Birthright Turns 20

By Eliana Rudee, JNS.org

In January, Taglit Birthright celebrated a major anniversary, representing two decades of the 10-day trips that have impacted the lives of more than 750,000 emerging Jewish adults worldwide.

The program was founded by Jewish philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, with support from private donors and the Israeli government, to spur involvement by North American youth who were becoming increasingly disassociated with their Jewish roots. It initially was geared for ages 18 to 26, though the target age has been extended. While young Jews around the world can participate, the large majority have been those from the United States and Canada.

Len Saxe, who in his role as professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Brandeis University has written extensively on the impact of Birthright, said “the enormous impact that the program has on the lives of people who participate.”

By comparing those who have applied for and participated in Birthright, versus those who applied but did not participate, Saxe has traced the lives of various groups of participants six, 12, 18, 24 and 36 months post-program to find that “Birthright is a pivotal movement that changed the trajectory of engagement with Jewish life.”

According to his “conservative estimates through complex modeling,” those who go on a Birthright trip are 50 percent more likely to marry another Jew and raise Jewish children. Additionally, Jewish identity, connection to a Jewish community and connection to Israel each increase significantly more for those who participated.

Upon returning to Portland State University from his Birthright trip in winter 2015, Cole Keister found that “BDS [had come] to campus” through a motion by the “very anti-Israel” student government that passed the movement to boycott Israel by 23-3. “The language they were using was off the normal BDS script,” he said. “They were calling out Jewish people and weren’t even being anti-Israel, just straight up anti-Semitic.”

Birthright, he said, catapulted his journey to becoming president of the Israel group on his campus following the onslaught of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment there. “I have created dozens of events and collaborations with other student groups, [such as] the Filipino student union, African student association and more,” he said. “I have learned to be a leader. I went on Birthright, and now here I am.”

According to Saxe, Keister’s story is not an outlier. Most participants, he said, come with positive views on Israel, and even those who are critical of the policies of the Israeli government typically express a strong connection to the Jewish state. “Participants start out with a fairly high connection and association. And this is what is remarkable about Birthright—it is deeply enhanced by the experience. Those who were connected to Israel become very connected,” he noted. “There are a relatively few number of people who come feeling completely disconnected from Israel, and that number after they come back is very, very small.”

Jewish identity and involvement are also “enormously impacted,” affirmed Saxe. “Birthright alumni are overrepresented in terms of incidence in the population as professional staff in Jewish Federations and careers in the Jewish world, including those who did not go to Jewish day school or had much involvement in the Jewish community early on.”

The participants who witness the biggest transformations, according to the researcher, are those who had poorly formed Jewish backgrounds in early life, with little to no exposure to formal and informal Jewish education.

In winter 2018, Tennessee native Natalie Dubin concluded her Mayanot Birthright Israel trip with a better understanding of what it means to be a Jew, as well as a stronger desire to become more involved with the Jewish community back home. With barely any Jewish education growing up, in 2019, Dubin reported still feeling “connected” and “changed,” with her trip inspiring her to explore her background further and even wear a Jewish star to express her pride in her identity.

After returning to Asheville, N.C., where she works as a speech therapist, Dubin recalled talking to everyone at work about the experience and how “it was much more than I could have ever expected.”

“I raved to my friends about how I fell in love with the people in Israel and how amazing I found the Jewish religion to be,” she said. “Friends would ask if I claim to be Jewish or not, and I tell them I’m not a religious person, but I am Jewish,” she declared.

That represented a marked difference, she added, compared to a year-and-a-half prior to the trip when she wouldn’t “advertise” her religion.

The Israeli soldiers who participate, too, are “in many ways as profoundly affected as the Diaspora participants,” reported Saxe. “It is interesting how similar they describe the experience. They say, “I came into the program as an Israeli in the army, protecting my country, and I came out feeling not just as an Israeli but a Jew, part of something greater than myself and my community.”

“It is clear that Birthright is transformative,” he summarized.

Working with psychologists and experts in education to create programming that is emotionally, physically and intellectually engaging, Birthright is continuously navigating how to achieve its objectives with a diverse and ever-changing population of emerging Jewish adults who represent a range of geographies, backgrounds and education.

Two decades after its founding, the program’s central challenge “in a world of pathological individualism,” summed up Saxe, is to continue to hone in on how to make the best use of the 10 days to “provide a Jewish identity experience that reinforces the notion that we are connected to one another and part of something greater than ourselves.”

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