Elias Saratovsky

Will they fight or flee? The answer is up to us

Why are there record numbers on Birthright Israel’s waiting list? Jewish young adults are still searching for their Jewish identity and crave connection with Israel

In December 1999, as the entire world was preparing for the impending doom of Y2K, I received a phone call that changed my life. A new, innovative idea had just launched with the goal of reversing the decades long trend of young Jews feeling less connected to their Jewish identity and to Israel. On the other end of the phone was my campus Hillel director inviting me to participate on the inaugural Birthright Israel trip. I didn’t realize at the time that my 10-day journey would ignite something within me and change the trajectory of my life.

In the following decades, Jewish young adults from around the world began traveling to Israel in large numbers on Birthright Israel trips. I recently heard about one young woman from the former Soviet Union who broke down in tears when she arrived in Israel. For the first time in her life, she felt comfortable wearing her Star of David necklace, something she could never do back home.

A quarter-century later, this story sounds hauntingly familiar. Ask any Jewish professional leading a Birthright Israel trip today, and they will tell you that many American Jewish students on campus are shielding their identity. In 2021, the ADL and Hillel reported that “nearly one third of all college students experienced antisemitism, and 79 percent of those students reported that it happened to them more than once.” What was once commonplace among Jews from other countries with long histories of antisemitism, is now happening to our children and grandchildren.

This deeply resonates with me. In the late 1970s, my parents immigrated to America from the former Soviet Union. After generations of persecution, never again would we have to hide our Jewish identity. I am forever grateful for their decision, but their belief that the United States would be immune to antisemitism is no longer true.

Despite the rise of antisemitism on college campuses, Jewish students are exhibiting unbelievable courage and resilience. Rather than running from their identity, they are searching for new ways to tap into it.

This is evident through a record number of Jewish young adults – more than 50,000 – who applied to travel to Israel this year either on a classic 10-day trip, or through our more immersive Onward Israel and Excel programs.

While we should be celebrating their desire to deepen their Jewish identity and form a relationship with Israel, the demand for our programs far exceeds the number of available spots. Due to a 30% increase in travel expenses and funding constraints, we have a waitlist of 20,000 young adults who are being turned away, and potentially turned off from Jewish life.

After two decades of extensive research, the data is overwhelming. Participating on a Birthright Israel trip dramatically increases the odds that our children and grandchildren will feel a sense of belonging to the Jewish people. They are more likely to have a connection to Israel. And they are more likely to raise their kids Jewish. Additionally, according to a study by Leading Edge, 49% of all Jewish communal professionals under the age of 40 have participated in Birthright Israel.

Birthright Israel has positively transformed a generation of Jews and has left an indelible mark on our community, but our work is far from done. Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we provide them with the opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge about Israel and the confidence and knowledge to be proud Jews.

In many ways, Jewish young adults are now facing the age-old dilemma that our ancestors faced for millennia: fight or flight? Do they flee from their Jewish identity — or do they do the hard work and fight for it?

Our people have survived, despite great odds, because we were willing to fight. The record number of Jewish young adults raising their hand and applying for a Birthright Israel experience demonstrates their desire to be an active participant in the Jewish story – a story with a proud past and an exciting future.

Nearly a quarter century ago, I was fortunate to be given the gift of a Birthright Israel trip. Over 800,000 Jewish young adults from 68 countries have experienced the miracle of Israel and had the opportunity to discover their own Jewish identity alongside their peers. My 10-day journey led to a career in pro-Israel advocacy, and now, the honor of leading Birthright Israel Foundation into its next quarter century.

As I begin this new chapter, I am confident that our community will come together to ensure the continued success of a program we all know and value. Together, we must help young Jews find their place in our community, their connection to our homeland, and the confidence to stand as proud Jews. I encourage you to join us in the fight.

About the Author
Elias Saratovsky is the president and CEO of the Birthright Israel Foundation.
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