Remapping the Art of Education: OU IFS Member Awarded by Taglit-Birthright Israel

23 Oct 2014
From left: Shuli Schwartz, OU IFS program coordinator; Rachel Smith;  Yael Tamari, OU IFS education director.
From left: Shuli Schwartz, OU IFS program coordinator; Rachel Smith; Yael Tamari, OU IFS education director.

Climbing Masada, the ancient fortress and symbol of Jewish strength, whose breathtaking views are enhanced by the glorious sun rising over the land of Israel, is a staple activity of any touring program. Getting the participants awake is one thing, especially those ages 18-26 who were out late the night before, but keeping them awake to appreciate where they are is another. And that’s when Rachel Smith gets into costume and raps.

A creative personality with a permanent smile and laugh that attracts strangers to become friends, Rachel’s a curious person. An educator to the soul, she’s not afraid of taking chances —of talking to individuals on their own level, as King Solomon in Mishlei teaches, “chanoch lana’ar al pi darko” — teach individuals in their own way. And so it might take rapping at Masada, or appreciating Israeli archaeology through the context of America’s Next Top Model, but, “If you can make something relevant to participants it doesn’t matter what age or background, the moment will come to life and take on more meaning,” shared Rachel.

Rachel is a master of channeling her passion for the land of Israel and Judaism, and giving it over in ways that will remain with participants after the program ends. It’s about making connections.

For the past four years Rachel has shared her passion as a key staff member and tour educator of Israel Free Spirit (IFS), the Orthodox Union’s partnership program with Taglit-Birthright Israel.

Taglit-Birthright Israel recognized Rachel’s talents, recently bestowing upon her its “Taglit-Birthright Israel’s J.J. Greenberg Award for Excellence in Education.” Last year, Merav Levmore, another OU Israel Free Spirit Tour Educator, was one of the award recipients. Given to three outstanding tour educators each year, the award commemorates the young Jewish professional educator who assisted in creating the Taglit-Birthright Israel program, and was killed in an automobile accident in 2002. Another OU Israel Free Spirit Tour Educator, Gavriel Porten, received Taglit-Birthright Israel’s special award for his long standing contribution to the world of Jewish Education.

OU Israel Free Spirit has been among the fastest growing and is currently the fourth largest trip organizer in North America. This summer alone, OU Israel Free Spirit sent more than 1,300 participants in 32 buses on the emotional journey to the land of their heritage.

Last summer, OU Israel Free Spirit’s work was recognized by the national Birthright organization with a certificate of excellence. The program is also consistently rated the highest in participant satisfaction. Eleven-percent of OU Israel Free Spirit participants opt to extend their Birthright trip in Israel, compared to a three-percent average on other Taglit-Birthright Israel trips.

“Rachel Smith, Merav Levmore and Gavriel Porten are amazing because of who they are and their unique approach to Jewish Education, but what makes me even prouder is that they do not stand alone,” said Yael Tamari, OU Israel Free Spirit education director. “They represent the large cadre of wonderful and dedicated educators from around the USA and from Israel with whom we at OU Israel Free Spirit feel extremely privileged to work.”

She added, “At the end of the day, our educators are the ‘face’ of OU Israel Free Spirit. They are the ones charged with the responsibility of reaching out and touching every participant individually, of creating a community out of the bus and above all, with inspiring our participants to action.”

“Many participants come with the expectation that my job is to change their beliefs and I come with my own propaganda, but I say, ‘I wish to learn from you and the beauty of having a group experiencing Israel together is that we hear out different perspectives,’” Rachel emphasized.

“When I welcome participants for the first time, I share, ‘Welcome to what some people call Israel, some call Eretz Yisrael, some people call Palestine, and what I call home,’ because it’s an honor and privilege to hear the process of how individuals think differently and creates a safe space where all views are acceptable and can be discussed. We have ten days together and within that time we form our own Jewish community. For many it’s the first time they are part of a Jewish community, and the nonjudgmental environment allows them to consider point of views previously unheard, experience opportunities previously unavailable and identify with concepts of which they were previously unaware.”

  Rachel (far right) counts off for attendance with OU Israel Free Spirit  participants using letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Rachel (far right) counts off for attendance with OU Israel Free Spirit participants using letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

This summer a group of 22 OU Israel Free Spirit participants was each assigned a letter of the Hebrew alphabet instead of the standard numbers to account for attendance. “By the end of the trip, we had individuals who previously had never learned the aleph-bet who knew the first few letters or all of the Hebrew alphabet and each letter’s numerical values,” Rachel proudly shared. In Tzfat, steeped in traditional Jewish mysticism, the group learned the concept of gematria — learning the numerical and deeper significance of their individual letters. A walk on Shabbat afternoon afforded the opportunity to discuss the use of letters, begin identifying them, and pronouncing them out loud. Often this led to talks on various elements of Jewish culture and life in Israel.

A native of London, Rachel made aliyah in 2005, and now lives in Jerusalem. She holds a Bachelors Degree in Education from Goldsmiths College, University of London; a Masters in Religious Education from the Institute of Education, University of London; and almost 20 years of experience in informal Jewish education.

Rachel was one of three recipients, out of a pool of 60 other nominees and hundreds of others who were considered. Taglit-Birthright Israel providers were allowed to nominate up to three of their own educators through formal paperwork and letters of recommendation by American and Israeli staff and participants.

Noted Yael Tamari, “Rachel’s ability to relate to every type of participant and allow each to create their own sense of identification with Israel and with the Jewish community is perhaps best exemplified through the words of one of the Israeli participants on the most recent trip she led for us:

Rachel, who chose to make aliya and live with us here in Israel, while she cheerfully and humorously shared with us some of her difficulties as a new immigrant, was also a breath of fresh air for me and succeeded in reminding me what is so wonderful about the country in which I was born and where I was privileged to grow up. Rachel helped me fall in love anew with my land, my home, my people and my heritage.’”

Samantha Pohl was a staff member on an OU Israel Free Spirit trip in 2013, utilizing her then-role as program executive at UJA-Federation of New York. Currently serving as development manager at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City, Samantha was one of many who eagerly endorsed Rachel’s skills. Samantha wrote, “Rachel Smith is an innovative thinker, self-aware and a fantastic conversation facilitator. Her creative methods — singing, rapping, bringing pictures and role-playing — engage participants with different intellectual capacities, participants from different political perspectives, and participants who, before the trip, may have had very little connection with Israel. She treats each person deliberately and each conversation with integrity. I appreciate her authenticity; there is no agenda or point of view she is trying to convince participants of and she is genuine and open about the things in Israeli society with which she struggles. An exemplary role model, she is always striving to better relate to her participants, refine her own perspectives, and improve as an educator.”

Rachel Smith with her award.
Rachel Smith with her award.

A humbled Rachel accepted the award, held at the end of a Taglit-Birthright Israel: Tour Educators Enrichment & Recognition Conference, in Memory of J.J. Greenberg, acknowledging the room filled with her contemporaries full of passion and talent. “I believe in what Taglit-Birthright Israel is about and what it can do,” Rachel emphasized. “It’s so much more than my job and I wouldn’t have this opportunity if others weren’t recruiting and organizing, allowing me to do what I’m doing.”

She continued, “With all the intensity of the summer, OU Israel Free Spirit continued to send their groups in full force. I know that beforehand, the Orthodox Union American office in partnership with the Israeli office, worked tirelessly to relieve the anxiety of parents before each trip, and so, as 22 participants came for the first bus, 30 in the next, and so on, it was a testament of how good the OU Israel Free Spirit staff is. The support network that exists among the Israeli and American offices, and then given over to participants and their families, behind the scenes, leading up to the trips, during the programs and follow up is fabulous. Working with OU Israel Free Spirit is always such a pleasure and it’s a partnership I hope to continue for many years.”

In addition to offering the classic Taglit-Birthright Israel experience, OU Israel Free Spirit offers “niche” trips, to accommodate special interests, such as arts and entertainment with Broadway performers; sports with a Super Bowl champion player; “Congress to Knesset” with a six-time U.S. Congressman; and “Bizrael,” which visits executives of top Israel companies such as Google and other high tech companies in Israel. Other OU Israel Free Spirit niche programs include trips for college campuses, young professionals, special needs, young adults in recovery from addictions, Modern Orthodox youth, and separate trips for men and women.

For more information and to register for OU Israel Free Spirit, visit

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.