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Numbers, Names, and Creating Lasting, Personal Bonds

Numbers, Names, and Creating Lasting, Personal Bonds

How difficult is it to learn the names of 40 strangers… all at once? For me, at least, the answer is “very.” I’ve had the privilege of leading two URJ Kesher Birthright trips to Israel, and names, it seems, are always the immediate challenge.

Yes, there are other, more pressing matters, such as finding a lost luggage, dealing with that one participant who never showed up to the airport, and making sure everyone is drinking enough water to survive a trip to the desert.

But learning everyone’s names is harder than all of those things.  

Birthright trip leaders spend their entire days making sure no one gets lost – so on the first night of the first trip I lead, we sat the group in a circle and counted off. Whatever number each participant said aloud was to become their place in the group count-off for the duration of the trip. The plan was that whenever we needed to account for everyone in the group, we’d engage in the simple act of counting off.

What an easy way to make sure everyone was present… even before I could remember their names!

But later, one participant approached me privately and made clear that he was uncomfortable with the count-off system. As Jews, he said, we should know better than to assign people numbers.


In all of my training, nothing had prepared me for that. I put on my best relational hat, assured him we would find a new system, and silently debated whether a simple count-off could or should be considered offensive.

The answer I arrived at was simple: It didn’t matter what I thought. It didn’t matter that kindergarten classes throughout the nation used a count-off system. It didn’t matter that tens of thousands of Birthright groups before us used count-off systems.

All that mattered was that this person, in this moment, on this trip, felt uncomfortable. And it was up to me to fix that.

This simple act of trying to emotionally protect my participant was a proud moment for me – but unfortunately, it was also quite the downfall in our attempts to keep track of everyone. Over the course of the next few days, we tried just about every attendance system we could think of.

We had people pair up as famous couples (peanut butter and jelly, Fred and Wilma), but that was a mess. We tried having everyone sing a line from a song we all knew (“I believe I can fly…” “…I believe I can touch the sky…”), but it didn’t work. Without a count-off, I found myself frantically (silently) counting everyone in the group each time we gathered.

Eventually, we landed on a system: The group stood in a circle, and everyone looked to their right. The person next to them the one they had to assure was there each time we did attendance. Then, I counted the group myself to make sure there were no breaks in the chain. It wasn’t efficient, but it was fun.

In fact, all the systems that we tried were fun. Two and a half years and five counting systems later, I still remember everyone’s names. I remember where most of them are from, what they do, and what the most moving part of the Birthright trip was for them.

When my second trip rolled around, I discovered that my co-staffer an amazing people-counter. I was the Scottie Pippen of counting heads, he was the Michael Jordan – the best of the best, constantly amazing me and our tour guide. We had no need to come up with some elaborate system, because the most efficient one was right there with us.

But we still needed to learn one another’s names! We tried all the usual icebreakers – but as it turns out, learning 40 names is still really tough.

On day three of the trip, I realized I still knew very few participants’ names, so I made it my mission that day to learn them all. I had to ask people for their names multiple times, which was incredibly awkward, but by the end of that day, I’d learned all 40 names. I was proud.

Six months later, though, I can only picture most of the participants. I can name some of them. I can tell you where only about five of them go to school. I made an effort to spend time with all participants equally, and in fact, I think I was better at it on the second trip than on the first – so what gives?

Why did I connect so much more deeply to that first group? I think it’s because we had to work together, as a team, to embrace our shortcomings. I was forced to truly learn each of their names and faces, and in turn, their stories – because merely counting them was not an option.

As we welcome people new people into our groups, communities, and congregations, how can we really connect with them? My Birthright experience has taught me that learning a name or assigning a number isn’t enough. We need to create true collaboration in order to create that lasting bond.

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