My community, which sits about six miles from downtown Pittsburgh, thrives in part because of our religious diversity.
On any given street, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish families can be found, and our children seem forever intermingled in after-school and extracurricular activities. With genuine respect, we are quick to extend well wishes as members of each religion celebrate those holidays and other moments special to their faith.
Because of the strong Jewish population here, I regularly hear about the young man or woman venturing to Israel (and not always for the first time) as he or she takes part in Birthright.
The roughly 25-year-old program has sent well over 500,000 young Jewish young adults to Israel. The excitement that emanates from the parents as they talk about their son or daughter’s travels is palpable. Yes, they also know of the dangers that any trip to Israel entails, and so the inevitable lump-in-the-throat sentiment is there.
I confess I’m envious — in a good way — as I see the pictures posted on social media and hear the tales of being there. I wish more countries would establish similar programs that provide opportunities for the current generation to walk the same sidewalks their forebears did. As a college professor, I encourage my students to study abroad (something I couldn’t afford to do when I was an undergraduate) and I’ve also led a few international trips. As much as I enjoy being overseas, I savor the wonder that my 18-22-year-old students have as they explore the historical, cultural and other locations that are richly woven into that country’s past.
Imagine if other governments made Birthright something vital to their country’s outreach efforts. The world would be a better place.
Yes, I know Birthright has its critics (and I’ll leave it for others to pick up that hot potato), but the reality is thousands of young Jewish men and women experience Israel at a time when it is easiest for them to travel: as young adults without children.
I know of multiple families in my community who reserve their summer vacation plans so that they can return to “the old country” to visit extended family. That connection to the past is incredibly valuable; again, past and present are joined together. We, as a global community, need more of that.
Setting aside the white-hot political rhetoric that exists right now in my country, America is a nation that has benefitted from men and women entering its shores from all over the world. In far too many cases, those people came to the U.S. because political, social or economic conditions in their homeland were intolerable; America promised a new start, a safe country and a land of stability. But where those people came from shouldn’t be forgotten by the subsequent generations.
Birthright is one way to ensure that. Other countries ought to consider the same.