Too often, returnees from Birthright Israel trips are bombarded with questions (and many times answers) about the impact of the trip on their lives:
“Are you more connected with your Jewish roots?”
“Did you meet a nice Jewish girl/boy?”
“Did you feel safe while you were over there?”
“You must want to move to Israel now!”
However well-intentioned these questions may be, they fail to provide young adults with the space to thoughtfully think through their experiences. Instead of a free-flowing exploration of how spending time in Israel has impacted their whole selves, the Jewish community attempts to boil down many feelings, interpretations, and thoughts into an outcome that supports (or doesn’t support) the continuity of Birthright Israel or the Jewish people.
All Jewish experiences, especially for young adults, should provide its participants with varying different layers and perspectives through which to grapple with its impact on their connection to Judaism, the world, and most importantly, themselves.
Throughout much of my life, I’ve been deeply involved in Jewish communities and programs, and I’m grateful to hold multiple roles and have vantage points through which to understand and engage with aspects of my Jewishness. As a snapshot, during the past few years I’ve been a Jewish camp counselor, a Shabbat dinner attendee, a Hillel engagement intern, a Torah reader, a Union for Reform Judaism board member, a Jewish leadership workshop facilitator, a Jewish diversity blogger, a Jewish professional, and the son of an interfaith and interracial marriage.
Now, I add a new role to that list: Birthright staffer. Standing in a nexus of multiple Jewish identities, this trip to Israel has provided me with learning, growth, and adventure from several different perspectives.
Though I never went on Birthright Israel as a participant, I’d previously traveled to Israel on three different trips and conferences that provided me with incredible relationships, knowledge, and connection to the Jewish state. Like so many of Birthright Israel’s returnees – including, I hope, everyone in the group I just co-lead – my experience as a staff member for Birthright Israel cannot be simplified into short responses to the questions above.
As a Jewish young professional, I appreciate Birthright’s ability to experiment with a seven-day Israel experience for post-collegiate participants, thereby allowing working young adults to go on a trip without having to take too much time off.
As an innovator and a professional in the Jewish community, I was excited to understand the participants’ backgrounds and their motivations for going on the trip, and to explore with them the ways that Judaism and their connection to Israel will impact their lives.
As a Jewish educator, I was overjoyed to help these young adults create and rediscover their personal connection to Judaism through prayer at the Western Wall, deep dialogue and study, an intimate Shabbat service, and the opportunity to learn about Jewish history up close and in person.
As a Reform Jew, I deepened my own identity by staffing a trip with Kesher, the Reform Movement’s Birthright Israel trip provider, learning about progressive Jewish values in the context of a complex socio-political landscape.
As a 22-year-old college grad and new young professional searching for community, I was thrilled to leave Israel with an entire group of people that I can now confidently call friends.
What questions will you ask the next time you meet a young adult returning from Birthright Israel?
Just like all my thoughts and feelings about this trip, so, too, are their experiences complicated, complex, and full of insight on Israel, Judaism, and the world. These young adults – and I’m humbled to include myself in this incredible group – will be our teachers and leaders for generations to come. We must listen to their full stories.
Evan Traylor, originally from Edmond, OK, is serving as the inaugural Presidential Fellow for Millennial Engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism. He is a recent graduate of the University of Kansas, where he studied political science, Jewish studies, and leadership studies. Evan is an alum of URJ Greene Family Camp, NFTY in Israel, and URJ Kutz Camp, and he served as the 2012-2013 North American President of NFTY. Previously, he was an engagement intern for University of Kansas Hillel, a trustee on the URJ Board, a student member of the Hillel International Board of Directors, and a co-founder of the Hillel International Student Cabinet.