Thanks to philanthropist Sheldon Adelson and the Azrieli Foundation, the Birthright Israel program recently received another $45 million to send Jewish young adults on free educational 10-day trips to Israel.
Since Birthright Israel started in 2000, approximately 350,000 Jewish young adults, ages 16 to 26, from all over the world have taken advantage of these trips, and according to Birthright Israel’s founding educational director, Dr. Barry Chazen, the program has had its intended impact:
The evaluation data on Birthright Israel’s impact on both attitudes and behaviors is overwhelmingly positive. It indicates that the program creates significantly stronger attitudinal ties to Israel and the Jewish peoplehood among Birthright alumni than among Jewish young adults who did not go on such trips. Birthright alumni also exhibit other behaviors in dramatically higher percentages than their peer group such as reading about Israeli daily life, maintaining contact with Israeli peers, and taking courses in Jewish studies. The most recent studies indicate statistically significant higher levels of in-marriage among Birthright alumni than among other Jews of the same ages (S. Schwarz, Jewish Megatrends, pg. 85).
Considering the positive impact the Birthright Israel program has had on the emerging generations of Jews, it begs the question—Why isn’t the Christian community leveraging a similar strategy to build into the foundation of the next generation of young adults within its ranks, especially considering the decline in church membership and participation it is currently experiencing among this age demographic?
While I get that Israel is predominately viewed as the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people, it is also the land where Jesus was born, lived, and is one day expected to return. What better place than the cradle of Christianity to help Christian young adults get educated and excited about their faith?
Although thousands of Christians have and will continue to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land, the typical make-up of Christian tour groups are retirees and empty-nesters. Rare is the group that is comprised of members from the younger generation on a quest to discover the origins and unpack the lessons of the Bible.
From my own experience in having led nearly 20 tours to the homeland of Jesus for young adults, I can attest to the fact that walking in his footsteps is a seminal and transformative experience for many of the people who have joined me.
One participant wrote me a few years after her trip:
My trip to Israel has had a very positive influence on my life. I look at Scripture in a whole new way. With every portion read, it takes on a new meaning. Now when there is a sermon on Jericho, Gethsemane, or Mount Carmel—just to name a few—I can say I was there and experienced this story.
Another participant wrote:
Visiting the Holy Land has forever shaped the lens through which I will view my daily walk with God.
Considering data like this, I think it is time for the Adelson’s of the Christian community—both big and small—to step up to the offering plate to help fund a Christian version of Birthright Israel.
The Jewish community might also want to think about how they can help their Christian neighbors get a program like this started, especially with the increasing efforts from almost every corner of the globe to delegitimize and criminalize Israel. Fighting anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism cannot just be done through funding Jewish programs and institutions. It must be done by appealing to the hearts and sensibilities of Christians who were commanded by a first-century Jewish rabbi to love the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their neighbors as themselves.
The clock is ticking.