A new report out of Brandeis University not only reaffirms the inspirational effects of a Birthright Israel experience, it shows them to be long lasting. The 10-day trip to Israel is open to Jewish18- to 26-year-olds. According to the report, alumni who participated as far back as eight years ago continue to credit the experience with heightening their sense of connection to Israel and the Jewish people. Compared to age-equivalent non-participants, they are more likely to have become strong advocates for Israel, joined a synagogue or congregation, and married a Jew. But while a Birthright trip is limited to young adults, its full potential to energize the larger Jewish world has yet to be tapped.
“Amazing,” “incredible,” “fantastic” are common characterizations by Birthright participants about the experience. In fact, the new study, which was headed by Brandeis Prof. Leonard Saxe, shows that 73 percent of alumni felt the trip had been very much or somewhat “life-changing.” Only 11 percent said it was not at all life-changing, which includes respondents who might have felt this way because they were already committed Jews.
The effects ripple far beyond the circle of participants. Upon return, a participant’s exhilaration often touches parents, grandparents, and anyone else willing to listen. Hearing a Birthright returnee has inspired many a friend and relative to visit Israel. So Birthright is also an indirect promoter of travel to the Jewish state.
Since the program began 10 years ago, 220,000 young Jews have participated, many of whom previously had little connection to Jewish life. Now, as alums continue their journey of Jewish exploration, they often remain in touch with one another and with Israeli soldiers who rode the buses with them. These are not trivial observations in this age of assimilation and otherwise declining support for Israel among young Jews.
The word is out among wannabe participants, who are both eligible and eager. But here’s a sad statistic: This summer, although some 10,000 Jews went on a Birthright trip, 24,000 were turned down because of lack of funds. (Another 10,000 slots will open for the winter trips.) This year’s $80 million budget would need to double in order to match the demand. Given the recession, now is an especially challenging time to call for a large increase in support. But most wait-listed applicants never reapply, which should prompt a sense of urgency.
Of course, a disappointed applicant might later visit Israel under different auspices or otherwise become engaged in Jewish activities. But the distinctive success of Birthright lies in bringing young people together to share the experience at an optimal period in their development. The transition years into adulthood are a time of introspection about identity. Birthright offers young Jews, especially those who previously felt little connection to their heritage, a singular reference point for the rest of their lives. On the evidence, there is no substitute for a Birthright trip, not only because of how it is framed, but when it takes place in a person’s life.
Which leads to two suggestions: First, seek new sources of funding. Since its inception, Birthright trips largely have been funded by major philanthropists, federations, and the Israeli government. The program has been premised on a free, no-strings offer to participants. This noble intention – that every Jewish young adult has a “birthright” to a free educational trip to Israel – has been overtaken by the program’s success. More important than maintaining the purity of the initial premise is to enlarge the pool of availability. Thus, the terms should be amended. Every participant (or family of a participant) should be encouraged to help cover the cost of a slot for a successor applicant. Those unable at this time should commit to a good faith effort in the next few years.
Second, and more important, Birthright has yet to summon the passionate commitment that has been given to other causes such as support for Israel, the campaign for Soviet Jewry, and the rescue of Ethiopian Jews. Birthright, similarly, could become a central purpose in Jewish life. Its ultimate value deserves community-wide consciousness and financial support – from federations, but also from synagogues, educational institutions, and communal organizations.
Even a fraction of one percent above the dues to these institutions, voluntarily dedicated to Birthright, would open slots for thousands more.
From the pulpit, rabbis, lay leaders, and Birthright returnees could emphasize the importance of Birthright and encourage congregants’ support. Congregational and day schools could seek to integrate Birthright with their own student trips. National and local Jewish agencies could offer financial support and create venues for Birthright alums to participate in their organizations’ activities.
A vast increase in the numbers of givers would enhance the sense of community-wide engagement. The goal should be to transform Birthright from its status as a worthy program to an overarching cause. In the process it would also become a bonding experience for the entire Jewish world.