Will Birthright Save American Jewry?


If you get Jews to Israel, they will identify more with Judaism and Israel. This is the premise of the Birthright Israel program, one that is based less on documented fact than the anecdotal experience of older Jews who found this to be the case in their own lives. After spending time with groups of Birthright students in Israel, it is hard to doubt the power of the experience and to believe the silver bullet has been found to ensure the survival of American Jewry.

Every student described the trip as the experience of their lives, using adjectives like "awesome," "inspirational," "emotional" and "powerful." In fact, the only negative comments were that they were exhausted from lack of sleep.

Most of the students can't really describe how their lives have been changed, and what they say while on the trip probably doesn't mean that much since they are in the midst of their high. Birthright is doing studies on the students' behavior when they return and the results are everything you'd hope for in terms of getting participants excited about Israel, interested in Judaism and motivated to become involved in Jewish life. The real question is what will happen to these people in 10-15 years when they are old enough to join synagogues, contribute to federations and begin to have children.

The impact of the trips to Israel also varies depending on the level of knowledge and commitment the students bring with them. Participants range from those with Orthodox Jewish backgrounds to a student who thought their group leader meant hotel when he said they were going to the Kotel. Organizers purposely targeted the less involved and knowledgeable —— Hillel even set a quota on the number of students active on campus they would accept —— to reach out to those least likely to visit Israel on their own.

Critics have said you can't expect much from a 10-day trip, and it's true these visits have limitations. I found it frustrating, for example, that the students spend little time with Israelis and none with Arabs, that they didn't visit many important places like the Knesset or the Christian and Muslim Quarters of the Old City. Some of the omissions were for logistical reasons, some were out of concerns for safety (parents should feel reassured the organizers were hypersensitive and erred on the side of caution) and some required more background. On this last point, for example, a leader of one of the Reform groups that is very active in Jewish-Arab coexistence projects said most students on the Birthright trips just didn't know enough about Israel's history and politics to have an intelligent and meaningful discussion with Israeli Arabs.

Schedules were so jam-packed, it would have been difficult to fit in anything more; besides, no one trip can cover everything. Birthright offers an introduction to Israel that is meant to stimulate participants to want to return to see what they've missed and learn more. Those I spoke to all expressed a desire to return.

The only organizations at the moment that are making it easy and affordable for return trips are the yeshivas. They are offering programs for around $200, including airfare, to entice students to spend part of their summers in Israel. Perhaps other organizations can begin to offer special Birthright alumni trips at reduced rates. In the meantime, Birthright says youth trips to Israel have increased 30% since their program began.

Perhaps the biggest concern about Birthright after its initial success has been how to follow-up on the experience. Lots of new ideas and programs are being developed, and they are essential to channel students' enthusiasm into Jewish activity. Birthright is a victim of its own success here. It was only designed to get kids to Israel and then the expectation was that other Jewish institutions would pick up from there. This isn't going to happen without Birthright's direct involvement, however, and they are beginning to take a role in post-trip programming, starting on a small-scale by offering grants for innovative projects.

Much more has to be done. For example, Jewish federations and other organizations need to reach out to Birthright alumni and offer them internships, paid jobs and board positions. If the establishment simply waits for them to get jobs so they can start soliciting them for donations, it will be too late, and the next generation will be turned off by the plutocratic system that governs Jewish organizational life.