Taglit-Birthright Israel program keeping memories alive
By Ben Tinsley
DALLAS — Texas Jews, some of them Dallas residents and various alumni of the state’s Hillel Taglit-Birthright Israel program, recently recounted life experiences that shaped their views of Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day — the national day of commemorating the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948.
This year, the 67th anniversary of Israel’s independence, Yom HaAtzmaut will be observed Thursday, April 23, corresponding to 4 Iyar on the Hebrew calendar. Local celebrations will take place Thursday, April 23, in Dallas and Sunday, April 26 in Fort Worth.
In a very short span of time, Israel has become an amazing incubator for high-tech, biotech and other start-up companies and a leader in irrigation techniques that helped the desert bloom — such as recycling water and finding ways to avoid or mitigate desertification.
“In addition, recent social studies have shown that, despite many challenges, Israelis are known as happy people,” explained Shira Yoshor, an attorney at the Greenberg Traurig law firm in Houston.
Reality strikes hard
Amanda Kushner of Dallas said she took full advantage of Taglit-Birthright Israel, that lauded, free, 10-day trip to Israel for Jewish students between 18 and 26 sponsored by the state of Israel and Jewish philanthropists from all over the world.
Kushner was on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip last summer when the war broke out in Gaza.
“The feeling of a war going on — and your new friends who you care for — the IDF soldiers who joined our tour bus — needing to leave the trip to defend their country, your country, is incredibly powerful,” she said. “You become super-attached to that place and to them, because you are concerned for their welfare. Our soldiers did manage to text us once a day to make sure we all knew they were fine.”
Since her return, Kushner was recognized as one of Taglit-Birthright Israel’s 15 Ambassadors – in honor of the organization’s 15th anniversary. She turns 25 this week.
Prior to her Birthright Israel trip, Kushner had never been to Israel. Nor had her family.
Following her life-changing experience on Birthright Israel, her parents were convinced to go, and booked themselves tickets to Tel Aviv. Kushner said her parents would leave soon for their first visit to Israel.
“I believe that people should have a right to thrive in their homeland,” she said.
Nothing quite centered Kushner like her visit to Yad Vashem World Center for Holocaust Research, Documentation, Education and Commemoration, she said.
“The museum shows what Israeli independence means to Israel — and to the entire worldwide Jewish community,” Kushner said. “The museum is emotionally and mentally difficult, and is filled with images that we hope no one will ever need to face again. The place is dark, with a small light in the distance.”
As people move through exhibits, looking at what horrors the Jewish people have experienced, the light gets bigger and brighter, she said.
“At the final exhibit, you’ve experienced the battles that we Jews have had to fight to live and thrive; you step through the light, and you see the most breathtaking view of Jerusalem,” Kushner said. “You’ve come through what our people have overcome and you look forward and see our home and what we have accomplished.”
Like Kushner, several Jewish Texans with the same amount of passion also are involved with the Taglit-Birthright Israel program.
Bob Goldberg, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth and Tarrant County, said as many as 89 young adults have participated in Birthright from his area over the last five years — five in Winter 2014-15; 12 in Summer 2014; 12 in Winter 2013; and nine in Summer 2013.
“We, as a Federation, allocate a nice amount to Birthright every year and believe in the power of connecting to Israel and know that most who participate in Birthright are impacted greatly through their own view of their Jewish identity as well as becoming more connected and committed to being active participants in the Jewish world,” Goldberg said.
Adding to program’s numbers
Sarah Golman, Israel and overseas manager for the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, said the Dallas Jewish community has sent more than 2,000 young adults on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips since the program first launched.
Each year, the Federation allocates $70,000 to Birthright Israel as part of its ongoing support of the program, she said.
There is also an annual fundraising event that helps secure the funding for a Dallas Birthright Israel trip each summer.
Representing North Texas in Israel
“We anticipate 20 young adults from Dallas will go on Taglit-Birthright Israel this summer through a number of trips,” Golman said. “One of the things that we hear frequently from Birthright alumni is how much they want to staff a trip … The Taglit Fellows program is a wonderful opportunity to develop leaders and empower them as Birthright staff to make a lasting impact on their participants.”
Many veteran Taglit participants have gone on to be part of “Taglit Fellows,” a professional development program launched in 2014 by Taglit-Birthright Israel in a partnership with the iCenter for Israel Education.
The Taglit Fellow program was developed to help train people to play significant roles in the ongoing Jewish journeys of young adults at home.
Next wave of Americans
The second wave of Taglit fellows trained in February. This group includes Neil Segel, deputy consul for economic affairs to the government of Israel economic mission to the U.S. southern region in Houston, and several others — such as Jason Schwartz of Dallas, Jessica Dangot of College Station and Arielle Levy of Austin.
Jason Schwartz said the quality of the Taglit Fellows program sheds a powerful spotlight on the future effectiveness of Taglit Birthright.
“The Taglit Fellows program gives madrichim (those who both aid teachers in the classroom and are role models in the synagogue) an incredible toolbox that can be used on the trips, in terms of both physical materials like resource cards and experiences that can be drawn on to enhance the adventures and interactions trip participants have while in Israel,” Schwartz said.
Taglit Fellows accepts 100 participants, aged 22 and older, into the program every six months.
Applications are open for Taglit Fellows, third cohort.
Register now at taglitfellows.com.