Posted in News, on April 14, 2011

Inside the Israel Free Spirit Story

In 1999, before the Taglit-Birthright Israel program existed as such, the people behind the idea approached the Orthodox Union with a request. They wanted the OU to serve as beta testers for their program; namely, that 18-26-year-old Jews ought to have the opportunity to connect with their heritage.  In this way, the Israel Free Spirit (IFS) partnership with Taglit Birthright-Israel was born. IFS originated a trip which featured discovery of the land and a special spiritual component. Realizing that graduates of NCSY were seeking an Israel option that would allow them to have fun, maximize their experience but nonetheless engage in meaningful self-discovery and Torah learning as they interacted with the land, the Orthodox Union created this trip especially for them.

With the tagline ‘Maximum Experience, Less Fluff’, Israel Free Spirit is a truly unique option in the Birthright world. Participants travel to the Western Wall, climb the winding path to Masada, sleep in a Bedouin Tent, visit the world-famous Holocaust museum Yad Vashem, float in the Dead Sea and ride on camels, to name a few of the varied IFS activities. Simultaneously, through exposure to fascinating speakers and advisor-facilitated discussions, they learn more about the history, culture, technology, ecology and lifestyle of Israelis. Participants are always welcome to share their thoughts and feelings and to really connect with themselves and the journey.

Currently, Birthright trips operate on a summer and winter schedule. This past round, when registration was opened for the summer trip, took place beginning February 14 and 15. Excitement and apprehension filled the air as the IFS staff at the New York office geared up for the onslaught of phone calls. Surprisingly, given the fact that IFS serves the entire USA and Canada, there are only three main staff-people who work in the department. They are tireless, often only leaving the office at 9pm during the busy registration period.

Scott Shulman, the enthusiastic 24-year-old Program Director of Israel Free Spirit, is a cheerful man who is in good spirits during his many hours on the phone. “Hello, this is Scott, with Israel Free Spirit Birthright,” he repeats over and over, eagerly picking up the phone to speak to the next applicant. He answers questions about eligibility, fields questions about itineraries, explains that IFS will not know exact dates for trips until Birthright allots buses and informs them of the flights booked and otherwise addresses questions and soothes fears.

Bassy Altman, Registrar and Coordinator of IFS, is in charge of email communication. She sends out mass emails informing previous applicants that the time to apply again is fast approaching and updates individuals with their status as they are chosen to attend the trip or waitlisted. She also conducts the first round of interviews with eligible applicants, asking them mundane questions such as their name and age but also inquiring about why they want to visit Israel and what made them choose Israel Free Spirit.

Avital Moss, 24-year-old Associate Registrar and Coordinator of IFS, does it all. She answers questions over the phone, interviews applicants, responds to email inquiries and checks participants’ passports to ensure that they up to date. This past winter, she led a trip which she described as “incredibly fun but exhausting.” She is also the coordinator of Student Ambassadors, a program whose focus is to involve alumni of IFS trips in the recruitment of new interested prospective participants.

Elsewhere, at the Israel office, Rabbi Menachem Persoff, Yael Tamiri and Netanel Gibson work on the logistical end of the trips. Rabbi Persoff oversees the venues, buses, tour guides and other important pieces in the IFS puzzle. Yael serves as the educational director for IFS which means that she plans itineraries, recruits the soldiers who join participants during their trip and ensures that IFS fulfills the educational directives Birthright sets. Netanel Gibson visits different groups on-site, riding on the buses with them as they go to their next destination and also works on following up with IFS members. He is available to help Birthright participants extend their tickets, decide to attend institutions in Israel or come back to Israel over break.

Everything in the IFS office takes place under the guidance and leadership of Rabbi Dave Felsenthal, head of NCSY Alumni. Rabbi Dave is in constant communication with the Taglit Birthright-Israel administration, speaks with advisors and staff while they are on the ground in Israel and coordinates staff training days. He and Scott are often seen together working on the next strategy to make IFS grow even greater. To that end, this year IFS launched a Facebook page. The program also held a student video contest to promote IFS where the top four videos (chosen by a peer voting process) received substantial monetary prizes.

Scott, Bassy and Avital are busy throughout the duration of the year even though the trips only run in winter and summer. Recruitment is an ongoing process. Scott travels throughout the Tri-state area and sometimes beyond making presentations about IFS and coordinating with Hillels and campus staff to create an IFS trip for their college. He works with graphic designers to create colorful, exciting flyers splashed with color to attract attention and urge people to join the program.

“After all,” Scott remarks, “everyone would love to participate in a free trip to Israel! It’s just a matter of letting people know it’s out there.”

“It’s a mission I’m proud to be a part of,” Rabbi Dave agrees. “IFS welcomes Jews of all backgrounds and runs trips for all of them. But it’s especially meaningful when we get to reconnect with our NCSY alumni along the way.”