Inherent in the title of Brian Schaefer’s op-ed on Dorot and Birthright “10 days, 10 months,” is the problem with the comparison he is making. Dorot offers an exclusive ten-month fellowship to “a small cohort of passionate and curious American Jews.” Taglit-Birthright Israel provides free ten-day Israel experiences for tens of thousands of Jews, ages 18 to 26, who have never visited Israel in an organized group. Comparing Birthright to Dorot is like comparing freshman week to a year-long graduate seminar. Dorot should be seen as one of the many programs Birthright Israel graduates can – and do -- attend, not some artificially high standard for judging an introductory program.
In fairness, Schaefer’s critique goes deeper. He accuses Birthright Israel of relying on rambunctiousness rather than addressing Israel’s “sticky issues,” of treating participants as “consumers and cheerleaders” not “stakeholders and advocates.”
Yes, it is true, Birthright is fun. This exuberance is part of the Birthright magic and its success -- 90 percent of participants reach Birthright thanks to word of mouth. When is the last time we read in the Jewish press a complaint about Jewish kids having too much fun at an organized Jewish community event? If Diaspora communities offered more exciting, exhilarating, engaging, enriching, enlightening programs for Jews growing up, we would not need the last-minute intervention of programs like Birthright to encourage young, frequently alienated, Jews to restart and reorient their Jewish journeys.
A gateway program, Birthright welcomes many Jews who are on the way out. The gift comes with “no strings attached,” meaning no ideological, theological, political, or institutional demands beyond participating constructively. And it is a populist program – although most participants attend or graduated from America’s top 50 universities. But to assume therefore it is all “Goldstar and humous,” misses its multi-layered educational process, both formal and informal. Birthright succeeds in being pro-fun and profound.
Birthright offers a first-timers tour, showcasing Israel’s greatest hits and most defining experiences, requiring that every group visit Jerusalem, celebrate Shabbat, hike in the countryside, etc. The planned, more standard, moments mix with many smaller informal moments, encouraging spontaneity, complexity, individual discovery.
Since Birthright began 11 years ago, demographers have tracked participants, discovering their lower intermarriage rates and higher rates of Jewish engagement and Israel engagement. The Birthright bounce has linked this younger generation closer to Israel, despite claims of political alienation. Anecdotally, the overwhelming majority of more than 250,000 Birthright alumni testify enthusiastically to undergoing amazing, substantive, and usually transformational experiences.
Birthright’s “quilted theory” of young adult identity education weaves together sites, experiences, and discussions. Each tour features a concise “birds-eye” overview of Jewish history, giving the Jewish people’s story; discussions about Israel as a modern contemporary Jewish state; explanations connecting Judaism, Jewish values, and Israel; exposure to Israel’s diverse views reflecting modern Jewish pluralism; introduction to Israel as a rich laboratory for Jewish arts and culture; and glimpses of the role ecology, environmentalism, science and technology play in cutting-edge Israel.
As a result, participants experience the trip in four important dimensions:
First, the Israel they see. Day after jam-packed day, Birthright participants see, smell, touch, this extraordinary altneuland, Old New Land. In learning about Israel’s past, present, and future, participants address Israel’s challenges too. Participants discover an Israel that is neither defined by negative headlines nor superficial slogans.
Next, the Judaism they discover. The Birthright Jewish experience is more vibrant, exuberant, welcoming than the Judaism many experienced before. It is also a Judaism that acknowledges people hood as a central glue uniting us – enlightening participants about a key dimension of Judaism many have long experienced but few have understood.
Third, the interactions they have. The late night talks, the discussions with tour educators or medics, or bus drivers, the arguments that sometimes erupt, all spin a web of often extremely intense, soul-stretching, mind-blowing, identity-transforming conversations, in a safe space – and a community context.
Finally, the “mifgash,” participants’ encounters with Israeli soldiers, tries to burst through the bubble of the Israel tour. The IDF Educational Branch embraces this experience because the soldiers appreciate how meaningful the interactions are. I have witnessed numerous intense, often emotional, encounters at Israel’s National Military cemetery at Har Herzl, where soldiers shared some of their difficult dilemmas and searing traumas with newly-sensitized participants.
A few years ago, I sat with Birthrighters and soldiers in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter. One soldier remembered being ambushed in Gaza. He and his surviving buddies searched on their hands and knees in the sand for their dead comrades’ body parts. He said that until Birthright, he had not realized his ties to the Jewish people worldwide, not just to Israel – which made his national service more meaningful. Other soldiers have admitted their joy in encountering pluralistic yet passionate American-style Judaism, which more Israelis should experience.
And yes, Birthright is a Jewish identity program, addressed to young Jews yearning to understand who they are and where they come from. Without a firm identity in this globalizing world it is hard to find ourselves or figure out how to help. I am repeatedly amazed at how effective Birthright is at stirring up thoughts, feelings, conversations, for so many participants – although it remains a first step. Here, Schaefer is absolutely right. We must work harder on pre-and post-programming, so Birthright is not a vacation from real life but an effective Jewish jumpstart.
The appropriate framing for his article would have been to introduce Dorot – along with MASA’s many Jewish Agency supported Israel programs -- as the logical next step after that initial Birthright encounter. Among Birthright’s happy, unintended consequences has been the new popularity in Israel programs, especially through MASA, and the important act of putting the needs of twenty- and thirty-somethings on the Jewish communal agenda.
Finally, a friendly warning to Schaefer. I began as a Birthright skeptic who wrote a critical article about the program when it debuted. I now chair Birthright Israel’s International Education Committee. I invite him to meet with me and suggest improvements, because he is correct. “The struggle is to keep looking” -- in Israel to see how it can improve and in Birthright to see how it can continue to improve too.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGillUniversity and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” he has chaired Birthright Israel’s International Education Committee since 2010. firstname.lastname@example.org