I was alarmed by Brand Israel Group’s reported findings in a recent Times of Israel article “‘Devastating’ survey shows huge loss of Israel support among Jewish college students.” The conclusions do not match our experience with American college students – including many who have little history of involvement with the Jewish community – but who seem eager to participate in Birthright Israel.
Birthright Israel is more popular than ever with a record 33,000 participants traveling to Israel this summer. To date, 600,000 young Jewish adults from 67 countries enjoyed a Birthright Israel trip, including 100,000 Israelis, namely IDF soldiers. We have aimed to increase their connection to their Jewish heritage, create a safe forum for them to discuss the political complexities of the Middle East, foster cross-cultural exchange and encourage them to increase solidarity with Israel and its people. Birthright Israel has become a model for diaspora groups around the world to create programs benefiting their own communities – serving as the inspiration for organizations such as Birthright Armenia and the Global Irish Summer Camp.
We are in complete agreement with the goal of making Birthright Israel accessible to anyone who wishes to attend our carefully programmed trips and are always looking for additional ways to reach eligible young adults. While many have suggested that we could open the program to younger participants, we have diligently evaluated this possibility several times and routinely conclude that 18 is the minimum appropriate age given the nature of the programming on the trips.
Experts agree that Birthright Israel is an effective way to expose Jewish young adults from around the world to Israel. It helps them learn about Israel beyond the conflict and allows them to engage directly with Israelis. With the help of a group of independent researchers from Brandeis University, led by Professor Len Saxe, we have studied tens of thousands of our participants as well as those who do not participate in Birthright Israel. Saxe’s studies, including a half dozen separate studies over the last two years, make clear that while American students are in general supportive and connected to Israel, participation in Birthright Israel cements high levels of connection to Israel and that these effects persist over time.
The effects of participation are particularly dramatic when Israel is threatened. For example, a 2015 study examining the impact of Birthright Israel after the 2014 Gaza conflict showed that up to a year after their trip was over 52% of Birthright Israel participants feel “very much” connected and another 32% feel “somewhat connected,” more than 80% higher than the levels of attachment for nonparticipants. In addition, 58% of participants that summer reported the trip as “very much” a life-changing experience and 70% of participants said that “very much” felt support for Israel. A longitudinal study of participants from early Birthright Israel cohorts (2001 to 2006) showed that, 10-15 years after their trip, they are nearly 90% more likely to be “very much” connected to Israel compared with similar peers who did not participate in Birthright Israel.
These independent findings have also shown that Birthright Israel participants are more likely to visit Israel again, follow news about Israel more closely, marry a Jewish partner, raise a family in the Jewish tradition and join Jewish organizations. Birthright Israel participants return home with a significantly more nuanced understanding of Israel and its people and they feel motivated to share their experience with their peers, to stand up for Israel and to be proud of their Jewish heritage.
Birthright Israel invests in enabling our participants to experience the richness of contemporary life in Israel, as well as its complexity. We provide experiences with Israel diverse communities and highlight how Israel is much more than a complicated geopolitical zone. Key to our program is that all of our groups include Israeli peers who engage as participants. We also operate more than two dozen specialized niche trips, both to allow participants to focus on a particular interest and to serve the specific needs of individuals.
In recent years, Birthright Israel has expanded its programs to include longer and more intensive programming. In particular, we have leveraged Israel’s role as a global leader in technology, by developing the Birthright Israel Excel program. Excel pairs highly-accomplished young adults with leading Israeli businesses for summer internships. It aims to shape the next generation of Jewish entrepreneurs, create a pipeline for them to invest in Israel and to expose them to the flourishing technology and startup scene in the country. We also opened the Birthright Israel Innovation Center, in partnership with the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, which details Israeli innovation throughout time.
As young adults make the transition into making independent decisions and forging their own identities based on values they consider important, Birthright Israel will continue to play and important role in bringing Jews from around the world closer in person and in spirit to their ancestral homeland here in Israel. We are confident that young Jews from around the world are eager to participate and to make Israel a central part of their identities.
Gidi Mark is CEO of Taglit Birthright Israel.