(photo credit: Taglit-birthright)
If we are to believe the authors of a new book on Taglit-Birthright Israel, the program that funds free trips to Israel for Diaspora youth, the nine-year-old initiative is measurably transforming the Jewish world, one young Jew at a time.
"Israel is the greatest classroom the Jewish people has at its disposal, and Birthright is succeeding in bringing it to life," Prof. Barry Chazan, who together with Prof. Leonard Saxe wrote the just-released Ten Days of Birthright Israel: A Journey in Young Adult Identity, told The Jerusalem Post in the capital on Monday.
Chazan, a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University's School of Education, has been the chief architect of Birthright's curriculum, while Saxe, a professor of Jewish Community Research and Social Policy at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, has been evaluating the program since its inception.
The findings presented in the book, a mix of experiential anecdotes, Saxe's research and Chazan's pedagogic insights, are unequivocal.
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Saxe's research compares participants with nonparticipants who had applied for a trip but been placed on a waiting list. The two groups, Saxe explains, are "the same in every measurable background characteristic," and were similarly inclined to go on Birthright.
The results are clear. Connection to Israel "very much" or "to a great extent" rose in one surveyed group from 45 percent for nonparticipants to 61% for participants, and in another from 43% to 71%. Asked about their connection to the Jewish people, participants similarly led nonparticipants by around 10 percentage points (71% to 59%, 70% to 63%, and 82% to 70%). Asked whether they planned to raise their children as Jews, the figure jumped from 74% for nonparticipants to 83% for participants in the first group, 72% to 79% in the second, and 71% to 78% in the third.
Participants were also far more likely to see Israel as a "lively democratic society," with those saying they "strongly agree" rising from 28% to 41%,, 30% to 38%, and 23% to 34% after to the trips.
Similar changes were noted in those who view Israel as a refuge for the Jewish people and a "technological powerhouse," with corresponding drops in negative images of Israel, including as a "country riven with internal strife" (75% who "strongly agree" dropped to 67%), a "religious fundamentalist society" (40% to 27%), and a "militaristic society" (44% to 36%).
Perhaps most impressively, 62% of participants "strongly agreed" that Israel was a "source of pride," compared to 50% of nonparticipants, while 17% saw their future home in Israel, up from 12% among nonparticipants.
One of the keys to the program's success - its story is told in the book - has been the financial and organizational backing it has enjoyed in the Jewish world. In its first year, Birthright took in $24 million from philanthropists, the Israeli government and the umbrella organizations of the Jewish world. By 2008, that figure had grown to some $100m., $30m. of it from casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, with additional multi-million-dollar contributions from the Avi Chai Foundation, the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish federations, the program's founding philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, and many other institutions and philanthropists. Israeli government participation also jumped significantly to some $18m..
The success in changing attitudes is multiplied by a massive growth in the scope of the program. Before Birthright, each year saw just 1,500 Jewish youth of Birthright age (18-26) visiting Israel for the first time. In 2000, Birthright's first year, 10,000 came on the program. In 2008, 42,000 participants are to make the journey, marking a significant portion of the estimated 100,000 Diaspora youth who reach Birthright-eligible age each year.
The program's director of marketing, Gidi Mark, said, "We've made [visiting Israel] a basic component of the Jewish lifecycle, just like a brit or a bat mitzva. Now it's not just about strengthening Jewish identity, but it's becoming part of Jewish identity."
Furthermore, the program is doing similar work among Israelis, according to Saxe and Chazan. "The same identity issue exists for most Israelis," says Saxe. "They're Israeli, but not necessarily Jewish. We know from the Israeli participants themselves that they come away from this program with a feeling that they belong to the Jewish people. They express it in those terms."
More than 30,000 Israelis have participated thus far, mostly soldiers who join the tour buses for five days.
IDF behavioral researchers have found that this participation has a dramatic effect on the soldiers, who become more motivated in their military service and express greater desire to remain in Israel in their adult lives.
The program looks set for ever greater expansion. It is being studied by Armenians, Irish-Americans, African-Americans and even Palestinians as a model for strengthening diaspora identities.
For Mark, one of its greatest gifts is the strengthened sense of confidence participants report after going home. "Even if they don't learn everything in 10 days," he says, "they can still go back to anti-Zionists on their campuses and say to them, 'Don't tell me what you saw on CNN, I was there.'"