The New Pilgrims (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 1, April 28, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The biggest threat to the future of the Jewish people is no longer anti-Semitism or genocidal war, but rather apathy and loss of identity among Jews themselves. By facilitating the visits of thousands of young Diaspora Jews to Israel, the Birthright Israel program is reviving a traditional Jewish custom to meet these modern challenges - pilgrimage to the holy land. Since it began in the winter of 2000, Birthright has brought over 160,000 Jews, aged 18-26 from 52 countries to Israel, offering fully subsidized 10-day visits. These voyages of discovery have a refreshing message for the Jewish communities in the Diaspora, as well as in Israel, and could radically change the way Jews think about themselves. This, in turn, could help reverse the insidious trends that threaten the Jewish future. Pilgrimage is a set of individual acts, which culminate in a mass movement. It creates a special time framework in which unique experiences occur. Over the generations, pilgrims have tended to dress up in distinctive costumes, signifying an alteration in their existential state. The pilgrimage is to a venerated site, takes place at a defined time and has unique ritualistic practices. The pilgrims and the society they come from and to which they return see the pilgrimage as outside the compass of their daily routine. It has its own system of time and space, its own social connections and patterns of behavior, known in the literature as "liminality." Those who return from a pilgrimage are accorded a special status in society, and are expected to conduct themselves in an exemplary manner. They transform the experience they underwent into a new plane of being. In many ways, the pilgrimage is a consciousness- altering experience. However different Birthright, which emphasizes fun as much as anything else, may be to traditional pilgrimage, it has many of the same characteristics. It is also a movement of individuals that surges into a mass wave. The preparation, the special conduct before, during and after the journey ensure a similar though modern ritual. It too has the capacity to change attitudes and patterns of behavior in the routine worlds - in our case, in the Diaspora and in Israel. To gain as much as possible from the Birthright program, we should examine how to intensify the "born-again" experience for the participants from the Diaspora. The goal should be a profound change in consciousness caused by the experiences they encounter on the journey. This kind of personal change, which might seem like a mutation of the personal identity gene, is a process that can be guided by carefully crafted educational content. Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson of Kadima is Chairman of the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. Extract of an article in Issue 1, April 28, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.