(Photo by Margarita Korol)
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On Birthright, Our Zionist Coach

Our Israel tour guide first seemed an IDF G.I. Joe. He turned out to be like a football coach: tough but righteous.

Leon Neyfakh
June 22, 2012
(Photo by Margarita Korol)

It wasn’t immediately obvious when we arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport that Yoav Bruck would be the central figure in our lives for the next 10 days. We had been meeting Birthright staffers since before our plane took off—including our two counselors, Ilana and Mark, and our armed guard, Smadar—and while Yoav was by far the most imposing of all of them, we didn’t really have any way of knowing that he, more than anyone else, would overwhelmingly define our experience in Israel.

The first thing he said to us after our luggage was loaded was “Welcome home,” which provoked knowing smirks from those of us who had arrived in Israel intent on resisting any attempts at propaganda. For me at least, smiling privately and skeptically at this early moment was a way of affirming that Yoav—at this point just an anonymous guy with a microphone—was not going to have his way with me.

He didn’t waste time getting to the point: Anyone who was expecting our trip to be a vacation was going to be shocked. He was going to work us, he promised. Not a minute of the next 10 days would be unaccounted for, and we would be expected to play by his rules and run at his pace. Above all, we were to never be late, listen when spoken to, and required to bring water and hats wherever we went—no exceptions.

Over the first few hours on our bus ride to the Negev desert, people who had been to Israel before remarked that Yoav was a typical Israeli man: built like a tank, hair cut close, bronzed skin, and a booming speaking voice that seemed to come from his stomach more than his throat. “He was like an Israeli G.I. Joe,” said 22-year-old Ian Rifkin later.

Towering above us from on top of a rock in the middle of the desert on that first afternoon, Yoav screamed at us like the army commander he was before he became a tour guide. It appeared that several people had neglected to bring hats with them on our cave-crawling expedition, and Yoav was not happy. “I don’t waste words,” he said, the tone in his voice not just enraged, but clearly designed to make us realize that we were under the supervision of a person who was not afraid to risk us not liking him. Certainly he knew his yelling might cause people to peg him for an unreasonable jerk on the first day. And indeed, the episode did make some of us concerned: Would our guide turn out to be an unlovable hard-ass? The prospect of 10 days with a guy who favored army-style tough love and cartoonish severity did not inspire optimism.

We realized we had nothing to worry about over the course of the next two days, as it became clear that Yoav’s bouts of fury, though frightening, were going to be brief and localized, rather than emotional or drawn out. We came to trust his sense of fairness and accepted that the logistical and disciplinary demands he made on us were rooted in unassailable priorities. We stopped talking whenever he started. When he asked for volunteers to carry water or load luggage onto the bus, we all raised our hands. Eventually, his occasional explosions, usually provoked by someone being late, became gradually less convincing—not because they were any less fluently delivered, but because most of us came to accept that everything Yoav did as a leader was meticulously, wisely planned.

Yoav was not an Israeli G.I. Joe, it turned out: He was a Zionist Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights: tough but righteous, at times intimidating, but never anything but 100 percent on our side. Like Coach Taylor did with his fictional Dillon Panthers football team, Yoav made us want to follow his instructions not only because we didn’t want to disappoint him, but because he had succeeded, in a remarkably short time, at convincing us we’d be better people if we did what he said.

* * *

On our third day in Israel, as readers of this blog already know, we woke up at 3:45 in the morning and were driven to Masada. We were deeply tired. Most people had gotten less than 10 hours of sleep in the two days since we got off the plane, and here we were about to hike up a mountain. The stage was set for a sleepy morning.

When we arrived at the foot of Masada, Yoav stopped us for a huddle and gave a rousing speech that made me feel like I was in a locker room preparing for the biggest game of the year. “Guys, how am I going to put this in words?” he said. “Climbing up Masada— excuse my language—is bullshit. Climbing up this hill is not that difficult, whatsoever. There are many places in Israel, many places throughout the world, where I can take you, which are much more challenging physically than climbing up Masada. This is bupkis, OK? It’s nothing.”

He let it sink for a second, then continued: “Viewing the sunrise from the top of Masada is also not that extraordinary. Guys, you can come to my place, to my balcony in Jerusalem, and see a beautiful sunrise with all the Judean desert below. The sunrise on Masada is beautiful. But that’s not the goal of coming to Masada. If one came to Masada, climbed up, saw the sunrise, and came down from Masada without understanding, without learning, without grasping the unique, extraordinary events that took place on that cliff two thousand years ago then that person did nothing. NOTHING. He just climbed up a cliff, saw the sunrise, and thought he was a hero.”

His point was we were supposed to listen. Yoav had a story to tell us, and he wanted us to hear it. He knew it was going to be a tough one—there was going to be zoning out and drifting off. This speech was his way of trying to reach us, of making it that much more important in our minds to stay awake and pay attention. As we started up the mountain, I half-expected him to lead us in a chant of “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”

He didn’t have to. As far as I could tell, the story he told on Masada—which clocked in at almost two hours—was a blockbuster hit, as well as a pivotal moment in the trip. Yoav spoke masterfully, unfolding the tale slowly and deliberately, with plot lines opening up and winding together and the drums beating louder and louder as we got closer to the climax. Every 15 minutes or so he’d move us to a different part of the site, thereby forcing us to stretch our legs and regain our focus, while also giving the story a natural undercurrent of suspense. By the time he got to the climax—when the Jews on the mountain decide to kill themselves rather than die at the hands of the Romans—people were totally enthralled, bursting into applause when he reached the end. As I walked down the mountain afterward, I thought to myself about all the times Yoav had told that story to the more than 90 Birthright trips he’s led in his life, all the ways in which he’d changed his delivery over the years, perfecting his pacing and tweaking the deployment of his big reveals.

A few nights later, sitting outside our hotel in Jerusalem, I asked Yoav whether the performance had been as carefully planned as it seemed.

“The Masada is a problem as a site,” he told me. “It is so difficult to guide. It is constantly hot. There’s no shade. And if you do go up for the sunrise, it is almost impossible to get the group’s attention. That’s why on Masada, I personally see to it that there will be a story which is basically a thickening plot. …That’s also the reason why I keep it moving from one spot to the next. I do it because I know otherwise people are not going to listen.”

It was like listening to a great mechanic explain how he’d built an engine. And watching Yoav over the past several days, as our trip wound down, I think all of us grew more and more deeply impressed with his skill as a teacher and a leader.

I know how that sounds, and there were most definitely moments when I shuddered a little at the extent to which we’re all eating out of his hand. At the same time, it was exhilarating to be in the presence of someone so on top of his game, someone who has perfected a complex craft over the years, and who performs his job with such charisma and virtuosic precision. And while sometimes I thought about the fact that Yoav works his magic multiple times a summer, with one group after another, and felt like something of a rube—the same way I have upon realizing that a beloved band does the same stage banter night after night—it mainly just made me more impressed by his ability to sustain such enthusiasm and affect such spontaneity.

I asked Yoav in Jerusalem if there are patterns he’s noticed over the years, in terms of how group dynamics form during the opening days of the trip, and how people’s behavior changes as they get to know each other and him. I wanted to know how much of what was happening during our Birthright trip—the weird sense of unity that took hold sometime between days two and three, especially—was structural and inevitable, rather than a function of the specific personalities and affinities that comprised our group. Answering the question, Yoav sounded like a veteran primatologist: “Things repeat themselves all the time,” he said. “I already know that people are going to come up to me and say certain things—and I like it. I like seeing how people are all the same.”

One thing he does every night before he goes to bed, he added, is make a map of everyone in his group and figure out how they’re all doing in relation to one other.

“I take a piece of paper and actually draw for myself the group,” he said. “I ask myself, ‘OK, what happened today? What were the dynamics? What was happening?’ I go through the names of the people and think, who was what, how was whom, and then, how can I upgrade? How can I make it even better?”

* * *

The one thing everyone in the group has said when asked about Yoav is that they don’t know where he gets his seemingly boundless energy. He’s always up first, and as far as anyone can tell, he’s always the last to go to bed. No one’s ever seen him take a nap on the bus and no one’s ever seen him lose his train of thought out of exhaustion. Even when he can go to bed, he doesn’t: After midnight on Wednesday, for instance, instead of going to his room and getting a little rest before our 6 a.m. wake-up call, he was sitting in the common area of the campground wearing a headlamp and playing chess with Marc Tracy.

I asked him that night how much sleep he gets. “Two to three hours, on average,” he answered. Someone in the vicinity expressed disbelief. “In your real life?”

“This is real life,” he said.

That might be the most difficult thing to understand about Yoav. After our trip, he’ll have one day off, before taking a whole new group of young people under his wing. Before the summer ends, he’ll have led seven Birthright groups just like ours. How he keeps his eyes clear or his heart full through all that, I have no idea.

Leon Neyfakh, 27, grew up in Chicago, and is originally from Moscow. He now works as a reporter in Boston.

Leon Neyfakh, 27, grew up in Chicago, and is originally from Moscow. He now works as a reporter in Boston.