I’m the son of the only Jewish lumberjack in Montana," Mace grinned. A marine veteran who served in Iraq, with an arm full of tattoos to show for it, Mace Gratz is now a pre-med student majoring in classics. He was among 6,000 young Jews crisscrossing Israel in June on a Taglit-Birthright Israel educational experience.
A month later, even after fighting erupted between Israel and Hezbollah, the Birthright program continued nonstop. Lora Mallory thinks back to July and August, when she was part of a busload traveling well south of the conflict. "I was excited to be there every moment of the trip," she recalled. Except for her grandmother, no one in Lora’s family had been to Israel. Now she remains in contact with friends made on the trip, both Israelis and Americans.
In ‘000, philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman began partnering with the Israeli government, the United Jewish Communities, and Jewish federations to provide a free trip to Jews, ages 18 to ‘6, who had never been to Israel with a peer group.
Six years and more than 100,000 alumni later, the program has become an incomparable springboard to enhanced Jewish identity.
Many participants were previously uninvolved in Jewish activities. But the 10-day experience has helped connect them to their Jewish selves and to each other. And the enhanced self-identification has translated into new post-trip involvement. Ask any Hillel staffer.
Adam Weisberg has been the director of Hillel at the University of California at Berkeley for seven years. He has seen hundreds of students a year who were minimally engaged with their Judaism become "hungry for more Jewish knowledge" after a Birthright trip.
More than half the returnees, he said, become more engaged in Jewish learning and involvement.
Andy Gitelson, 31, now assistant director at Indiana University’s Hillel, went on a Birthright experience in ‘000.
"If not for that trip I wouldn’t be working here today," he said. "It inspired me to a career in Jewish communal life."
Like Weisberg, Gittelson has seen a surge of participation by Birthright alumni in Hillel and Israel-related projects on his campus.
These observations, echoed by Hillel professionals around the country, are consistent with survey findings about Birthright participants. A report by the Cohen Study Center at Brandeis University indicates that large majorities of participants found their trips to have been an important "Jewish educational" and "meaningful" experience. Compared to non-participants who had applied but did not go on a trip, Birthright alumni were more likely to view Israel as a lively democracy and a source of pride.
Overall, only some ‘0 percent of Jewish college students indicate a strong identification with Israel. For Birthright alumni, the figure stands above 70 percent. Three years after the experience, feelings of a connection to Israel reportedly have fallen to around 60 percent, which suggests the need for more follow-up programs. Still, even at these levels, the success of Birthright is dazzling.
The typical Jewish young man or woman on Birthright is, well, atypical. Mace’s bus-mates included Joe, a legislative aide to a U.S. senator; Laura, a concierge at a posh Philadelphia hotel; Paolo, a Brazilian economics doctoral student at Princeton; and 35 others, including physicians, teachers, and businesspeople. Mace’s group was largely in their mid-‘0s and at the beginning of their careers. More commonly, groups include undergraduates, whose enthusiasm translates into increased Jewish engagement on campus.
For all, however, Birthright unfailingly produces young Jews more informed about — and connected to — Israel and Jewish interests.
Last summer I traveled with a half-dozen groups. Impressions from participants covered a ribbon-narrow spectrum, somewhere between "amazing" and "life-transforming."
I was surprised to hear several of them acknowledge hesitancy about "standing out" as Jews in the United States. They would have been uncomfortable, for example, to wear a star of David or other form of public identification as Jews. This I expected from young Russians (‘0 percent of Birthright participants are from outside of North America) but not Americans. Now, many said that Israel had injected them with a sense of pride about their Jewish identity.
The biggest challenge in the process lies, paradoxically, in Birthright’s success. During the first six months of ‘006, 1’,000 young people joined a trip, but another 18,000 were placed on waiting lists. There was not enough money to send them all. Meanwhile, Birthright supporters are exploring additional avenues of financial support. A Birthright Israel Foundation was established last year to seek more private funding. And UJC and the federations, dedicated to Birthright Israel, are considering new approaches to meet the avalanche of demand.
We surely must devise ways to respond. How else to draw together a marine, a concierge, a senate aide, and a Brazilian economist-to-be to learn about each other and burnish a common commitment to Israel and the Jewish people?
Leonard A. Cole is a liaison of United Jewish Communities to Birthright Israel. He lives in Ridgewood.