This month has been set aside by Taglit- Birthright Israel as a celebration of its bar mitzvah year. Over 150 congregations from 42 states will be participating in Birthright Shabbats, including my own. It is an anniversary worth celebrating, because nothing has changed the landscape of Jewish peoplehood over the past decade more than these free 10-day trips to Israel. More than 300,000 young Jewish adults from 54 countries have experienced Birthright Israel, and studies show that the impact on their life trajectories has been profound, particularly among those from less engaged Jewish backgrounds. Birthright alums are much more connected to Israel than their counterparts, much more connected to the Jewish community and about twice as likely to marry other Jews and have Jewish children.
I’m about to perform my first Birthright wedding. No, the couple didn’t meet in Israel – they weren’t even there at the same time. But each of them came back so Jewishly charged that they signed up for Jdate, and, when they met, Birthright was that common emotional experience that propelled their relationship forward. They followed the Birthright formula – the best way to fall in love WITH Israel is to fall in love IN Israel. Even though they were back on American soil, Jerusalem had captured their hearts.
There’s something magical in the Birthright Kool Aid. It’s “Spring Break” for Jews, a ten day hook up party; only it’s free, Cancun has been transported 6,000 miles east, the hook up is with a country, and it’s not for one night, it’s forever. Israelis love to make fun of the program and they’ve transformed the prevailing stereotype of the American tourist from a fat, ugly middle aged guy with a dangling camera around his exposed paunch, to a doe-eyed, wealthy Birthright coed, naïve and unschooled, easy pickings for soldiers, tour guides and fund raisers. But whatever Kool Aid the Birthrighters are drinking, they come home and rave to about it to their friends and parents, the waiting lists keep getting longer and the kids just keep on coming. And their elders are following suit. Tourism to Israel hit record levels in April, a month that is not prime time for college students to travel. Older adults have caught the bug.
While the program has no doubt increased the connection between American Jews and Israel, a significant majority of American Jews still have never visited the Jewish state, 59 percent according to the recent AJC survey. But still, at 300,000 and counting, Birthright has reversed one of the many downward demographic trends in American Jewish life and it is changing the culture in numerous other ways.
Some of the ripple effects include:
- A Jewish renaissance on college campuses. Hillel’s growth has been fueled by the Birthright phenomenon, which has enabled Jewish organizations to reach beyond the core activists to students who previously would never have wanted to identify actively as Jews.
- Israel advocacy on campus has never been more vibrant and diverse, and despite the efforts of the BDS and “Apartheid Week,” never more successful. The growing presence of both AIPAC and J-Street on campus corresponds to the increased size of Birthright’s footprint.
- The Startup Nation has birthed a Startup Culture. Birthright Israel was the ultimate startup by a Jewish community that had become overly beaurocratized and cautious. This partnership of mega donors, federations and Israel was unprecedented, and it worked. As result, other startups have addressed a variety of pressing needs. The results have been mixed but the entrepreneurial spirit has changed American Jewish life, weakening and decentralizing the federations while encouraging the private funders to take more risks in backing worthy projects.
- The partnership with Israel in strengthening Diaspora Jewry barely existed before Birthright, and from a philanthropic standpoint, the program reversed the roles that had existed since the founding of the state. The money now flows both ways. Israel recognizes that a thriving Diaspora is essential to its long term survival. American Jews, meanwhile, have come to recognize that the Israel experience is the only way to ensure a thriving Diaspora.
- Great PR for Israel. Young adults are getting the word out through their social networks that Israel is a great place to visit and an amazing country, period. The trips have more than paid for themselves in hasbara value. When I first spoke about the program to my teens thirteen years ago, they were floored that Israel cared enough about them to invest 70 million dollars in their future. What better PR can there be than that?
- It’s hard to measure the impact on synagogue affiliation thus far, but millennials have never been joiners. I am seeing an increased interest in community life and Jewish learning among young professionals, however, and Birthright has become a prime tool for recruitment.
- Hummus sales have skyrocketed. Blame it on Bar Rafaeli, Sacha Baron Cohen or the Zohan, but I think Birthright is the biggest reason why Israeli culture and cuisine have never been so popular on this side of the pond.
But by far the biggest impact of Birthright Israel is that it has proven, once and for all, that no Jew should ever be written off. Back in 1999, the organizers of the program debated whether to focus on those still in high school or those over 18. I was one of those who felt that a highly subsidized high school trip was a far better investment than a 10 day college quickie. Catch them before they leave the coop, I figured, so that their parents and rabbis can reinforce the message of peoplehood when the teens come home. Once they are in college, it’s too late to reel them in, I thought.
I was wrong.
As I look down the list of my hundred plus congregants who have been on these trips, there are several whom I’ve barely seen since their bar mitzvahs and I assumed might be lost to the Jewish people. They are precisely the ones Birthright was created for, not those “core” Jews who have visited Israel often.
Those who opposed Birthright bemoaned the fact that cheap Israel trips are no panacea for assimilation. They appealed for caution before wasting so much funding on “lost causes.” They saw periphery Jews as a bad risk. Such people would likely have advised Ben-Gurion to cut his losses, hold off on statehood and send it to committee. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg says that a leader should aim to be at most 15 percent ahead of his people. I sense that in this case, the proponents of Birthright Israel were way ahead of the Jewish establishment, and right in step with the times.
The “outreach” vs. “inreach” debate is over. Game, set and match. Outreach wins.
Ten days is all it takes.
Birthright is the 21st century version of the sage Hillel’s conversion program. He accomplished it all while standing on one foot. But then he added, “go and study.”
The challenge, then, is one we face after any Bar Mitzvah. We’ve got to keep them engaged and interested. But Birthright Israel has given the Jewish community a precious gift – just when we thought they were gone for good, we’ve got another chance to reach out to them and welcome them home. Ten days can ignite a flame.
All we’ve got to do is keep it burning.