(Originally published in the Jewish Week in 1999)
It is easy to jab at Birthright Israel, the plan to promote Jewish continuity by providing a brief Israel experience to Jewish youth who haven’t been to the Jewish state. Charles R. Bronfman and Michael H. Steinhardt are marketing an idea in search of a program. What we have so far is a catchy slogan, good public relations and the old and odd notion favored by philanthropists that throwing lots of money after a problem is the best way to resolve it. We have, in short, the key ingredients for success in the contemporary period, success being determined by the ability to attract attention. The announcement of the program and its promotion are the program.
Just the same, Birthright needs to be given a chance, even though what we know about its particulars inspires little confidence in its efficacy. Every continuity initiative confronts daunting odds because of the powerful assimilatory forces that have directly resulted in so much Jewish loss. These elements are active in the lives of nearly all Diaspora Jews and they are not going to disappear because world Jewry now feels endangered and is taking steps, mainly feeble and belated, to promote Jewish identity. All that is being done in the name of continuity is today inherently tenuous and tentative, even experimental. This holds true even for many day schools and while I have been one of their most enthusiastic advocates, I know that their reach is limited because the families that are being attracted to them are Jews at risk.
Israel experiences are a legitimate means of advancing continuity. If Birthright is not oversold, if the religious factor is not deliberately downplayed and if its key people are willing to make adjustments, some good will come from the venture. Under the present plan, eligible youth will be offered a round-trip ticket and funds for a brief stay, typically ten days, that hopefully will be a learning or cultural experience which whets the appetite for greater involvement in Israel and/or Jewish communal life. Those who choose to stay longer will be responsible for any additional costs.
It is expected – and almost certainly this will be the case – that the typical trip will fit into school schedules, primarily the flow of campus life. Even the most ardent votaries of Israel experiences recognize that ten days can hardly counteract the corrosive impact of thousands of prior days of assimilatory relationships that have impelled so many away from Jewish commitment.
The assumption, probably correct, is that thousands of teen-age and college-age Jews will not look a gift horse in the mouth. Birthright’s offer will be accepted, which raises the critical question of what these youngsters are likely to do when they arrive in Israel. There is also the collateral question of whether Israeli institutional and organizational life has the additional capacity to serve the expected influx. While Michael Papo, the project’s president, told me in a useful telephone conversation that there already is unused capacity to accommodate additional young foreigners, I think it unlikely that there are or will be facilities and programs for the thousands who may accept the opportunity.
The problem is illustrated by Livnot Ul’hibanot, a Jerusalem and Safed-based program that has a good track record with American college students of a secular orientation. Presently, Livnot enrolls perhaps as many as two hundred participants a year in its three-week program that combine work and study. I doubt that it can expand its reach quickly or that it would be desirable to do so, lest it weaken its effectiveness.
Birthright apparently accepts the notion that money is the primary inducement. In the words of its promotional material, “money is not the only issue but it is a central one.” The flip side is that the lack of funds is the main deterrent. In fact, surveys including the 1990 NJPS, provide strong evidence that funding is scarcely the issue. In the main, Jews do not visit Israel because they are not particularly interested in Israel. In nearly all of their contemporary places of settlement, Jews are quite affluent and Jewish youth by the many tens of thousands each year are able to find the means to traipse to exotic and mundane places, from the Himalayas to Fort Lauderdale. They do not, in the aggregate, put Israel on their itinerary because the Jewish state does not resonate in their lives. It is also of note that the Orthodox, by far the least affluent of Jews, come to Israel in droves.
There will be Jews who make the visit because of the Birthright opportunity and this may well be salutary. But by targeting the first-timers, emphasizing the quick-fix aspect of the experience and reaching out to Jews who are scarcely, if at all, involved in Jewish life, Birthright may be foregoing the opportunity to make a more lasting contribution.
Jewish youth everywhere outside of Israel are Jews at risk, a status that is shared, perhaps not equally, by young Jews who already are engaged in communal life through synagogues, day schools, community centers, youth groups or in any of a number of other ways. These Jews have opportunities aplenty to go to Israel, whether with their parents or alone or with school groups or as participants in the March for the Living and other projects. In the U.S., most Federations provide subsidies for Israel experiences and the expanding world of private Jewish philanthropy is especially keen about including Israel programming in their repertoire of activities. Community-sponsored and subsidized Israel experiences have become a big business, so that Birthright Israel can hardly claim to be operating on virgin territory.
It’s a good bet that the presumed success of these ventures has contributed to the belief that this is the primary way to reach out to the young and unaffiliated. The Bronfman Foundation has been in the forefront of the Israel experience movement. Evaluations of these activities present a rosy picture of what can be achieved through a relatively brief stay in the Jewish state. I have read several of these and they tend toward an excess of self-praise which is off-putting and can scarcely pass as serious scholarship.
Their major deficiency goes to the heart of what is errant in the conceptualization of Birthright Israel. The evaluations, perhaps out of necessity, are conducted shortly after the experience has been concluded, which means that they at best measure short-term impact when the respondents are still enveloped in the aura of the experience. This is notably true of the claims made by March for the Living, a rather new initiative whose life-span does not yet allow an assessment of long-term impact.
March for the Living is aimed at high school students, a great number of whom happen to be in a Jewish school, an environment that presumably strengthens their Jewish commitment. When they return from Israel and Poland where they visit Auschwitz and other death camps, their understandable response is to say that they have been profoundly affected by the experience. This response is truthful, yet it begs the question, for when the high school years are concluded, the next phase in the formative process for these students is the college campus, an environment that is universally regarded as a disaster area for Jewish life.
Because Jewish youth who have been to Israel and those who have not are nearly all Jews at risk, their lives will inevitably be affected, perhaps permanently shaped, by powerful and inescapable assimilatory forces. If the goal of Birthright is to enhance the prospect for meaningful Jewish continuity, it makes sense to use Israel as the instrumentality for Jewish reinforcement among those who might make the best use of the opportunity. In economic and programmatic terms, the greatest benefit may be derived from concentrating Birthright’s resources on young marginal Jews who have been to Israel, thereby strengthening a commitment that while already evident is certain to be severely challenged.
This point was acknowledged, in a way by Michael Papo who indicated that studies show that a follow-up or second trip cements the relationship with Israel and forces a deep sense of Jewish peoplehood. It may be that because Birthright’s resources are limited, preference is being given to those who have not been to Israel. But it also may be the case that the emphasis on the first-timers arises from a desire to reach out to unaffiliated Jews rather than to those who are affiliated. This would be a serious mistake.
Because of the severely weakened state of Diaspora Jewry, the success of initiatives to encourage Jewish commitment depends on whether they are linked to other activities that promote the same goal. Birthright can reinforce the progress achieved through meaningful Jewish education and youth groups; in turn, it needs to be reinforced by collateral activities in other zones of communal life. It cannot be regarded as a stand-alone venture.
Nor should its sponsors be intoxicated by its immodest claim, “This journey lasts a life-time.” There are tens of thousands of Jews who have been to Israel whose Jewish commitment, even in secular form, is gone with the wind and for whom Israel is scarcely more meaningful than Timbuktu.
A trip to Israel is not the birthright of a Jew, although identity with Israel is, a point that is powerfully demonstrated by nearly 2,000 years of our history. The birthright or heritage or legacy bequeathed to us by previous generations was religious at its core. It was this religious sensibility that kept Israel alive in the imagination and prayers and therefore also in the lives of Jews who never stepped foot on the Holy Land, nor had even the slightest prospect of going there. Only as a consequence of our religious identity can we claim Israel as a birthright and only if it is able to foster a religious commitment can Birthright Israel claim to be promoting Jewish continuity.