Home August 2012 Educating through Experience

Educating through Experience

It is typical of me to remove myself from a topic as I try and persuade the community to find meaning and value in something that I feel needs attention.  However, being a participant, and now staff, I find it impossible to remove myself from words like Taglit (Birthright Israel), the Jewish community, the Diaspora and Israel.  So forgive me for my personal bias, but it is virtually impossible to articulate these feelings without personal reflection.
Living in the Diaspora can provide challenges to the global Jewish community.  Some of these challenges are religious, some are communal and some revolve around Israel.  Many programs try to address one or two of these challenges, but do not have the capability of educating its participants about all three because of their lack of resources. Taglit (Birthright Israel), partnered with Israel Experience and Jewish Federation & Family Services (JFFS), has been working with the American Diaspora in Orange County to successfully educate through experience.
How is this possible?  Taglit (Birthright Israel) was created by individual donors with a commitment to send young Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 to Israel for a 10-day program.  The local contribution from JFFS is $100,000.  This funding allows for a bus for these participants.  The program itinerary is created by the trip provider Israel Experience and includes exposure to religious practice, sites, historical events, touring Israel, introducing 40 American participants to Israeli soldiers for the whole 10-day trip, political issues and much more.
This narrative is undoubtedly personal for every individual who participates in Taglit.  Eight years ago, I was able to meet my family for the first time, thanks to the gift of Taglit.  (My father was born in Haifa, and my mother lived in the Golan for a portion of her 20s.)  Since then, I have kept in constant contact with my family, visited three more times, become president of Hillel, vice president of Titans for Israel, American representative for the World Union of Jewish Students, volunteer with JFFS and writer for Orange County Jewish Life Magazine.  Taglit painted a picture of global Judaism that no individual book, image or speaker could have done.
When offered the opportunity with Amit Hirshberg to be the American staff for a Taglit trip in June of 2012, it represented a chance to help others define their Judaism and discover the value of the Jewish community.  As Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?  And if I am only for myself, then what am I?  And if not now, when?”  Rabbi Hillel’s words of wisdom are a commentary on our chance to enrich our age demographic’s understanding of Israel and what it means to be Jewish as an individual and a community.
To understand the dynamic, one must know the demographic.  This summer, 40 participants between the ages of 22 and 26 had the opportunity to experience Taglit.  The demographic of this group looked like this: most participants had no connection with Israel prior to the trip, many were removed from religious elements of Judaism in their lives, many have not set foot in a synagogue and, for a few, “Jewish” is a label they were given at birth that carried little to no meaning.
This group transformed in the 10 days.  Participants grew as individuals, asking questions, learning small things about themselves as they traveled, gaining knowledge about their history and acquiring some Hebrew phrases along the way.  Some wept at the Kotel or Mount Herzl, and others obtained greater knowledge at Yad Vashem.  However, this growth was not just individual; it was communal as well.
Over the 10 days participants provided support by learning about one another’s Jewish experiences prior to the trip.  They learned that by sharing water and supplies that are needed, they are alleviating suffering.  Many times they were literally supporting someone on the side of a mountain during a hike, because there was a greater need than to just tend to one’s own wellbeing.  These acts are moments of tzedakah, cherished events that create community.  On occsasion, Amit and I saw individuals who would have never have spoken at home at an event sharing in a cheer or rooting for them with as much vigor as their voice had left from the day.
An anecdote that really captures how moving Taglit is: On our way to the Bedouin tent, the bus experienced a delay.  At first we just needed the restroom and were anxious to get to the camel riding.  It was shortly after when the bus driver discovered there was an accident a mile or so up the road.  Four individuals and a baby had not survived a car crash.  Immediately, everyone on the bus stood to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for those lives so hastily taken.  Over 40 voices in unison — to think this is anything short of a miracle.  Just eight days prior, many of these people had never participated in a Jewish communal act.  Now, as a community, they stood chanting in unison with compassion and concern.
This story does not end on the bus, nor does it conclude after the 10 days are over.  As I sit writing this article, some participants are still in Israel.  (Keep in mind that the trip left American soil a month ago.)  Many of the participants extended their stay while on the original 10 days and after meeting one another decided to travel together to prolong their journey.  The Facebook page continually connects these individuals and the soldiers.  These young adults are infused with excitement and a desire to take part in our Orange County Jewish community.
Taglit does not just resonate with participants when they are abroad.  It makes them realize they are abroad when they are home.  The global Jewish community is a complex web of Jewish ideals and issues.  These new Taglit alumni want to involve themselves in that web and no longer see Judaism as a label, but as an integral portion of their life.

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  1. The trip was deeper than any words could describe, more than any story a “writer” could create.

    Good job Rachel, Great Job Participants.


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