I’ve just returned from accompanying a group to Israel (in this case from the New York/New Jersey area, on one of two buses sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey). I now comprehend Birthright’s success formula. Take Israel, a vibrant country full of Jewish history, culture, and values; add 40 young people, six Israeli soldiers, and a 10-day itinerary that links the old with the new, that challenges participants on a personal and emotional level, and oh, by the way, offer it for free!
But these are just the ingredients. The success of the experience comes from the participants themselves. The power of Birthright is the participants’ ability to question their Judaism, their own values and beliefs, and challenge the norms older generations imparted to them. All of this is accomplished while happily touring Israel and experiencing it with their peers.
“I don’t think we knew who we were, and now we want to continue with it. I’m on a journey of self-discovery,” said Karly Morgenstein from Closter. Morgenstein returned less than three weeks ago but is already investigating the possibility of Hebrew classes and also returning to Israel for a longer experiential program. She is one example of many.
Just yesterday, Jason’s mother called me.
“We sent him to Jewish school until fifth grade, but he just wasn’t interested in the ‘Jewish thing,'” said his mother, Myra Pullman from Franklin Lakes. “I don’t know what you did, but it seems to be a life-changing experience.”
In case you don’t know what Taglit-Israel Birthright is, then let me explain: “The gift of a first time, peer group, educational trip to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26” (as you can read at www.birthrightisrael.com). The gift, which costs $3,000 per participant, is provided by several partners: private philanthropists; the people of Israel (through the Israeli government); and world Jewish communities (including Jewish federations and the Jewish Agency for Israel). In 2011 about 30,000 young people will have enjoyed the Birthright experience. It is hoped that number will increase to 52,000 participants by 2014.
Akiva Tor, writing in a 2010 issue of Eretz Acheret (an Israeli journal about “Jewish and Israeli-ness”), relates a bitter but important story. He writes about a university student called Joe Cohen (a pseudonym). Joe knows he’s Jewish because his parents have talked about the Jewish rites practiced by Joe’s grandparents. However, his family never does anything Jewish. Joe hears about Birthright and decides to register. Joe is placed on a waiting list, and because the program is oversubscribed he doesn’t get offered a place and never registers again. The opportunity to engage this young man is lost. Perhaps he will have opportunities later in life, but will he be interested in being Jewish then?
What do we do about this? In a time of so much strategic thinking and talk about reaching out to the next generation, the question begs to be asked: Why are we not sending every young, eligible Jewish person on this Taglit Birthright-Israel experience?
Unfortunately, the money donated each year will guarantee that only one in every three applicants will actually be able to participate. Yet money should not be a factor. Without a doubt, this is one of the few programs that successfully reaches out and affects the next generation. Some of Len Saxe’s findings in a 2009 study entitled “Generation Birthright Israel: The Impact of an Israel Experience on Jewish Identity and Choices” includes the observation that “compared to their peers who did not participate, [Taglit Birthright-Israel] alumni expressed stronger connections to Israel, connections to the Jewish people, and were more highly motivated to create Jewish families. But, even more striking was the finding that among married non-Orthodox respondents, participants were 57 percent more likely to be married to a Jew.”
Northern New Jersey is a fortunate community. There are many Jewish day schools and summer camp opportunities. However, there are just as many, if not more, Jewish people who reach the age of 18 who have not benefited from the “ideal” three-tiered educational template – Jewish day school, Jewish summer camp, and an Israel experience. It becomes imperative to reach out to these young people through Taglit-Israel Birthright.
As a community we should strive to learn about and support Taglit-Israel Birthright programs. Every effort should be made to seek out community members aged 18 to 26 and connect them with this “life-changing experience.” It is important to know that Birthright is the tip of the iceberg – it’s a 10-day taste of Israel, Judaism, and beyond. There is also MASA (a Jewish Agency for Israel- and Israeli-government sponsored organization), promoting semester and year-long Israel experiences, instead of the semester in Europe so many college students take. And further, it is vital to invest in the next generation not just through supporting Israel programs but by devoting resources to young Jewish people in this community. Granted, there are some efforts to connect with the next generation of young Jewish people through synagogues and JCCs. There just needs to be more. A lot, lot more.