For Brett Goldman, there’s only one experience that’s been more meaningful than praying at the Western Wall, hiking up Masada or visiting Yad Vashem for the first time: It’s seeing those places through the eyes of neophytes to Israel and perhaps imparting to them his love of the Jewish state — a love that has shaped the course of his young life.
Goldman, a 27-year-old who lives in Northeast Philadelphia, earned his master’s in government at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and later co-founded a Philadelphia-based company that works with Israeli “Clean-Tech” startups. His love affair with Israel began when he was an 18-year-old participant on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.
On Dec. 19, he left to co-lead a bus full of 18- to 22-year-olds on a 10-day tour of Israel: It’s his fourth time staffing a Birthright excursion.
He said it’s “pretty unbelievable” to watch people experience Israel for the first time, adding that it is also a great responsibility to help them “understand what it all means.”
In the 13 years since the creation of the free trip for 18- to 26-year- olds, it has become a tradition of sorts for program alumni to return as staffers, many of whom view the gig as a way to get back to Israel and deepen their connection to the land and its people.
They get a free trip to Israel, but otherwise don’t get paid for their work. And, to be sure, shepherding up to 40 sometimes rambunctious young adults around a foreign country can be arduous. Although much of the logistics is handled by the Israeli-based tour guides connected to the program, Goldman once had to make the tough decision to send a particularly unruly individual home.
“As a Birthright staffer, people are asking you 50 different questions every second of the day. ‘Why are we are doing this? What does that mean?’ ” said Goldman, speaking a few days before leaving.
“Once, in the middle of a trip, I was deathly ill and I had to keep going,” he said, recalling a hike up Masada while battling a fever. “If it’s not me, it’s not going to happen.”
While the Taglit-Birthright Israel Foundation didn’t provide a breakdown, officials said that many of the trip leaders are young adults like Goldman who don’t work for a Jewish organization. Usually, it’s the so-called niche trips — Birthright programs that, for instance, focus on hiking or arts — that recruit alumni as staffers.
Federation- or Hillel-run trips are much more likely to be staffed by Jewish professionals, said Pamela Fertel Weinstein, spokeswoman for Birthright.
Birthright has its critics who have questioned whether some trip providers are heavy-handed with their approach to teaching about the Israeli-Arab conflict; other nay-sayers have claimed the program gives away too much in communal resources and asks for little in return.
Yet the program is considered one of the most successful philanthropic efforts undertaken in the Jewish community over the last two decades.
According to Fertel Weinstein, to date, more than 330,000 participants from 62 countries have gone on Birthright trips, with 17,000 expected to go this winter.
Since 1999, 11,745 young adults from the Philadelphia area have taken part.
For the staffing positions, there are many more alumni who’d like to take part than there are staff positions available, and many of the dozens of different Birthright tour providers have their own application processes. Sometimes, the slots are given to the individual who can recruit the most friends to sign up.
For Hal Greenblatt, a 28-year-old social worker who recently joined the board of Hillel of Temple University, the chance to lead a Drexel University trip came up about a month ago when a friend who works at Hillel told him about a last-minute vacancy and asked if he wanted to do it. He “jumped at the opportunity” and left for Israel on Dec. 16.
Greenblatt said that part of him wants to push to have every participant have the same kind of life-changing experience that he had as a participant.
“But it’s impossible,” he added. “I think part of my role is to make sure that all of the kids get involved somehow. You need to go into a trip like this with an open mind and be willing to embrace whatever happens.”
A few days before leaving, Goldman sat down with Caitlin Shmidheiser, the program coordinator for Drexel Hillel who lived in Israel for a decade and is also leading a Birthright trip this winter.
Both said they take pains not to impart their views about the Arab-Israeli conflict to the participants and they try to foster talk about other aspects of Israeli society, such as the economy and culture.
“I love leading discussions on why you see solar panels everywhere and why Israel had the first electric car network,” said Goldman. But the guy who was the youngest member of the Obama Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania steering committee said he would share his political views if asked directly.
For her part, Shmidheiser, 28, said she reveals little about her own political views but isn’t shy about emphasizing the need for Israel to exist. She grew up in Elkins Park, attended Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, and got involved with the kibbutz movement through Camp Galil. She made aliyah at 18 and returned to the Philadelphia area several years ago.
She views Birthright as one of the most powerful tools against efforts to delegitimize Israel.
Noting that six Israeli soliders are assigned to accompany Birthright participants during their tours, she said that young adults are less likely to buy into the demonization of the IDF if they’ve spent the better part of two weeks with six soldiers.
In the end, Goldman, Greenblatt and Shmidheiser each acknowledged that they also have a selfish reason for returning on Birthright: They need to breathe Israeli air as often as possible.
“If I am not there at least like every six months — I need to be back there,” she said. “Israel is the love of my life. There is nothing I am more passionate about than sharing this experience of Israel.”