Now in its thirteenth year, Taglit-Birthright Israel is coming of age. A non-profit organization that provides free trips to Israel for Jewish college students and young adults, Birthright is the brainchild of philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, who saw a need in their community and rose to meet it in a unique way. Putting up $8 million apiece to start, they then recruited 15 other partners to contribute $5 million each and solicited $70 million in matching funds from the state of Israel. Today, the program has a broad base of support, with more than 30,000 sponsors who make it possible for about 50,000 souls to travel to the Jewish homeland each year. To date, Birthright has brought 350,000 young Jews to Israel, most of them for the first time. This summer, I was one of them.
As the daughter of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, I was raised in a wonderful secular home. But as I grew up, I wanted to embrace Judaism, and I didn’t know how. I kept trying different synagogues, but without Hebrew I often left services feeling out of place. I believed in God, but if I hadn’t gone to Israel I might never have felt, as I do now, that I could be a “real Jew.”
Birthright’s mission is to strengthen Jewish identity and nurture a connection to Israel, a necessary task given low Jewish birth rates and high assimilation. As Steinhardt points out, “Birthright stands in dramatic contrast to the broader Jewish institutional environment, which is weak and in decline by most important measures. It is a genuine breath of fresh air to the entire Jewish world.”
For his part, Bronfman recognizes that while older Jews who lived through Israel’s mid-century existential struggles feel viscerally invested in its fate, younger generations may have a more complicated outlook. But when they visit with Birthright Israel, he says, they meet Jewish peers in the army, in religious life, in universities, and elsewhere, and through these relationships form meaningful and informed connections to Israel.
In a 2012 study on the long-term effects of Birthright, Brandeis University researchers found that 90 percent of participants reported feeling “closer to Israel” because of their trip and 30 percent made return visits to the country. Trip-goers were more confident explaining Israel’s political situation, and somewhat more likely to marry someone Jewish and to place importance on raising a family in Judaism.
For me, there was something wonderful about being in a place where everyone assumed I was Jewish. I have red hair and freckles. In the U.S., people say, “Oh! I thought you were Irish.” In Israel, they say, “Ah, King David was also a ginger.”
It is impossible to know until you feel it what a difference it makes to see the world slow down on Saturdays instead of Sundays. I fell asleep to what sounded like thunder but what I learned was the sound of bombs dropping in Syria, and understood, in a small way, just how very close Israel is to its hostile neighbors. The people who live there seem to run on pure chutzpah, tempered by a gravitas that I found surprising.
When our guide told us about Mount Masada, where nearly one thousand Jews committed suicide rather than be taken by the Romans, one of the soldiers on our trip frowned, saying, “I don’t think this is a good story to tell to kids.” I asked, “You don’t think it’s noble to live free or die?” The soldier replied, “Sometimes, survival is the most noble thing.”
Something in me shifted. For the first time, I felt the weight of this ancient tradition that had endured, miraculously, for thousands of years. Of course, I went to Israel searching for that. Not all participants have the same experience.
Steinhardt warns that Birthright is just a starting point, not a panacea for lost religious identity. “The ten days of Birthright Israel cannot fully offset the appallingly poor Jewish education most of its participants were subjected to,” he cautions. “In that light, the long-term benefits of Birthright remain uncertain. The future is thus up for grabs.”