Birthright to the Max

maxThere have been posts on facebook about an article written recently laying at least some of the “blame” for Max Steinberg’s death on the institution of Birthright. The headline’s subtext states, “A Birthright trip convinced an American with shaky Hebrew that he was ready to die for another country.”

Even before I read the article, I knew that it would upset me.

Condensing the decisions and actions of a person on one factor is infantile.  But beyond that, the one statement quoted above has so many problems that I barely know where to start.

1.  “A Birthright trip convinced an American”:  Birthright is not there to convince anyone of anything.  It is meant to expose people to viewpoints and experiences to which they would not otherwise have been exposed.  I have had some trips where the participants say that the main Jewish value in their lives is Bagels and Lox!  I am not so happy about that, but it is allowed to happen, and sometimes it does.

2.  “with shaky Hebrew”:  The fact that Max had shaky Hebrew says nothing about the depth of his commitment to this country.  Israel was built by people who had shaky Hebrew.  Hebrew only returned to usage on a daily basis a little over 100 years ago.  Herzl didn’t speak Hebrew.  Golda Meir spoke Hebrew with a Midwestern accent.  The state of Israel is built on immigrants who have shaky Hebrew.  Intel’s chips and cherry tomatoes, as well as much of the cell phone technology, were developed by people who did not speak perfect Hebrew and yet had to get along here and communicate.  Think about how many US citizens are being shut out of contributing creatively because of their shaky English.

3.  “that he was ready to die”:  Maybe Max was ready to die.  This is actually part of the statement that I agree with.  But before you go getting all crazed with thinking that I am a war-monger, suicide-mission aficionado, let’s look at the flip side.

People who are ready to die, are engaged and willfully living.  They are two sides of the same coin.  Simple self-preservation with nothing behind it is selfish.  It says, “I am the most important idea in the world.  I deserve to be alive because I am me.”

Is that why we are alive?

In Judaism, there is the idea of tikkun olam – fixing the world.  “For six days you should do all your work.”  What work?  Tikkun olam.  Each of us will see this differently.  Whether your life’s work is in charity, or making a better world for our children, or advancing business in order to improve the world, or whatever.  Once you know what you are living for, you know in what situations you are willing to die.

So, Max was ready to die, according to this article.  If so, he reached a level that many of us don’t reach until we are much older or at all.  Self-awareness of what we are doing on this planet and why we are alive is an aspiration.

4.  “for another country”:  Israel is not just another country.  Max got the message that Israel is home.  That is a Birthright message.  And home isn’t always warm, fuzzy, chocolate cookies all the time.  Sometimes home is the “my boyfriend dumped me and I need someplace to be” refuge.  Home is when mom hugs you and then yells at you for not washing your dishes.  Home is where you need to take out the trash and work at making it liveable.  And yet, home is just simply home – that place where you can just be.  That is what Israel is for world Jewry.

And when Jews are being killed in Europe, Chana Senesh is coming to parachute in to help you.  She won’t give up secrets.  She left Israel-home to help her fellow Jews in Europe.  And when Jews are hijacked and sitting in an airport in Uganda, the Israeli army is coming to get them out.  Yes, your mom would do that for you.

So what did Birthright do for Max Steinberg?  What did Max get from his 10-day all-expense paid trip to Israel?  Maybe some ideas, maybe a free ticket, maybe a feeling, maybe some friends or mentors.  Max Steinberg became Max Steinberg.  And I think that instead of searching for somewhere to place the blame for his death, we should celebrate everything that made up his life.

May his memory be a blessing.

I am a Tour Educator who has been guiding Birthright groups for the last 3 years.  Max could have been on my trip (but he wasn’t).  To date, of the 450 participants on my trips, only 1 has stayed to join the army, but 450 have returned to their lives with a taste of what Israel and being Jewish means to them.


The Most Daring Thing

“My servant, Moses, is dead. Prepare to cross the Jordan, together with all this people, into the land that I am giving to Bnei Israel.”  Joshua 1:2

Over the past week, I embarked with 17 others on a classic Israeli journey called Yam L’Yam. The trip starts at the Mediterranean Sea and 85 or so kilometers later (about 55 miles) ends at the Sea of Galilee. Our goal – to have a great time, enjoying the beauty of Israel and the company of friends as we traveled across Israel. We planned for the last few months, some of our group went on practice hikes with packed bags on Fridays, we had planning meetings and google docs and yahoo groups. We made reservations, gathered up the gear we thought we needed, checked the maps, read blogs.

The hike is generally done in 3, 4, or 5 days. (Although I have a friend who has a friend who said he did it in one, 22-hour day – if it sounds like a fish tale, it probably is one.) Since our group ranged in age from 13 to 60, and we wanted to do it in one week so we could be home for Shabbat, we decided to plan the 4 day option – Monday through Thursday. We would use Sunday as a travel day to get to the beginning of the trail, and hire a mini-bus to take us home on Thursday night. This expedition would take the place of our annual summer “Friends’ Vacation”, a time that we generally dedicate to hiking, touring and having a good time together. This trip would vary from our standard vacation – we would be sleeping outside most nights, carrying our gear, and relying on our wits and our feet to carry us along. No one brought a car.


yam l'yam train

It’s interesting traveling in a group with 18 people. Although we spend a decent amount of time together generally, being together 24 hours a day is a different experience. Moving 18 people, feeding 18 people, taking care that no one is left behind emotionally, physically, or mentally is sometimes a challenge and


requires a good amount of patience and empathy.


Building community is one of my life’s focuses. I came to Israel seeking to be a part of a community, and have found satisfaction for the last 19 years in helping to build community locally in Chashmonaim and nationally. I build webs of people who genuinely care about each other, wherever I go and with whomever I meet. Much of my work over the past 19 years, especially my work with Taglit/Birthright, focuses on the importance of community affiliation.

Why is community important? Numerous studies show that connection to community lengthens our lives by as much as 14 years! Despite this, and despite the flourishing of electronic communities, people today feel less connected than ever. Average Americans claim to have 1.5 friends on average despite what their Facebook account tells them. Sad.

According to Kurt Vonnegut, “What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”

As we went through our trek, our group had to deal with many challenges – the heat, the lack of water, our crazily heavy packs, mosquitoes, wild boars, naked Nachmanites at 2:00 A.M. There were fears, anger, and disappointment. Through it all, though, we stuck together as a group, drawing on each other’s strengths to pull us through the challenges. We figured out which changes to our plans needed to be made in order to accomplish our goals – not just our individual goals, but our group goals.

People told us that attempting this hike with so many people was foolish and was sure to end in failure. And maybe for the ME generational outlook, the way our Sea to Sea trek ended would be considered a “failure”. Those of us on the trek understood it much differently. It was a most daring thing and ended in complete success.

Iced Tea

iced teaThis morning I noticed a cup which I hardly ever use on my kitchen counter. There is nothing outwardly special about this cup. It is one of those large cups sold at amusement parks and filled with enough soda to make anyone bouncy and happy all day long. But I didn’t get it from an amusement park. In fact, the circumstances which surround how this cup came into my possession are far from amusing. I began telling my kids the story of the cup, the story of events over 17 years ago. I know, the experts would tell me that a more than 17 year old plastic cup has way out-lived its lifespan, but it is part of my Israel experience and I won’t give it up.

My good friends moved to Israel only a few months after my own family did. After living in the city of Jerusalem for a year, they decided to move out to the “suburbs” for all the reasons that people move to suburbs – more green, a feeling of community, beautiful scenery, less crowding. But that summer, something happened which drove home the fact that living in suburban Jerusalem has little in common with Teaneck, NJ or Silver Spring, MD.

During the night of September 9, 1995, a terrorist from a neighboring Arab village broke into the home of my friend’s neighbor, killing the husband, stabbing the wife and fleeing. The wife was 5 months pregnant and after battling for her life, lost the life of her unborn child.

It was the era of the Oslo accords and Israel stood between hoping for peace and fearing for her life. Less than 2 months after the attack in my friend’s community, Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzchak Rabin would be murdered in a Tel Aviv square for his part in signing these same accords.

In the small suburban community where everyone knows everyone, my friend could not imagine not accompanying her neighbor on his last journey to the grave. Funerals in Jerusalem are not scheduled at the convenience of the mourners, but as soon as the body can be prepared for burial.  Tradition holds that burial should take place as soon as possible, even if that time may be the middle of the night.  My friend couldn’t take her two small children with her to the cemetery and was nervous to leave them home with a teenaged babysitter only one night after a terror attack. So, she called me to sleep over. I drove an hour to arrive at her home with my one-year old son, Naftali. I have to admit, I was scared. I trusted the Israeli army would watch over the community on a night when a large portion of the adults would be absent, but I was scared. Thank G-d, the night passed and all were fine.

Before my drive home early the next morning, I wanted to have my morning iced tea to wake up. I had remembered to bring the jar of instant tea, but didn’t have a cup to make it in – so my friend gave me this cup from the amusement park. “Just keep it,” she said as she thanked me for coming. And so the cup remains a symbol of one of my Israel experiences.

This last summer, during one of my Birthright trips, we had a speaker about modern Israel. He asked all the Israelis in the room (staff and soldiers) to stand up. He then asked us to sit down if we DID NOT personally know someone who was killed or injured in a war or by a terrorist attack.

No one sat down. NO ONE.

If you want to get inside the Israeli head-space, you need to understand that this is the reality of Israel. We know what the costs are, not just in some sort of nebulous way, but in a very real sense. Yom HaZikaron, Remembrance day takes on a whole new meaning in light of this reality. It is not a day for bargain-hunting, cook outs, and vacation. On this day, no one “sits down” – as almost everyone sadly knows someone who needs to be remembered.  It is a day where people, whose lives were taken by those who would rather not see us here, can even be remembered in a simple glass of iced tea.



I am back from my Winter Birthright trip with OU-92, my first winter trip.  The closing ceremony was rushed and I didn’t really have a chance to share with the group some of the thoughts I had about our experience together.  I want first and foremost to thank my wonderful staff.  Rachamim, Vera, DJ, Tehilla, Rabbi Zalman, and Rabbi K cared, listened, and contributed.  A staff that works together can make a good trip into a GREAT trip and you all truly did.
OU-92 Erev Shabbat Roof
Looking back on my Birthright experience this winter with OU-92, the word that kept coming into mind was


The first factor which led to the complexity of the trip was the weather.  And, although, we got quite lucky with the weather, it did eventually catch up with us.  In Birthright, I expect changes in the timing due to unforeseen events; with this trip, however, the changes were due to inclement weather.  How could you cancel Mt. Hertzl?  How do you make a coherent day in Tel Aviv when you can’t do almost anything outside? Sandstorm on Masada, surging waves at the Tel Aviv Port, heavy rains at the Bedouin tent….


That complexity came out in the stories the participants gave about their lives.  Stories about decisions they made that were not easy, about family situations that are far from comfortable, about loss.  Life is not so simple.


And then there is the natural complexity of the People of Israel in the Land of Israel trying to grapple with the Religion of Israel. These three factors trying to fit together to form a coherent whole.  Many times vying with each other, many times coming to loggerheads, many times in beautiful harmony.  The people on the street who said the entire project is too hard for them; the soldiers who said that they are willing to fight for trying to build the puzzle that is Israel; the little gains that you can see if you look hard enough.  Transforming the desert into wonderful peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes.  Providing work for handicapped adults.  Energizing a whole theater with Jewish pride.  Connecting us to our past through stones and stories.  Showing us beauty through waterfalls and endless vistas.


At the end, however, the largest complexity dwells in the individual.  How each and every one of us weaves the story of our ancestors into our present day existence and decides how it will influence our future is the most complex task of all.

I look forward to hearing about how you, the participants of OU-92, take on this complex project and carry the experiences we shared here in Israel into your futures.

‘Cause we are

We are shining stars

We are invincible

We are who we are

On our darkest day

When we’re miles away

So we’ll come

We will find our way home


If you’re lost and alone

Or you’re sinking like a stone

Carry on

May your past be the sound

Of your feet upon the ground

Carry on.

Miracle on Hilltop 219

Now that I am looking at the end of Hanukkah, I want to ask myself if there is something that I have learned.  Thank G-d, I guided several days in the days and weeks before and during Hanukkah, much of it centering around the holiday itself.  Also, stuck into my Hanukkah preparations, were 4 days of class and 2 days of preparation for my upcoming Birthright trip this winter.  The class I am currently attending is an enrichment course for becoming a Tour Educator for Birthright trips.  The Birthright organization is trying to improve the quality of their staff and will be requiring over the next few years, higher and higher percentages of their guides to go through this training.  (I wrote this “Mission Statement” as an exercise for the class.)

One of the tools that the course is teaching us is how to create a narrative.  Now, I can tell as good a story as the next guy, and I love spinning tales.  I grew up with my Grandmother telling us about the “fish that got away”, the waves that were “so big there was no water in between them”, and millions of stories about my dad “when he was a little boy”.  Telling stories is not challenging to me – creating narrative is, however, not always intuitive.  Creating narrative is about taking all those stories, all those facts, all those sites, all those activities and weaving them into a coherent goal.  Not only to make sense out of a day of touring, but to make sense out of a whole trip!  Creating narrative is challenging and hard.

And sometimes the narrative just comes to you, in the middle of guiding.  You say something and, if your mind is turned on, a connection comes to you – something you haven’t thought of before that moment.  This leads me to my take-away lesson from Hanukkah this year.

I developed a nice tour, the Life and Death of Yehuda Maccabee, which I gave several times over the last month.  I gave the tour to adults, new immigrants, mixed family groups.   The tour itself has a beautiful story arc, following Yehuda Maccabee through his life to his death.  There are many important lessons – the few vs. the many, religious freedom, state building, but it didn’t hit me until I gave the tour for the 5th time how to neatly tie in a story I tell at the end of the tour, a seemingly unrelated account from the Independence War, but taking place near one possible site of the tomb of Judah Maccabee.

Latzi Bettelheim grew up in Hungary.  He wanted to move to Israel, latzi bettelheimmake aliyah. He faced a dilemma – one that many young people who want to move to Israel face today.  Where should he get his education?  Familiar Hungary or later in Israel?  Either on his parents’ insistence or his own choice, he decided to attend school in Hungary first, becoming a Mechanical Engineer. He fulfilled his dream to make aliyah in 1933 at the age of 27. He goes to work in his field, marries, and lives the Zionist dream.  He is called up during the Arab riots of 1936-1939, and then returns to his regular life.  This is the Israeli reality where soldiers are businessmen, workers, scholars, fathers.  He is called up again as part of the Independence War and stationed on the hilltop across from my community.  It is there on September 24, 1948 that he is killed by the Arab Legion and villagers from the neighboring community as part of the battle for Hilltop 219. His body has never been recovered.  As I look at his picture, I see a 42 year old man with a receding hairline and glasses.  Not quite Rambo.  He could be any of my friends or neighbors.

How do I connect Latzi Bettelheim to the story of Judah Maccabee and Hanukkah?   We see in the story of Judah Maccabee and his brothers the different paths they take.  One is a leader in war; one is a general, one is a master statesman, one is a dynasty builder, one is not heard from.  Each is individual, just like Latzi Bettelheim, and has his own story to tell.   “We are all individuals!” in the words of a famous Monty Python scene.  But our power is in working together for the greater good, each bringing with us our individual strengths.

This is the narrative I discovered on Hilltop 219.  The message is for today – not something that just happened long ago.  The Hanukkah miracle “on those days at this time” can be seen in the Independence War as much as 2000 years ago.  It is the story of Latzi Bettelheim and the Hagana and the story of Judah Maccabee – that individuals working together can accomplish much more than the sum of their actions.  That’s our challenge – to add our strengths to the community in order to build a more just, free, flowering society.

Happy Hanukkah!

Mission Statement

I am currently enrolled in a course for sharpening skills as a Birthright Tour Educator.  Today we were assigned homework to write a “Mission Statement” of sorts to answer the question:  What are you trying to accomplish during your work?

When I started to think about this question, I thought specifically about Birthright groups.  What is it that I am looking to do during the 10 days I have with them?  How do I see myself as a person who has influence on them as a group and individually?  How do I want them to change (if at all) during the trip?  I started here because it is very controlled.  I know more or less who they are; I understand more or less what the Birthright organization is trying to accomplish.  So, in almost no time at all, I came up with my “Mission Statement” as far as Birthright is concerned.

I, as a Moreh Derech (Tour Guide/Educator, for lack of a better translation), during the 10 days they are with me, am looking to create for them a Jewish community and strengthen their connection to their Jewish soul.

The first phase of my formula is creating a Jewish community.  Heavy stuff.  But this is exactly what we do on the bus – create a community.

One of the first questions I get asked by participants is, “Why did you
move to Israel?”

My answer is simply and without hesitation, “Quality of Life.”  I explain that the quality of life provided by the community is one of the driving factors which brought me here and kept me here for the last 18 years.

Then for 10 days, we travel together, eat together, have fun together, talk together, work together.  Very quickly, a community is built.  When the Israeli soldiers/students arrive, we deal with the issues of accepting newcomers to our community.  As a Moreh Derech, my role here is in running ice breakers and team building activities, as well as keeping a finger on the pulse to make sure that everyone finds their place in the community.  I want them to experience community because, in my opinion, this is one of the most important goals of strengthening their Jewish connection – seeing themselves as part of a larger community.  It doesn’t particularly matter to me whether the community they will be most comfortable will be one of a religious Jewish community, a cultural Jewish community, an educational Jewish community, an Israeli Jewish community or a social Jewish community.  The importance is the connection with fellow Jews as part of a larger whole.

People are not simply cogs in a machine, however, we have individuality.  Because each one of us sees our Jewish soul a bit differently, each one of us connects more to one facet or another, as we have discussed extensively over the past few days in the course.  Each person’s individual identity is unique, and so,  my work within the group needs to be varied.  How to get this result, this strengthening of each participants’ soul?  Through wide-ranging programs, including activities to get them to think, guiding segments which connect them to place, introductions to people who can inspire them, all on the backdrop of the beauty of the land.

The other part of this work is not shying away from the things that are less than optimal.   When I read parts of the Tanach, I see depictions of personalities who are less than perfect.   For me, I see the holy people in the Tanach as people first, with all the imperfections of people;  and because I am also imperfect, I can connect to them.  This doesn’t mean that they are not holy.  We have much to learn from imperfect people.  I believe that this philosophy lends itself to personal growth at least as strongly as the wonderful, optimal bits.

Each and every participant will, hopefully, at the end of the 10 days find something in the experience which connects to his individual Jewish soul.  As a Birthright participant, this is the instruction that we give them over and over, wear your name tag – be comfortable with your unique Jewish soul, however it manifests.

Taken to the wider audience, these specific goals can be quite easily broadened.  As a Moreh Derech I want to accomplish two things.  Firstly, I aim to provide opportunities for personal growth, through acquisition of knowledge, opening up to varied possibilities or helping people learn about themselves.  Secondly, I strive to facilitate connections between people.  And of course, G-d has given us the best guiding aid in the world for obtaining these goals – the Land of Israel and all that is offered therein!

My dream, then is to take these goals and to apply them to everything I do, not only in my work as a Moreh Derech, but in life in general.  I don’t just apply these ideas because they help me focus my work; I apply them because they are the essence of my being.

More on Camels

New Camel fact:  Camels can carry as much as 900 pounds of cargo!  (Original Camel post here.)

This summer I had the pleasure of riding my first camel with my Birthright group in the Negev.  The experience was made all the more special because I was riding in the late afternoon as the sun was setting.  We approached the camels in pairs.  The camels sat patiently in a line waiting for us.  It is key to load all the weight on the camel at one time as they rise as soon as they feel weight on their backs.  Me and my camel-mate got on the camel and held on tight.  Within a second, the camel first straightened his front legs (pushing us back) and then his back legs (propelling us forward).  Definitely the getting on and off were the scariest parts of the experience.

Riding the camel was much like riding any other animal; however, the surroundings made the experience magical.  The desert landscape, the rolling hills and the views of the deep gorges, mixed with the colors of sunset and touched my soul.  I was transported to a time when our forefathers came from a distant land, when trade was made possible by these animals.

That evening after a traditional meal in a Bedouin tent we went off into the desert to see the stars and feel the isolation which connects you to your essence and the divine.  Afterwards, we sat around a campfire to reconnect with each other, feel the warmth of the fire and share some songs.  All is good.


Grandparents – fascinating entities. If we take the time to look into their lives and their world, we can’t help but to be enchanted and inspired.  Grandparents are a modern invention – only in recent history have grandparents been real people whom we meet and not part of an ancestor story-telling tradition.  They are relatives who love us, spoil us, and teach us.  Because most of us relate to grandparents when we are children, the focus is usually on our needs, our desires and our interests and not on theirs.  And grandparents so happily comply to our selfish tendencies that we rarely give it a thought.

As adults, most of us don’t have a chance to ask our grandparents about their lives, accomplishments, dreams, either because they are physically or emotionally unable to convey these things to us.  We then are forced to look to other family members, mentors, researchers to get to know who our grandparents were and what drove them to live the lives which shaped our communities, our parents ourselves.

And so, during my last Birthright trip, a brother and sister approached me with a request.  “Tell us about our grandmother – Esther Antin Untermeyer.”  They had heard she was an important person in the Jewish Zionist enterprise and perhaps had a memorial here in Israel.  Here is a bit of HERstory.

It is difficult to find information about women who lived when Esther did.  It was not a woman’s place in the larger world – that world of power and influence in big causes was most times saved for men.  When you add that to belonging to an organization which went against the flow, it is difficult to piece together a picture of who the person is and what she accomplished.  So here is what I have gleaned from an afternoon of research.  I welcome other comments and insights.

Esther Antin was born in Rockland, Maine in 1895.  She became the first woman to sit on the Municipal Court in Toledo, Ohio in 1925 where she remained until 1933.  She left the bench to marry Louis Untermeyer, an eccentric left-leaning poet, who hung out with the likes of Robert Frost.  She was his 4th wife (out of 5), and the two remained married until 1945.  She died in New York in 1983 at age 88.

Her path crossed with Peter H. Bergson, a.k.a. Hillel Kook, in New York.  Hillel Kook was born in Eastern Europe, a child in a rabbinic family whose father and brothers would found the backbone of the Rabbinate in the nascent State of Israel.  He had another path.  He left and went to the United States, changed his name to Peter Bergson and founded what came to be known as the Bergson group. Their goals, along the lines of Jabotinsky, were initially to create an independent Jewish Army to fight the Axis.  The Axis was no good for the Jews – that was clear already in 1939, but they did not want to join the British Army as many Jews in Palestine did at that time (including Hannah Szenes).  The Bergson group believed that the best way out was through an independent Jewish Army.

As the war progressed and the horrors of the holocaust began to come to light, the Bergson group focused on rescuing and repatriating European Jews in Palestine.  As part of this effort, Bergson (Kook) called on his rabbinic connections to organize the March of the Rabbis, a gathering of orthodox rabbis on the Mall to push for legislation to ease the restrictions on United States immigration policy concerning refugees.  These pressures led to the rescue of approximately 200,000 Jews from the fires of the Holocaust.

Bergson was still not satisfied and started on August 13, 1943 the American League for Free Palestine.  It was in this organization that Esther Antin Untermeyer served as Treasurer.  The ALFP sponsored a one-act play in 1946 called “A Flag is Born”.  The main purposes of this play were to raise money to support the Ma’apilim and to act as a grass-roots catalyst for support for the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine.  The play and the advertisements which promoted it drew on United States Revolutionary War symbols to force a wedge between the United States and Britain, thereby weakening support for the British Mandate on Palestine and strengthening American sentiment towards a Jewish State.  After 200 performances in Madison Square Garden, the play went on tour to other major US cities.  Marlon Brando, who played one of the lead roles, continue to travel with the show.  The play also attracted the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, who saw the play in Baltimore (the play was not shown in Washington, D.C. as there were only segregated theaters there). In one moving scene of the play, one of the main characters takes his tallit and uses it as a flag for the Jewish State.

The Bergson group was ostracized by the Jewish establishment, still smarting from the anti-semitism of pre-war Europe.  They feared that direct marketing and mass movements would only stir up hatred and opposition to the hopes of creating an independent Jewish state.  They felt that the best way to garner support was through negotiations with prominent politicians and decision makers.  The animosity reached such a level that the Bergson group is not until today memorialized at Yad VaShem for their efforts.

Esther Antin Untermeyer is Katie and Jason’s grandmother, for sure she loved her grandchildren as grandparents do.  Her personal story is part of Jewish efforts to help their fellow man and create a homeland for the Jewish people.  May our lives be as infused with meaning as hers was.  And may her grandchildren carry on her goals, hopes and aspirations.

Good News!

“Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!”
– Anne Frank

Thus started my first Birthright group.  I didn’t know what to expect, didn’t know what to do, didn’t know what kind of a guide I would be, didn’t know what challenges I would face and how I would deal with them.

OU598 was full of firsts for me – my first 10 day trip, my first time guiding 50 people, my first Birthright.  More firsts came along the way – my first time on a camel, first time in a club in Israel.

I trained, planned, packed, had meetings, obsessed, shopped, and listened to those with more experience than myself.  And then May 31, 2012 came.

I met the 38 participants, the 5 other staff, and started my search for how best to guide them and balance being in the lead, and making sure that no one was left behind – socially, emotionally, or physically.

It was a challenge.  What is the best way to convey the sense of Jewish pride, history, continuity in such a short time?  How do you encapsulate the connection to Jerusalem in one day, especially if you need time to shop, learn, eat, and splash through Hezekiah’s tunnel?  If you need to pick one stop to represent the struggles to establish the state, and you need to slip it into an already written itinerary, what is that site?  How do you manage Masada and the messages that are so important there within a framework and in little time?  And the ideas are so powerful, that people need time to process.

Balance the above with always finding a spot in the shade, making sure everyone is drinking, wearing the right shoes, and has their name tag; and periodically undergoing spot checks from the Birthright/Moked Teva people to make sure you are dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s. Then, you take on another 7 people in the middle of the trip who are from a different culture and must integrate them into the group and give them time and space to bond and communicate.

But just in case this sounds for one minute like I am complaining – like this was just too much – let me assure you, that


I learned more about who I am, what kind of guide I want to be, what I have to give, than I could have even imagined.  Besides missing my family and friends, especially over Shabbat, I was happy, alive, engaged in life.  (It was really special to have Boaz, Naftali, and Hillel come spend the second Shabbat with me.)  And I was inspired.  I had forgotten about that side of me, the side that appreciates an honest conversation, a moving speech, a powerful insight.  I met some of the most incredible people who let me, an outsider, into their hearts and lives.  I toured this country that I love at high speed, appreciating her every day more and more, seeing her through fresh eyes.

So, thank you OU 598 (what??), for being the terrific people you are and helping me to discover myself.  I look forward to seeing you in Israel on your next adventure!  Maybe after you unpack your bag, we can have a sit, and wave the flag.