Birthright greets 100,000th participant

As Israel symbolizes Jews' ability to renew, birthright is a way to ignite Jewish identity.

taglit.sendarticle (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
This week, Israel welcomed Taglit-birthright israel's 100,000th participant. This individual, like the 99,999 before her, is struggling to make sense of his life's major passages - the transition period from youth to adulthood, when decisions are made about values and lifestyle that will influence decades of decision-making. Will Jewish peoplehood, religious thought and Israel be central or peripheral to his/her life? Who will he/she marry and how should his/her children be raised? What political and social groups are worth identifying with and supporting? These are among the important choices to be weighed. These decisions impact all Jews, young and old, as well as the generations to come. Taglit-birthright israel's raison d' tre is to increase the likelihood that the choices made will help young Jews remain within the Jewish communal orbit. This is our contribution to the cherished tradition, from generation to generation. We make no claim that Taglit-birthright israel alone guarantees a strong Jewish identity. As important as a meaningful Israel experience is to Jewish identity formation - and it can be determinative - it must come in conjunction with other meaningful Jewish experiences if the desired outcome is to have lasting effects. Still, survey findings tell us that Taglit-birthright Israel is doing its job admirably. No less than 96 percent of the program's 2005 participants say their identification with "the Jewish people" was strengthened by their participation. Ninety-seven percent said that "as a direct result" of their trip, their identification with the state of Israel was strengthened. While the program focuses on connecting young people to their Jewish roots, there are wider benefits for the Israeli economy - with current tourism revenues from Taglit-birthright israel standing at a whopping $182million. TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT israel's free trips are open to young Jews who have not previously visited Israel in an organized peer tour, as opposed, say, to visiting with family. Overwhelmingly, participants turn out not to have visited Israel previously at all. They are joined by Israelis (mostly elite soldiers) who experience Israel through the eyes of their Diaspora peers and vice versa. That means their critical first impression of Israel is synergistically enhanced by the excitement of sharing an adventure with their peers from Israel and their home country. "For the first time," one such young woman from the American Midwest wrote upon her return home from a Taglit-birthright israel trip, "I understood the meaning of a Jewish homeland and the importance of a Jewish state. Words cannot fully describe the sense of comfort that came from being in a place where, for the first time in my life, I was not a minority." Those are meaningful words of awakening from someone who previously had little connection to Jewish identity. But Taglit-birthright israel also is important to young people whose existent Jewish identities are under siege - young people who live in situations where anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric, or worse, have been most vicious. I recall a young woman, Beth, who took a Taglit-birthright israel trip during the height of the intifada. She was a student at the University of California at Berkeley and felt besieged and alone. So rampant had anti-Jewish fervor become on her campus that she was reticent about even telling others that she was a Jew. Beth had visited Israel as a child with her family, and had an early acquired connection to Jews, Judaism and the Jewish state. But her experience at Berkeley had eroded all that to the point where prior to her January, 2002 Taglit-birthright israel trip, her boyfriend had been a Muslim. For her, Taglit-birthright israel was a lifeline, one she grabbed eagerly because she realized it could alleviate her difficult circumstances and reinvigorate her self-identity. Just as the State of Israel is a symbol of the Jewish people's ability to renew itself, Taglit-birthright israel - a partnership between the Government of Israel, Jewish communities around the world (North American Jewish Federations through United Jewish Communities; Keren Hayesod and the Jewish Agency for Israel); and private philanthropists - is a successful methodology for helping to ignite or renew the Jewish identity of young people entering the ranks of adult leadership. As we celebrate the arrival of Taglit-birthright israel's Participant 100,000, we take great comfort in the program's contribution to Jewish identity, Jewish pride, and love and support for the state of Israel. The writer is chief executive officer of Taglit-birthright Israel.