I read with dismay the opinion piece “Why Birthright Israel is hafuch” by Rabbi Aaron Meyer, published Thursday in the JTNews’s 3 O’ Clock News.
Having spent the past 15 years on a college campus and sending thousands of students on Birthright journeys, I strongly disagree with Rabbi Meyer’s conclusions. My reasons are based on both my personal experiences and on research findings more recent than the figures the article quoted.
First, the hard numbers: Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies released a 2012 update to its Birthright research. You can find it here: www.brandeis.edu/cmjs/noteworthy/jewish_futures_taglit_2012.html.
The Cohen Center examined the impact of Taglit-Birthright Israel on its alumni six to 11 years after their trips to Israel. The data was derived from the third year of a longitudinal study of Jewish young adults. The key findings are significantly different from the 2008 study Rabbi Meyer cited. For example:
• Participants were 42 percent more likely to feel very much connected to Israel compared to individuals who did not take a Birthright trip.
• Participants were 22 percent more likely to indicate that they are at least “somewhat confident” in explaining the current situation in Israel as compared to those who did not go on Taglit.
• Participants were 45 percent more likely than non-participants to be married to a Jewish spouse. Taglit’s impact on in-marriage was consistent across all levels of childhood Jewish education, which underscores the powerful impact a Birthright trip can have in strengthening Jewish identity.
• Taglit’s influence extends beyond participants themselves. Seven percent of non-participants are married to Taglit alumni, while 25 percent of participants are married to other participants (whom they did not necessarily meet on their trips).
• Among respondents whose spouses were not raised by Jews, participants’ spouses were more than three times as likely to have formally converted to Judaism at the time of the survey than non-participants’ spouses.
In his article, Rabbi Meyer asked, “Is feeling positive about being Jewish — without translating those feelings into action — worth such a significant expenditure of resources?” I would argue that the 2012 findings show that his premise is off base, as they reflect a longer-lasting impact of Birthright on actions as well as attitudes.
Now, I want to share a few personal stories that add a heartening personal dimension to Brandeis’s empirical research. A few weeks ago, one of my former Birthright participants posted the following in our Birthright Facebook group for a trip that took place last year.
I was laying (or lying not sure) in bed about to fall asleep and I started thinking about our trip. I can’t believe that it happened over a year and a half ago and how much of those ten amazing days I can still remember. Those were easily the ten best days of my life and my biggest regret was not writing down all of the amazing memories that I gathered along the way. I hope that at some point down the road, ALL of us can have a reunion and talk about the incredible experience we all shared (and share a drink or three). I miss all of you guys SO much! Peace and love and a happy last night of Hanukkah!
Over a year and half after the trip, he is still connected, still interested in Judaism and Jewish life, still interested in the Jewish community.
In the closing remarks to our group on that same trip, another participant wrote the following words:
One of the things I have heard many of you repeatedly say is how you realize now that Judaism is more than just a religion; it is a culture, tradition, set of values, and way of life. This Jewish heritage is what brought us all to Israel in the first place. Once here, though, we discovered more than just our roots; we discovered a way of life that we can connect with on a level so deep that it has changed our world views. Think about that. In 10 days, a country the size of New Jersey (but not as smelly) changed the way we view ourselves, our religion, the world, and our role in that world.
After returning from his Birthright experience, that student began to attend Shabbat services and dinner each week. His social circle expanded to include his Jewish friends from the trip. He ensured that his younger brother went on Birthright so he could also understand what being Jewish and being part of the Jewish community means. This is more than feeling positive about being Jewish. This is action that changes lives. These are choices that strengthen our Jewish community.
While I could cite many other examples, a revealing story I can share is what happened a month ago when I traveled to Israel for the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly. I was in Israel for less than a week, but during that brief visit, I lost count of the number of former Birthright participants I saw who were in Israel for various reasons.
Some had made aliyah. Some were there for Federation Young Leadership missions. Others were studying at Pardes or spending a semester abroad in Israel. Still others were involved in a long-term MASA program by spending up to a year living in Israel.
If you ask Celie Brown, current board chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, or Iantha Sidell, a current Federation board member and past board chair, they will tell you that it seemed as if I knew everybody in Israel. That’s the power of Birthright. I give Taglit-Birthright Israel credit for introducing these students to Israel and enabling them to build a strong bond with the Jewish people.
I appreciate Rabbi Meyer’s concerns about carefully scrutinizing how we spend communal dollars. I am all for analyzing the effect of everything we choose to do and ensuring we put communal dollars to their highest and best use. I can say with confidence, however, that Brandeis University’s 2012 Birthright survey and my 15 years of personal experience with Birthright are good evidence that the dollars we spend on Birthright are returning lasting benefits in deeper Jewish identity and a stronger Jewish community.