This enterprise isn’t top secret. Foreign governments aren’t chasing after its schematics, and the KGB isn’t waging silenced-pistol battles against the Mossad to gain control of its firing mechanism.
The United States isn’t worried about who will replicate it, and Iran isn’t interested in building one – if it were…whatever. Its ordinance is purely self-defensive.
Elbit Systems, RAPAEL, Israel Weapon Industries, none of these highly respected arms manufacturers have anything to do with our greatest modern weapon and, yet, a full third of the project’s colossal budget is funded directly by the Jewish state.
This armament has no cannon and doesn’t spit out bullets at remarkable speeds. It does, however, require constant reloading; fortunately, its cache is replenished often.
It doesn’t need gunpowder or heavy explosives. Given one Goldstar beer and a few shots of watered-down tequila, these things go off louder than an Iron Dome interceptor knocking incoming projectiles out the sky.
Israelis are kept up many a night when its precious payload hits the ground, roiling down the winding streets of Jerusalem like napalm through a rainforest. But the locals rarely complain, especially since it does wonders for the country’s economy.
I am, of course, referring to Birthright, Israel.
Taglit – sometimes mistaken for a complimentary cross-country speed dating service – is a nonprofit educational organization that sponsors free ten-day trips to Israel for Jews, aged 18-26, from around the world. The goal of this unprecedented venture is to allow the participants, most of whom are visiting the Jewish State for the first time, to discover new meaning in their personal Jewish identity and their connection to Jewish culture.
This mammoth experiential triumph will no doubt go down in Jewish history as our greatest weapon of self-defense ever since Moses dropped his arms and a divided sea crushed our ancient foe.
This truth hit me last month during an educational seminar for future Birthright staffers.
With Hamas licking its wounds in Gaza – and undoubtedly rebuilding its terror tunnels, with Isis extremists advancing on Israel’s Northern borders, and with an alarming reoccurrence of spreading anti-Semitism, you must think me insane. How, you wonder, can I make such an absurd and inaccurate claim when the world is falling apart around us, when we need to defend ourselves against scores of material dangers with material bullets and substantive armor?
Because, we can’t be rescued by drones, smart bombs, or Iron Domes alone. Not by reactive-tiles on armored tanks, UAVs, or bunker-busting missiles. Our greatest weapon is Birthright, a program that has transported more than 400,000 young Jews to Israel.
Times are turbulent, yes, but they’ve been far worse.
See: The Crusades.
See: The Pogroms.
See: The Holocaust.
Our history is riddled with scars that will never fully erode or heal. There will never be a fresh sheet of paper. And that’s okay for the most part. The marks we bear – a litany in braille that helps preserve our past – have also guided us toward the present, where we as Jews can walk most of the globe with unprecedented freedom.
So why aren’t we walking together? Are difficult times the only glue strong enough to bind us?
Most of us remember our origins only under severe pressure. Only when the world gangs up against us, when they erect gas and torture chambers, do we unify under the banner of The Tribe.
Just look at the Diaspora during turbulent times to witness a microcosm of that reality. Look at how we fuse together so brilliantly when Israel’s enemies try to push the Jewish state into the sea. But should that be what it takes? Should we need immense pressure to shine like diamonds, when we are capable of shining without it?
I think not.
At times, it seems like our enemy’s smartest move would be to leave us alone, that without a pull of their trigger, without the weight of Anti-Semitism and hate bearing down on us, we’d soon stamp out our own light.
I’ve wondered about this often and, until now, mostly with regard to myself.
Unlike many Millennials, I grew up in an Orthodox home. I was raised surrounded by both tradition and practice, and I’ve fought and bled for the Jewish state. Why then, do I find it so difficult to walk the streets of Brooklyn with my head covered? Why do I anchor a kippah against my skull only when I travel to places where the locals despise seeing Jews? Why – for many, including me – is Jewishness something to be pulled from a shelf on Passover?
I’m nowhere near confident enough to believe I have the answers, or that such explanations can be presented neatly in an article. But this is where Birthright enters the picture.
First, I need to clarify that the Birthright organization has zero intention of moving world Jewry toward Orthodoxy; Taglit isn’t trying to move anything anywhere except to bring its precious cargo to Israel for ten days. The people behind the program – both its facilitators and funders (for the most part) – want only to set off a spark.
During August’s four-day Taglit Fellow seminar – Birthright’s newest initiative in collaboration with The iCenter for Israel Education – 100 future staffers spent most of their 13-hour days learning how to give participants the room to make up their own minds. Our goal as staffers, we learned, is to allow those who take this journey to discover their own truths about the Jewish state and their place in it. Or as Zohar Raviv – Taglit’s current VP of education – explained, “We aren’t going to Israel to learn its story, but to become the voice of that story.”
The voice of that story.
The children of the Diaspora have never struggled harder to embrace their identity than they do today. Can we really expect them to feel a bond with Israel, let alone stand up for it, when they’ve never been there? Why should they bother to carry the burden of supporting a far-off land that seems to be more trouble than it’s worth?
The answer: we can’t expect them to. Not without Birthright.
Birthright (I use the lexeme to encompass everyone involved with its success) could easily have looked at the numbers, at the volume of participants they succeed in sending across the sea each year; they could have said, “Great. We’re doing great.”
Birthright could’ve listened to the feedback of the returning participants – “The trip was cool! Sababa!” – and they could’ve fallen into complacency, fooled by smiles and short-lived whoops of joy.
Birthright did not.
Birthright continues to fine-tune, to tinker – never satisfied with the work it accomplishes. That is what impels new projects, such as Taglit Fellows, an initiative created to better train 1,000 staff members in the course of the next five years.
The visionaries and creators of Birthright understood something important from the start: we can’t count on our scars – the braille of our past – to carry us into the future any longer, not when our fingers have grown so numb.
Not every participant who hits the ground in Israel will return with a connection. But if ten, even five out of every 40 young Jews, return home with a tiny ember, a spark that leads to questions, to curiosity, then how can we deny that Jewry’s ultimate weapon is anything but the roaring flame that inevitably follows?