When Benji Lovitt posted a now widely read and shared piece in the eJewishPhilanthropy blog pointing out the lack of Tel Aviv start-ups, beach time and swanky Neve Tzedek tours on the itinerary for most pre- and post-college trips, he wasn’t intending to bring down wrath upon Birthright, the popular ten-day trip to Israel for young Jews.

“I didn’t think it would be controversial,” said Lovitt, 39, a Dallas native who made aliyah more than seven years ago from New York and now makes a living as a comedian on the local and US speakers circuit, including Birthright groups. “Maybe I’m naive, but I didn’t think they’d respond defensively.”

Well, they did. And the response to Lovitt was swift, but not necessarily as piercing as Birthright would have liked.

First came a written reply from Zohar Raviv, international vice president of education at Birthright and an Israeli academic who spent 15 years studying and teaching Jewish studies in the US, including at Oberlin College.

That was followed by further postings by other educators and thousands of shares, likes and comments in a thread that hasn’t stopped, many from people who feel as Lovitt does — that Birthright and other Israel programs don’t meet the needs of today’s Jewish young adults.

The ten-day Birthright trips include trips to the desert, stops at museums and historical sites, but not enough Tel Aviv, contends Benji Lovitt (photo credit: Melanie Fidler/Flash 90)

The ten-day Birthright trips include trips to the desert, stops at museums and historical sites, but not enough Tel Aviv, contends Benji Lovitt (photo credit: Melanie Fidler/Flash 90)

Yet one of the things that troubled Raviv in the ongoing conversation is what he calls the disparity between “certain people’s” perception of Birthright, or Taglit as the program is called in Israel, and the reality of the program.

“Most of the discourse is based on perception and not knowledge,” he said. Raviv believes that Birthright is “more far-reaching and critical and self-reflective than the critique makes it out to be, and that [critique] bothers me.”

Whenever speaking about Birthright, Raviv likes to refer to its educational platform, a 36-page treatise created by Raviv and Barry Chazan, which is disseminated to all the tour operators who plan and deploy the ten-day trips.

According to Raviv, “nothing is sacred” when planning a Birthright itinerary.

“One of our most serious objectives is to represent Israel in ten days which is a Herculean task,” he said. “We want to present it in all its complexities and to give an encounter that is initial and which is what Israel is, and not what they thought it was.”

It would  be unusual for a Birthright trip to avoid the Kotel, but in theory, the trip's organizers make their own decisions (photo credit: Melanie Fidler/Flash 90)

It would be unusual for a Birthright trip to avoid the Western Wall, but in theory, the trip’s organizers make their own decisions (photo credit: Melanie Fidler/Flash 90)

Along those lines, “anything can be thrown out” when it comes to planning the itineraries, including, as it happens, a site as sacred as Holocaust museum Yad Vashem. Raviv said that freedom points to Birthright’s desire to never present a single narrative, but to push participants beyond their zone of Jewish comfort and present Israel in its fuller complexity as a modern, kicking entity.

“There’s not a single word in our platform about a particular site,” he said. “As long as the sites chosen abide by our standards, and as long as the itinerary is intelligent and challenging, it will be approved.”

Raviv takes into account the educational and historical context necessary in understanding a Birthright participant’s first major encounter with Israel. It may mean a hike up Masada and a visit to the Western Wall, but if a trip organizer decides to forgo the snake path or take a miss at the Old City of Jerusalem, they can, in theory, do so — as long as they include visits to five sites that reflect Jewish, Zionist, national, natural and Holocaust heritage. Those sites can even be in Tel Aviv.

And, in fact, Birthright does spend time in Tel Aviv, pointed out Gil Troy, a professor of History at McGill University who lives in Israel and is the chair of Birthright’s education committee. He came to his voluntary position after making some criticisms of his own regarding Birthright in Moment Magazine, calling it more a Masada-Yad Vashem-Western Wall guilt trip than an opportunity to meet the new modern Zionism.

“I think Benji was essentially correct in in his vision,” said Troy, “but you have to make sure you’re using Tel Aviv as correctly as possible.”

Birthright trips used to spend a weekend in Tel Aviv, and “that became a discussion,” said Troy. “One of the challenges is that Tel Aviv is, at its best, in many ways an individual experience and Birthright is a communal experience, so figuring out how to taste Tel Aviv is sometimes a bit of a challenge.”

Benji Lovitt, the comedian who opened the discussion, performs frequently for Birthright programs and other Israel travel programs (Courtesy Benji Lovitt)

Benji Lovitt, the comedian who opened the discussion, performs frequently for Birthright programs and other Israel travel programs (Courtesy Benji Lovitt)

It seems to be a challenge that’s mired in a much larger conversation about how American Jews view Israel, and how Israelis want Jews to view the Jewish homeland.

The struggle pits Zionism, or Israel, against the Diaspora, said Momo Lifshitz, the founder of Oranim, a tour operator that has brought thousands of people on Birthright. Lifshitz is now the CEO of Lirom Global Education.

“It’s a battle between Israel as a place to live, and the holy land that Americans want to make us into,” said Lifshitz. “The American side of Birthright wants to bring people to the holy place, they use Birthright as a tool for Jewish identity in America. [But] to bring them to Tel Aviv is to bring them to Israel. Tel Aviv is a huge temptation for young people; they feel more comfortable there than in any other place in America, even New York. It’s something special.”

“They think, I could live here, I could see myself here,” he said. “They want to go to the beach and the coffee shops. There’s something kinetic in Tel Aviv. But Birthright wants to make Israel the holy land; it’s not about aliyah.”

Obviously, a weekend isn’t enough to offer a full sense of the city being visited, pointed out Miranda Bogen, director of communications for Masa Israel Journey, which offers more than 200 different internship, volunteer and study-abroad programs for college and post-college participants.

“A few days still gives only the briefest impression,” said Bogen. “Our reaction to Benji’s piece was that this is exactly why people come back, and that’s what all our alumni here tell us.”

More than 55% of Masa’s post-college participants, and sometimes more than 60%, first visited Israel on a Birthright program, and are usually inspired to attend a Masa program because of Birthright. Some 10% of Masa participants end up making aliyah.

“Our overriding philosophy is that when someone gets to live in Israel for five or ten months, they get to live like locals, to explore their neighborhood and find out where to buy groceries and because of that, they’re able to have a much deeper understanding of where they’re living,” said Bogen.

It’s true, she said, that Masa programs in Tel Aviv are driven by market demand. When Masa recruits, they find that many people are interested in Tel Aviv — “they want to be part of that modern Israel,” she said. “Maybe they had an idea of what Jerusalem is, and they don’t want that.”

Birthrighters at the beach on the Dead Sea (photo credit: Melanie Fidler/Flash 90)

Birthrighters at the beach on the Dead Sea (photo credit: Melanie Fidler/Flash 90)

Out of Masa’s seven or eight internship programs – many Masa programs are student-oriented – six are in Tel Aviv and 80% of their internship programs are in Tel Aviv.

“There’s a value in the Tel Aviv experience, both in understanding the unique nature of Tel Aviv and in living in a cool, global city and the ability to relate to Israel, the secular Jewish culture,” said Bogen. “That’s something that a lot of people want to explore after Birthright. They come out of it saying that by living in Israel, they can just be Jewish.”

And that’s an element that’s changed in Birthright, said Lifshitz. He believes that the current numbers for Birthright point to that failure. In 2008, Lifshitz said he brought 214 buses of Birthright buses, for a total of close to 9,000 people.

Now, numbers appear to have diminished, with a few thousand fewer participants than in previous years. There’s also less of a Birthright waiting list these days.

“There was a vision, belonging to something big,” he said. “And Tel Aviv was number one in that. Now, they can’t go out for free nights, and the message is that Israel isn’t safe. You’re taking 25-year-olds who live in New York City and telling them they need to stay closed in the hotel.”

“I’m saying there’s less interest to go on Birthright,” he added. “And there is no open discussion as to why that’s happening, and maybe the lack of Tel Aviv or real Israel is the problem.”

Still, his piece was not about Tel Aviv versus Jerusalem, nor was it an anti-Birthright harangue, Lovitt emphasized. It was about a reprioritization.

“I think Tel Aviv is placed too low on the priority list,” he said. “It’s like a no-brainer to me. Tel Aviv is ‘Start-up Nation,’ it’s half the population of Israel, it’s Jewish peoplehood, there’s so much here that appeals to Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews. It’s part of the mosaic, it’s why more Masa programs are coming here.”

He is still reeling from the response to his article, and trying to figure out what to do next. He’d like to help somehow, possibly working with the government, which one of Birthright’s sponsors, with trip organizers, and, perhaps, he thinks, the best idea, with the donors themselves.

“I feel like the leadership on this thing needs to come from the top, because this is a community-wide program,” said Lovitt. “This piece got thousands of shares and likes. And if Zohar Raviv responded to little old me, this clearly is making waves. I guess this is bigger than I thought.”