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July 21, 2020 4:35 am

How Birthright Israel Has Helped Me Through a Global Pandemic

avatar by Yonatan Rozen / JNS.org

Opinion

Young Argentine Jews visiting Israel on a Birthright tour joined Argentina’s Ambassador to Israel, Mariano Caucino, to commemorate the 24th anniversary of the AMIA bombing. Photo: @argenisrael/Twitter.

JNS.orgIt’s not often that a person feels that he or she, as an individual, can have a real, tangible impact on a community through their work. For me, working as a tour educator for Birthright Israel has been one of those rare opportunities. And in the depths of a global pandemic, the lessons I have learned working this job have also served as a personal guiding light.

To be a tour educator with Birthright is a life-changing experience, and I believe that my colleagues — and certainly, the more than 750,000 participants who have taken part in this program in the past two decades — will agree. That’s because few other educational tours have been so successful at identifying and relying on values that create such a deeply internal and emotional response among its participants in such a short amount of time.

I am a partner in fostering this emotional response process, especially during the early stages. The beginning of a Birthright Israel journey is the first step in a process that continues to develop long after the trip is complete, thanks to the connections and the community that program alumni foster after they return from their trip.

And this is hard work; connections between participants are not forged entirely on their own. Working as an educator for Birthright is intensive in nature, and this responsibility is what drives me to begin preparing weeks and even months before the beginning of each season.

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One might think that towards the end of the season, I would be exhausted and feel run down, but the opposite is true. Though grueling and demanding, these days spent with young Jewish adults from overseas — watching them connect and open up and learn about one another — fill me with positive energy and faith in the future, and leave me with a desire to give more.

But this year has been different. Just moments before the first groups were scheduled to touch down, the novel coronavirus shook the entire world and derailed our beloved programming. The virus hit me personally just as I was “warming up” and “stretching my muscles” before the opening of the summer season.

Now, it’s not necessary for me to discuss at length the economic impact that the virus has had on the tourism industry, including educational tourism. We’re not just speaking of a reduction in incoming tourism, but a total shutdown of an entire industry. The statistics and figures are undeniable. Beyond that though, the virus has taken away from many, including myself, what we love doing most. Birthright Israel trips are the professional highlight of the year. I give top priority to these groups over any other tourism project. Therefore, the postponement of a whole season causes tremendous harm to my entire business plan as a tour guide. And as a young person with a family, the implications are serious.

However, the current crisis cuts much deeper than this. I don’t just feel that my world has turned upside down in a financial aspect, but also on a personal level. When a person views the work he produces as more than just material value — and instead looks at it as a positive contribution to people’s lives — that job becomes more, and takes on a greater purpose.

Since I am currently unable to fulfill that mission, I am going through a difficult time — feelings of disorientation, emptiness, even a lack of purpose. But during this dark time, I look to the lessons that Birthright trips rely on: community, togetherness, and cooperation.

The reality of a tour educator is of living in a parallel universe. The interactions that take place on Birthright — gatherings of total strangers who turn into a cohesive family over the period of one-and-a-half weeks — rarely exists in the modern world. It’s really a kind of miracle. In an incredibly fast-paced society, the ability to forge human connections, to arouse within people questions about identity, and to motivate participants to take responsibility in their own communities is truly incredible.

Whoever has witnessed this miracle will no longer look at the world through the same lens. So, my dealing with the pandemic is not just a hardship in terms of my employment, but a struggle with existential questions.

Despite it all, I have total faith and trust that once Israel opens again, Birthright will be the first to return to full activities, thanks to the tremendous number of applications but also due to the dedication, commitment, and faith of the program’s management in the mission they are leading.

The virus has cast a shadow of uncertainty, fear, separation, and distance over the globe. But now more than ever, we turn to the values of Birthright Israel — unity, continuity, and mutual responsibility — to guide us forward.

 Yonatan Rozen is a tour guide in Israel.

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