Voices from the field

A Reflection on Taglit Fellows, Cohort I

By Sammy Kanter

Reposted from JewishCincinnati.org

My mind is still reeling with inspiration and possibility after the first cohort of Taglit Fellows. The Taglit Fellows program is an intensive, professional development conference for experiential Jewish educators and professionals to prepare to staff Taglit-Birthright Israel trips.

Looking around at the 100 Fellows in my cohort (selected from a pool of 1,000), I couldn’t help but think that if these peers are the future leaders of the Jewish diaspora in America, our people will be in great hands. The program was created by the iCenter, a leader in contemporary Israel education in the United States.

Dr. Zohar Raviv, Vice President of Education at Taglit-Birthright Israel, summed up our purpose last week when he said, "We’ve taught Jews in America how to be Jewish, but we haven’t taught them why to be Jewish.” This quote resonated with me the entire week, and I think it will inspire and change how I view my work at the Federation.

It’s not that our generation isn’t interested in being Jewish. In fact, we’re more proud of our Judaism than any generation before us, as the numbers from the Pew Study show. We just don’t connect to existing Jewish institutions (or any institutions for that matter). We don’t have a sense of obligation for communal sustenance, and we don’t feel the need for a strong Jewish community as a reaction to issues against our people (ie. Holocaust, anti-Semitism, threats to Israel). Because we can’t connect with the existing Jewish narratives, Jewish young adults feel their own Jewish journey isn’t valid or “Jewish enough.” To avoid any discomfort, we simply opt out of anything Jewish. Let’s face it…surfing Netflix is a lot easier than going to a synagogue and being left feeling uncomfortable.

Taglit-Birthright Israel understands this, and their curriculum reflects a modern way of teaching Jewish education and connecting with Jewish young adults. The 10-day trip to Israel is not just an exploration of the land, it’s a program that is learner-centric, experiential, and allows for diversity of thoughts and feelings on Judaism and Israel. Leaders of Taglit-Birthright Israel work to teach Jewish young adults that they are part of the Jewish story, and they can fill that role in the Jewish narrative in any way they feel comfortable. Their Judaism is theirs, and participants should feel empowered to find out what Judaism can give to them. Taglit-Birthright Israel’s goal is to provide a space where a Jewish young adult can discover for themselves why they should be Jewish.

On a side note, I have learned some amazing programs for our trip…get ready Cincy Community Taglit-Birthright Israel!

In my job at the Federation, I hope to be the bridge between a young adult’s 10 days on the trip and their life back in Cincinnati (400,000 worldwide have been on Taglit-Birthright Israel in the last 14 years). It’s important to keep in mind the values of Birthright, create safe and open spaces for young adults to feel Jewish in their own, make them experiential, and give young adults ownership of their Jewish community.

We spent a lot of time sharing our Jewish journeys with each other and developing how to tell our story in a way that inspires. Every single person there had either attended camp or been to Israel (usually both), and those experiences were a lot more informative and inspiring than formal Jewish education (Jewish day school, Hebrew/Sunday school).

I’m coming back to Cincinnati energized for my work to keep connecting Jewish young adults to a Jewish community that has given me so much. I also hope to work with young adults to help them feel confident and proud of their Jewish journeys, whatever those journeys look like. As we said at the Taglit Fellow conference, "Being Jewish is about being the best you…and a part of us.”