Jonathan Leener

Birthright Nation

While young American Jews steadily move away from identifying with the traditional denominations which previously dominated the landscape of American Jewry, a new movement has slowly been forming. It’s numbers rapidly growing and potential impact nearly unpredictable. This new denomination is unlike anything the Jewish world has ever seen, as it’s members live around the country and pay no dues. Even more shocking, any Jew between ages 18-26 can join. What is this mystery movement that will have over twenty thousand Jews traveling in their mobile “synagogues” this summer? Meet Birthright Nation.

A few weeks ago I finished leading an M.I.T. Hillel trip, my third time staffing a Taglit trip. My curiosity around Birthright started several years ago when friends would return from the trip inspired with a renewed love of Israel and their Jewish identity. As a future rabbi, I felt obligated to observe the program with my own eyes to better understand perhaps the biggest Jewish “mega-trend” in the last century. At first I was skeptical, after all how much can one really learn in just ten days? How could the participants be truly invested in learning when they paid nothing for it? What about after the trip? How do you sustain the post-Birthright enthusiasm? And finally, I also had heard about the partying reputation…

My cynicism was quickly replaced with optimism, as I saw people connecting to their Jewish roots for the very first time. I soon realized I was a part of something special. Birthright has successfully mobilized and educated over 400,000 Jews in just fifteen years, making it one of the biggest Jewish educational program in America. I have been involved in Jewish education my entire life, yet I never heard someone walk out of hebrew school saying “I now need to marry someone Jewish”. I never saw tears come down a students face as they learned Jewish history. Yet I was encountering this type of passion every day on Birthright.

Will a participant start going to synagogue more after the trip? Not likely. Will a participant start keeping kosher? Doubtful. Will a participant feel more deeply connected to Israel and the Jewish people. Definitely. While many may see the lack of change within religious observance as an educational failure, they misunderstand what Birthright is attempting to transform. Birthright is about changing identification from “I’m Jew-ish” into “I’m a Jew” (see Seth Meyers on being “Jew-ish”). Participants leave Israel feeling proud of their heritage and for me that is most significant.

Israel is the key player in this entire discussion. The greatest teacher is the land itself. Touching the Kotel or hiking in the north does something that American Jewish education can never do. Israel is a central outlet for expressing ones Jewishness and it’s critical that we continue to support Birthright and other Israel educational trips. This is even more important after the summer Israel has endured. 

About the Author
Jonathan Leener is the rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul in Brooklyn and is pursuing a master's degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Yeshiva University