By Eli Reiter
Taglit-Birthright is one of the most successful philanthropic projects in modern Jewish history. The result of decades of collaboration between donors and Israel’s Department of
Diaspora Affairs, the organization has spent hundreds of millions of dollars sending 700,000 people on a tour of the Holy Land since its creation in 1999.
A typical Birthright trip has a simple formula: Expose young Jews to seven to 10 days and nights filled with intense movement and exposure to superlative parts of Israel. Trip participants traverse the country from north to south and are exposed along the way to deeply emotional places like the Western Wall and Yad Vashem. Each trip usually has 40 participants and is staffed by a robust team: a bus driver, medic/guard, tour guide, and a male and female leader.
The Israeli staff — the bus driver, the medic/guard and the tour guide — are rightfully paid for their contributions to creating this once-in-a-lifetime Jewish experience.
The trip facilitators, on the other hand, are not.
Reached for comment, Birthright’s vice president of marketing, Noa Bauer, said through an email that “Thousands of volunteers, many of whom are college students, have dedicated their time to help make the gift of Birthright Israel possible as part of their desire to contribute to the Jewish diaspora. Some of these educators staff Birthright trips as part of their current job responsibilities through organizations such as Hillel. As recognition for their efforts, Birthright Israel provides staff with stipends for expenses such as their flight to Israel, as well as professional development opportunities.”
This attitude is a symptom of a wider problem in the Jewish nonprofit world. Large organizations that raise millions of dollars from philanthropists often rely on unpaid staff to educate their participants. As more and more leaders worry about the declining amount of knowledge for young Jews, not compensating educators sends a message that the crucial information they provide is actually not that vital.
I have facilitated a Birthright trip twice, and both times I had an amazing experience. I learned a lot from the varied teaching styles of the tour guides, and I learned how to facilitate conversations about thorny topics in a way that allowed people to share their opinions and personal experiences. I finished tractates of Talmud at the gravesite of
Yehuda Hanassi and held people who were unexpectedly touched after learning tales of the heroics at Mount Herzl as they cried.
But facilitating a Birthright trip involves a lot of hard work. Both trips involved approximately 300 hours of my time, from the airport check-in to hug-filled goodbyes. If you count the free flight as compensation, I earned approximately $2 an hour. This is, as they say in Yiddish, bupkes.
As trip leaders, we were on call at all hours and responsible for the safety of our participants. I fell asleep in shabby hotel lobbies in Jerusalem waiting for participants to return after curfew. My facilitation partner took sick participants to Bnei Brak clinics. Emergencies occurred on top of mountains, and while we did have a medic, we had to improvise and act as triage nurses. We had to constantly think on our feet.
But more important, we helped make the trip an educational experience by acting
as people with knowledge of the country, Judaism and Jewish history. A trip leader has to improvise and answer questions about the people and sights, be able to frame momentous events at historic and spiritual sites in a meaningful way and serve as a peer mentor. This educational component is the key to turning a seven- or 10-day experience into a longer
relationship with Judaism and Israel.
If Birthright continues to send the message that the American staff members are
unimportant, it sends a message to the broader Jewish world.
As the trailblazer in Jewish experiential education, and one of the Jewish world’s most influential organizations, Birthright Israel should lead by example and compensate its facilitators. It will lead to better outcomes and send a message to Jewish teachers across the world that their work is valued.
Eli Reiter is a New York-based educator, storyteller and writer.
—JTA News and Features