Celebration of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program’s “bar mitzvah year” is a propitious moment to consider whether Taglit participants have chosen to make their Jewish identities a central part of their lives.
Taglit-Birthright Israel participants celebrate Photo: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post
Since its launch in 1999, Taglit-Birthright Israel has brought more than
300,000 young adult Jews to Israel for 10-day educational experiences.
Celebration of the program’s “bar mitzvah year” is a propitious moment to
consider whether Taglit participants – many of whom are now 30-something adults
– have chosen to make their Jewish identities a central part of their
lives. Have the tens of thousands of participants who took part in Taglit
as college students or recent graduates accepted citizenship in the Jewish
world, with the attendant rights and responsibilities?
Taglit was conceived to
address the lack of connection of many young Jews to their heritage and the
broader threat of assimilation. Even among those who celebrated bar/bat mitzvah,
too many treated the adolescent rite of passage as the end of their engagement
with Jewish life, not the opening of a door. For a Jewish community whose eldest
members witnessed the Holocaust, the idea that 3,000 years of Jewish culture
would assimilate away in the 21st century was an anathema.
But there was
disagreement about how to respond. Taglit’s approach – to develop peer
educational visits to Israel for unengaged young Jews – was initially considered
Views quickly changed in the face of overwhelming interest in
Taglit and substantial evidence that, at least in the short term, the program
“worked” to strengthen the Jewish identity of participants and their connection
Despite long waiting lists for slots on trips and a plethora
of attitudinal data, until recently, it was not possible to assess whether
participation in Taglit fosters adult engagement in Jewish life. Only now have
large enough numbers of the Birthright Israel generation entered their 30s,
married, had children and assumed full adult roles.
My colleagues and I
have been studying Taglit applicants from the early years of the program – both
those who participated and others those who were waitlisted. Our initial
findings were stunning.
Although participants and nonparticipants were
very similar at time of application, even five years later those who took part
in Taglit were significantly more likely to say that they had a strong sense of
belonging to the Jewish community and that they were highly connected to Israel
as compared with peers who did not go on a trip.
But even more telling,
their behavior reflected stronger Jewish identity.
The vast majority of
married participants – 50 percent more than nonparticipants – decided to marry
other Jews. And virtually all participants with children are raising them as
As powerful as these findings were, the majority of those in our
earlier studies had not yet married. And the oldest members of the population
had participated in Taglit during the most difficult period of the second
intifada. Would those who marry later and would those who went to Israel during
a different period be impacted in the same way? Perhaps most importantly, as
increasing numbers of alumni settle into full adult roles do they participate in
the Jewish community?
Our latest study, of nearly 2,000 individuals who applied
to Taglit between 2001 and 2006, makes clear that traveling to Israel on Taglit
Although six to 11 years have elapsed, as we found
before, participants are more highly connected to Israel and more likely to be
belong to a Jewish congregation. And, once again, more than 70% of
non-Orthodox-raised Taglit alumni who had married were partnered with other
Jews. Virtually all the inmarried alumni with children were raising them as
Jews. In comparison, fewer than 50% of the non-participants had married other
Jews, inflated because some of the non-participants married Taglit
Some may wonder if endogenous marriage is an appropriate
criterion. It wasn’t a direct goal of Taglit. Unlike other measures, however,
it’s not subjective outcome and, as many alumni told us, their decision to marry
another Jew or to ask a non-Jewish partner to convert was an outgrowth of the
importance they attach to their Jewish identity. Marriage is one of the most
important decisions we make in life and it is one of the first adult actions
that has clear connections to Jewish identity.
In Taglit’s early years,
skeptics challenged the idea that a 10-day educational trip to Israel could have
longterm impact. Childhood was seen as a critical period for Jewish education,
essential to adult engagement. A brief intervention, no matter how intensive,
was also seen as far too weak a dose to have impact. It will perhaps take a full
generation to judge conclusively whether participation in a peer experience in
Israel during young adulthood can alter trajectories of Jewish identity and
life. But the latest evidence seems very powerful, even surprising to those of
us who have long been students of the phenomenon.
Becoming a bar or bat
mitzvah is a celebratory moment. Like most other occasions that mark Jewish
time, however, it is also a time of reflection.
Mazel tov to Taglit, and
to all those who shaped and supported the program for enabling hundreds of
thousands of Diaspora Jews to experience Israel and Jewish life with their
The responsibility is now on the recipients of the gift of a
Birthright Israel trip to be Jewish citizens, to take ownership of their Jewish
identities, and to ensure that Jewish life and culture remain vibrant both in
Israel and the Diaspora.
The writer is the Klutznick Professor of
Contemporary Jewish Studies and Social Policy at Brandeis University. He directs
the University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies. email@example.com