A few months ago, while waiting to board my flight home to Israel after an exhilarating week marketing a new project in Arnona Jerusalem, I was spellbound by a fascinating Birthright “ice breaker” session that took place next to me at the boarding gate.
Quick Background: Birthright is a program that offers Jewish young adults a free ten-day educational trip to Israel. Birthright’s goals are to reconnect young Jews to Israel and Judaism. And it is working, as 70% of Birthright’s over 300,000 participants say the tours have changed their lives.
At the opening “ice breaker” program, the group of approximately forty people in their mid-twenties introduced themselves and gave a little background – age, education, and interests. This was a diverse and well-educated group, which included many teachers, engineers, a cellist, doctoral students, lawyers, students, a former NCAA lacrosse champion and even a firefighter. The participants warmly cheered each person’s unique talents and accomplishments, and as an outsider I sensed that a genuine sense of camaraderie was quickly being established. Toward the end of the icebreaker, someone asked whether anyone knew any Hebrew, and other than one person, no one spoke a lick of Hebrew. It’s pretty safe to say that the only Jewish experiences that many of these participants had experienced prior to this trip were probably of the food variety: eating a bagel or a pastrami on rye.
The group leader then informed the group that soon after their arrival in Israel, they were going to have a special Friday night Shabbat program, and I realized that this would quite possibly be the first Jewish experience for many of the participants: their first Shabbat – and it would be taking place in Israel. That’s pretty amazing stuff. (BTW, Birthright programs are not limited to the unaffiliated; they also run tours for religious Jews through organizations such as the Orthodox Union and Aish Hatorah.)
It quickly became apparent to me that, in addition to infusing in these young men and women a meaningful connection to Judaism and Israel, these Birthright programs are wonderful opportunities for like-minded, well-educated Jewish young men and women to socialize in a positive and healthy setting. There are no official statistics documenting how many people found their mates on these Birthright programs, but a 2009 study from Brandeis University found that 72% of married, non-Orthodox Birthright Israel participants have wedded fellow Jews, compared to just 46% of their peers who did not go on the trip. In an age where over 50% of all Jews in the United States marry non-Jewish partners, one can understand that Birthright’s results are significant. I salute the patrons of Birthright, as these programs are a vital link for so many people to connect with their Jewish past and our shared future.
The Birthright participants’ excitement for their approaching mission was palpable and their enthusiasm was contagious. May we be privileged to catch their fervor, and may this excitement help us rededicate ourselves toward Judaism and Israel. After all, gaining a greater appreciation of religious values is our birthright, too.