Jewish Political Studies Review 21:1-2 (Spring 2009)
The “Birthright Israel” project is one of the most fascinating Jewish endeavors of this decade. It consists of a ten-day free, informal, educational visit to Israel by young adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six. The criteria for participation are “simple and straightforward: one had to self-identify as Jewish, be between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six, and never have visited Israel as part of an educational program”(13).
Up till autumn 2008, there have been about two hundred thousand participants in the project, of whom one hundred and fifty thousand were North Americans. In North America 15-20 percent of the currently qualifying age cohorts have participated in the program. The number of applicants far exceeds that of places available.
Leonard Saxe, a social psychologist, is professor of Jewish Community Research and Social Policy at Brandeis University. Barry Chazan is professor emeritus at the School of Education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is the main contributor to the educational concept of Birthright Israel’s program.
In this book the authors tell how Birthright Israel originated, how it is structured, how providers of the trip and participants are selected, what the program’s success factors are, and how it is funded. This book, together with a number of additional research studies on the project, forms one of the most detailed case studies of any recent major Jewish endeavor.
The first Birthright Israel participants arrived in Israel in January 2000. The initiators, mega-donors Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, had to overcome several major obstacles before this could happen. Few people believed that bringing unattached young Jewish adults to Israel for a short trip of informal education would be more than a free and fun vacation.
The initiators did not have to overcome only this attitude. They had to find co-sponsors – the major one is the Israeli government. Others are various private philanthropists, Jewish Federations in North America, Jewish communities elsewhere, and the Jewish Agency. Obtaining the additional funding, building a complex and efficient program, and researching its results testify to the business approach and skills of the program’s initiators.
The Birthright Israel project is accompanied by extensive studies on the participants’ opinions and reactions during and following the trip. From these studies it becomes clear that three main factors determine the project’s success: the quality of the guide, the experience of a common bus community, and the “mifgash,” the encounter with Israeli personalities and peers. A crucial development was the agreement of the Israeli Defense Forces to allow soldiers to participate in all bus tours for several days. A study shows that for the Israeli peers also, the encounter with young adults from abroad usually leads to a change in their attitude toward Diaspora Jews.
Research shows that the impact of the trip on the least attached is most significant. It proves that Israel is a central element in building Jewish identity and that the notion of Jewish people-hood is not an abstract one. The studies show that the project leads to attitudinal changes toward Judaism for a great number of the participants, and that these seem to last for several years thereafter. The time passed is still too short to judge whether this will be permanent or will greatly fade over the years.
The Birthright Israel trips, however, have far less impact on the participants’ behavior than on their attitudes. This is the greatest challenge for the sponsors of the project which, by now, has cost an estimated $450 million. For the great majority of the participants, Shabbat in Jerusalem was one of the most powerful experiences of the trip. But the Shabbat services and meetings to which they return, either on campus or in communities, is the same old experience in which they often did not want to participate.
Thus many questions remain. Can one build on the Israel experience to get a substantial number of unaffiliated Jews closer to the communities where they live abroad and how can that be fostered? Who should facilitate it? Will the project lead to less intermarriage and, if not, at least to more children from these mixed marriages being educated as Jews? Will it lead to more people being involved in Jewish organizations and to future donations which will “pay back” part of the financial investment made by the Jewish world to bring these young adults to Israel?
The book contains a wealth of material which can be useful also for the policy-making of many other Jewish organizations. This is further enriched by the research undertaken by Brandeis University on behalf of Birthright Israel on a broad range of topics. One of the studies contradicts the common belief that American Jewry is growing more distant from Israel.
To conclude: In one of the book’s chapters Albert Einstein is quoted as saying “looking at the Jews as such, I can’t say I enjoy it much. Looking at the rest, I’d say I’ll be Jewish any day” (72). This can be considered eminently valid as well for both the Jewish people abroad and Israelis today.
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. For instance, Leonard Saxe, Ted Sasson, and Shahar Hecht, “Taglit-Birthright Israel: Impact on Jewish Identity, Peoplehood, and Connection to Israel,” Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, 2006; Leonard Saxe, Theodore Sasson, Benjamin Phillips, Shahar Hecht, and Graham Wright, “Taglit-Birthright Israel Evaluation: 2007 North American Cohorts,” Steinhardt Social Research Institute Brandeis University, 2007; Theodore Sasson, Leonard Saxe, Mark I. Rosen, Dana Selinger-Abutbul, and Shahar Hecht, “After Birthright Israel: Finding and Seeking the Jewish Community,” Steinhardt Social Research Institute, Brandeis University, 2007; Theodore Sasson, David Mittelberg, Shahar Hecht, and Leonard Saxe, “Encountering the Other, Finding Oneself: The Taglit-Birthright Israel Mifgash,” Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, 2008.
. Theodore Sasson, Charles Kadushin, and Leonard Saxe, “American Jewish Attachment to Israel: An Assessment of the ‘Distancing Hypothesis,'” Steinhardt Social Research Institute, Brandeis University, 2008.
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Manfred Gerstenfeld is chairman of the Board of Fellows of the JCPA and an editor of JPSR.