Recently, much attention has been unduly focused on the “hookup scene” of Birthright. People might be prone to think that the primary purpose of Birthright is to work on “Jewish continuity” during the trip itself in a very practical manner. I have been privileged to be involved with Birthright groups as an Israeli educational tour guide and program designer since the program’s inception. In fact, I may well be one of the longest-serving Birthright Israel tour guides, dating back to the pilot program in December 1999. I can categorically state that, contrary to some misinformed suggestions, Birthright is not a Woodstock revival-type tour for hedonists.
Taglit Birthright Israel is now 15 years old and has brought some 500,000 young Jews to Israel. It is one of the most significant quality Jewish educational identity building experiences, and our global community needs to do whatever it can to keep this program running. Together we need to pull an entire generation back from the abyss of assimilation and apathy by positively reconnecting them to their religion, people and land.
My doctoral thesis takes a unique look at Birthright’s impact from the point of view of the Israeli soldiers who participate on the trip. Of course the major donours have focused on the effects on the diaspora participants. But about 100,000 IDF soldiers, the cream of the crop, have taken part as well, touring with groups for five to ten days on a “Mifgash” (informal cross-cultural-peer-to-peer encounter). My research has found that these encounters shatter their stereotypical impressions of shallow American Jews and rude Israelis. It makes the Israelis see what they have in common with other young Jews, but also strengthens their motivation to serve. The IDF soldiers see themselves through the eyes of their American peers and it gives them a strong sense of purpose, of being part of and protecting Jewish people everywhere.
Indeed, An effective Mifgash challenges negative stereotypes which are caused by casual encounters, and that it enables both sides to expand their Jewish horizons by learning to appreciate each other’s different perceptions of Jewishness. It allows the American participants to gain an understanding of the complex multi-dimensional, multi-cultural reality that is Israel.