Right of Response: Taglit-Birthright Israel is a success

What happened to the educational advisors of the Jewish philanthropists behind the program?

birthday 88 (photo credit: )
birthday 88
(photo credit: )
The article "Re-evaluate birthright israel" by David J. Forman (April 11) is written by an esteemed colleague and an important veteran of the Israel experience field. It deserves clear-cut answers. The history of the project is not as described in the article. The genesis was not in an act of desperation or because of a student eating a pork sandwich on Yom Kippur. Rather, it began in creative brainstorming by some significant Jewish leaders which led to intense thinking and planning, and culminated in a bold and daring paradigm shift in the Israel experience field. The article asks what happened to the educational advisors of the Jewish philanthropists behind Taglit-birthright israel. Here's what happened. First, we consulted with Hillel the Elder and he told us that in our Tradition we are committed to reach Jews in as many creative ways as possible. Then we consulted with Rabbi Akiva who reminded us that he started studying at age 40. Then we consulted with the best general research in adult learning and development over the past decades (Erikson, Brookfield, Mezerow, Knowles, Arnett) and they told us that people can be affected at various periods in their lives and that identity is shaped at all ages. Then we consulted decades of research the Israel experience by Steven Cohen, Eric Cohen, David Mittelberg, Bruce Phillips, the late Perry London, and many others which presented convincing social science support for the decisive role of visiting Israel in subsequent Jewish identity. Then the educational team consulted with all the really serious figures in the Israel experience field for advice, ideas, and wisdom on how to put such a program together. Out of all this came a project rooted in research, educational, logistical and economic planning, implemented by a new kind of organizational structure - and ignited by a leap of faith. The founders of birthright israel believe that Jewish identity formation is not as described in the article - exclusively beginning at birth and dependent on quality Jewish day high schools - but happens in many diverse ways and at many diverse times. We believe a meaningful Israel experience can play an important role in identity formation. WE SAW a Jewish world with well-intentioned movements and denominations that for four decades - and in the best of years - never brought more than 10,000 young people each summer to Israel, less than 10 percent of the particular age cohort. We saw a Jewish world that abandoned coming to Israel as a major priority. Taglit-birthright israel did what it did when the Israel experience industry was on the verge of tragic collapse. Taglitbirthright israel turned "five lean years" into "five years of plenty." The author berates birthright israel for making Judaism cheap. The participants, in their tens of thousands, have written saying this program, in the words of the poet Muriel Rukayser, made "being Jewish a gift." How great is a people that so dearly cherishes its Land that it enables every Jew to visit it. Taglit-birthright israel's goals are about Jewish meaning-making, Jewish identity, Jewish peoplehood, Israel connection, and if one so chooses, aliya. It is about the future lives of Jews, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel. By this summer, one hundred thousand young adults will have been in Israel on intense 10-day educational peer trips. World Jewry in a decade will look dramatically different. So far, the research shows that the positive effect on Jewish attitudes and behaviors lasts at the same high level five years after the trip. Only time will tell, but so far, time is telling a good story. And finally, the article falls back on the (now clich -ish) critique "if they had only given their money to building academic, prestigious day high schools." These philanthropists are wise people who are entitled to dedicate resources in ways that make sense to them. Moreover, these philanthropists are also funding day schools. Most important, if we really care about Jewish life, we shouldn't be squabbling among ourselves ("Kamtza-and Bar Kamtza-style") about how to divide the limited resources we have. We should be calling with prophetic fervor for more resources to create a host of exciting new educational options. There are hundreds of thousands of young Jews that Rabbi David may be forgetting, but Rabbi Akiva, Hillel the Elder, and we are not willing to forsake. Birthright israel never claimed to be "The Savior" or the "magic bullet." It did break with the status quo, and created a new model of finding young Jews, bringing them to Israel, and working with communities afterwards to continue their journey, while continually researching what we are doing in order to improve it. We believe Judaism should be made accessible to all Jews because it is so meaningful. We believe a Jew can be touched at all ages. We see Judaism as a true "gift" and not as a as a "tedious" task. I, a colleague and friend of many years, wonder, what happened to you, David of Israel? And Nathan said to David "The [guilty] man is you." The writer, an academic, is a consultant to Birthright.