Leading a Birthright Israel trip is both this and that

We all know that first impressions are essential. Which is why I have a particular complication. I frequently lead Birthright Israel trips, and my participants first encounter me at three in the morning at the airport in San Francisco. They are bleary-eyed, anxious, and wary of traveling with forty people they don’t know.

They quickly find out that I’m not going to waste a second. I thrust a name game in their hands, forcing them to meet at least three other people on the trip. I take the time to answer all their questions, and I fire them up to board the plane with a little Jewish philosophy: “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware,” said Martin Buber, and they, too, are going to find their own secret destination over the next ten days.

I’ve led thirteen Birthright Israel trips. Each one is both a leadership challenge and an inspiring story of building community.

The first thing I train Birthright Israel staff to consider is the idea that leading this trip is a mental attitude. Even before you arrive at the airport to meet your group you need to be of the mind that this is your group, that they are looking to you, and that you are the leader of this journey.

I’m just as nervous as everyone else to meet forty new people and take them on a trip across the world. But it calms me to know that I set the pace, the tone, and the attitude for the group dynamic, and that if I project a no-fear fun demeanor, the group will go along with it.

I approach leadership with elu v’elu—“both this and that,” the Jewish concept that life is complex, that everyone has their own perspective, and that every situation is different.

Birthright Israel trips move at an astounding pace: we can be hiking through the desert in the morning, then watching the sunset on the beach in Netanya, and then experiencing the Tel Aviv nightlife in the late hours. People get tired, itineraries change, and there’s an overwhelming amount of Jewish and Israeli history downloading to their minds. So I reach for elu v’elu—flexibility, empathy, acknowledging the group’s challenges, but sailing forth nonetheless. I’m tired too, friends, but we have Masada to climb, so let’s go!

I also remember that this work is about lech lecha—“going forth.” As Abraham left his home in Ur for the Land of Canaan, we, too, are on a journey with a mission. Birthright Israel isn’t “tourism.” It’s an expedition to experience Israel, consider our Jewish selves, and immerse ourselves in Jewish community. As the leader of this expedition, it’s my job to both exemplify and facilitate that purpose for my group.

A month or so ago I stood exhausted at the bottom of Masada at 4:30 a.m. What I wouldn’t have done for an excuse to stay back and get more sleep. I was lagging.

Then a participant came up to me and said, “Jason, this hike looks too tough for me, I don’t think I can do this.” I was reminded of my role. Tired or not, I grabbed his arm and said “then hike with me so we’ll feel awesome when we make it to the top.”

And up we went.