informed about Israel and all her complexities, I believe the best way to learn is to actually visit. Our group toured North to South, learning detailed history along the way and meeting diverse individuals, including Arab-Israeli students in the village of Nahf, Bedouin women who shared empowering stories, and orthodox Jews who welcomed us into their homes for Shabbat. Although self-education by reading varied news sources is important, visiting the Kotel, touring Yad Vashem, and hearing from individuals involved in peace processes are by far more authentic experiences than scrutinizing Facebook articles.
After recognizing participants’ expanding political interests, I wondered about the source of their curiosity. Could their inquisitiveness be related to the exponential rise in media exposure? Perhaps students are receiving more intense classroom instruction on foreign affairs? Or are Facebook and Twitter taking over our lives? Although I have my reservations about media influences on society, I have to give credit for the enthusiasm it may be sparking in our future leaders. Sifting through information for the truth is a daunting task (today more than ever), but it appears Millennials are finally investing enough energy to do so.
Whatever caused the thirst for knowledge, I’m appreciative for their curiosity and I’m hopeful that their questions continue. I’m grateful for the opportunity to educate Jewish young adults, help them formulate their own opinions, and expose them to Israel.
Adam Chester lives in Los Angeles with his wife Kelly and is in graduate school working towards his Doctorate in Clinical Psychology.