How “Birthright-Israel” is saving Judiasm’s future

By Naomi Schaeffer Riley,
Author of “‘Til Faith Do Us Part”

At 8 p.m. on a recent Thursday, the music was pumping and the lights were flashing but hardly anyone was dancing at a club on the West Side of Manhattan. Instead, the hundred or so patrons in their 20s and 30s were crowded around the two open bars, embracing old friends and joking about the dance-floor games that were coming later—the limbo, freeze dance, etc. If the games and the empty dance floor weren’t enough of a tipoff, perhaps the bunches of balloons tied all over the room were. This was supposed to be a bar mitzvah, but one for an organization, not a boy on the cusp of becoming a young man.

The celebration was for the 13th year of a program called Taglit-Birthright Israel. (“Taglit” is Hebrew for discovery.) And the 300-plus people who eventually arrived for the combination reunion and fundraiser were mostly alumni—Jews who had received from the program a free 10-day trip to Israel before they turned age 26.

Established by Jewish philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, among others, in collaboration with the Israeli government and various Jewish communal organizations, Birthright’s goal is “to strengthen Jewish identity, Jewish communities and solidarity with Israel.” As the generation that experienced the Holocaust and the creation of Israel grew older and died, younger Jews began to view the issue of a Jewish state with less and less urgency.

Birthright’s founders wanted to counter the waning interest in Judaism among the young. So far, the organization has sent more than 300,000 Jews from 59 countries to Israel—mostly from the U.S. and Canada.

Mark Shapiro, a former consultant for McKinsey & Co. who worked on the original plans for Birthright, says that some of the impetus for the project came from the 1990 Jewish Population Survey that showed an intermarriage rate for American Jews of greater than 50%. The children, and especially the grandchildren, of these unions showed declining interest in Judaism. “The idea was to give everybody some connection to their heritage,” Mr. Shapiro says.

In the years since the Birthright program was launched, Leonard Saxe, the director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, has led a research group studying its effects, and he has been impressed. “In the modern world,” Mr. Saxe says, “we all have multiple identities, from where we were born to who our parents are. The Birthright trip has put Jewish identity closer to the top of that list.”

Mr. Saxe’s team has found, for instance, that Birthright produced a small increase in the likelihood that young Jews will light candles or have a special meal on Shabbat. Among participants, 51% reported lighting candles at least sometimes, compared with 42% among nonparticipants.

Jenna Garson, who attended the bar mitzvah event and went on the trip in 2008, says that Birthright didn’t change her Jewish practice very much. She still doesn’t go to synagogue much beyond the high holidays. What really changed, she says, was her attachment to Israel.

It is a common result of the Birthright trips: In a 2008 survey, 55% of participants felt that Israel is a “source of pride,” compared with 35% of nonparticipants. Forty percent felt that the Jewish state is a “refuge for persecuted Jews,” compared with 22% of nonparticipants.

Brian Smith went on the trip in September 2007 and said the “most moving part of the experience” was a visit to Masada, where in the first century Romans laid siege to a fortress held by Jewish rebels, who chose to die rather than succumb. Mr. Smith says he was brought up with a strong sense of his Jewish roots, which later weakened while he was an undergraduate at Indiana University. The Birthright trip sparked a stronger sense of identity, he says, and inspired him to “put my best foot forward to further a culture that has been around for 5,700 years.”

Still, it isn’t clear how the Birthright veterans will “further a Jewish culture.” A few years ago, organizers started to think more seriously about how the program’s alumni could translate their experiences into greater participation in the Jewish community. Birthright NEXT was formed to encourage the process. Among other things, the group offers to pay for Shabbat dinners hosted by Birthright participants. Over 15,000 such meals have been held.

But as so often happens, giving away trips and dinners may devalue them in the eyes of recipients. A few Birthright participants mentioned in interviews having misgivings that the trip to Israel was free. They also hoped alums would give at least a small donation to the organization.

Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of Jewish Week, wrote recently that the program may give young Jews the impression that participation in Jewish life has no costs: “Surely free offers have appeal for the targeted audience, but is this a sign of strategic planning or desperation?” If the bar mitzvah bash is any evidence, perhaps a little of both.

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