Former alumni of Taglit-birthright israel's free 10-day trips to the Jewish homeland are 57 percent more likely to marry Jews than those who have not participated, according to the findings of an independent study - the first of its kind - on the program's impact after a decade in operation.
Published Monday by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, the study, which interviewed 2,200 US Jews, found that the trips - aimed mostly at unaffiliated Jews aged 18-26 from around the world - have had a "profound long-term impact on Jewish identity and connectedness to Israel."
"In 10 short years, Taglit-birthright israel has inspired a generation of young Jews to reconnect with Israel and the Jewish community," commented Gidi Mark, CEO of Taglit-birthright israel on Monday. "With tens of thousands on our waiting list, we are well on our way to establishing an educational trip to Israel as a rite of passage in the Jewish life cycle."
Documenting connection to Israel, sense of belonging to the Jewish people and interest in building Jewish families, the study's main findings noted that some 73% of participants felt the trip had been a life-altering experience.
With 57% of secular former participants more likely than non-participants to have married a Jew, the study also noted that there was a 30% greater chance that birthright alumni would be inclined to raise their children as Jews.
In addition, those who had participated in a Taglit-birthright israel trip had a 23% greater chance than non-participants of feeling very connected to Israel, and were 24% more likely to strongly agree with the statement, "I have a strong sense of connection to the Jewish people."
"Taglit-birthright israel is a genius idea," commented Kadima MK Nahman Shai, who headed the United Jewish Communities (UJC) in Israel for seven years before entering politics. "It has brought thousands of Jews to Israel over the past 10 years. Many of them would never have had the chance to visit otherwise."
He added, however, that in the face of the global economic crisis, funding for the program was likely its biggest challenge.
"Obviously with the economic situation, it's not easy, but birthright is the best investment for the future of the Jewish people, and even the government of Israel should put more funding into it," he said.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post last week, Mark admitted that funding was a problem for birthright, especially because requests to participate in the program have been growing much faster than the number of available spaces.
"This past winter we had more than 21,000 applicants for only 8,000 places, and we've now become the most wait-listed program in the Jewish world," he said.
Despite the funding issue, Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein said he was greatly encouraged by the report and by birthright's work over the last decade.
"Taglit-birthright israel's alumni are the central defenders of Israel's image on American university campuses," he pointed out. "With rising hostility around the world toward the State of Israel, especially after Operation Cast Lead, we have an obligation to increase our efforts and our connection with young Jews in the Diaspora and to aspire to bring as many of these youth as possible to Israel year after year."
Indeed, the report showed that former birthright participants were much more likely to become involved in campus activities defending Israel than those who did not experience the trip. It also found that they were 50% more likely to report feeling very confident in their ability to give a good explanation of the current situation in Israel.
Since its inception in 1999, Taglit-birthright israel has brought some 220,000 participants from more than 50 countries to Israel.