Shaping Jewish Identity (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 7, July 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A pair of researchers believe that the Birthright program could revolutionize American Jewish life Leonard Saxe is convinced that the combination of pedagogy, ideology, dedication and organization that has created Birthright Israel just might change the Jewish world. Noting that some 150,000 participants have already come to Israel on a Birthright trip, Saxe enthuses, "If Birthright really does become a normative experience for American Jewish youth, like a bar or bat mitzva, it will mean that within a decade or so, more than 50 percent of North American Jews will have visited Israel. Can you imagine?! That's a seismographic change in the nature of American Jewish life and identity." Birthright Israel is a free ten-day educational experience available to any Jew between the ages of 18 and 26, who has not previously participated in an educational program in Israel. Since 2000, nearly 150,000 young adult Jews have participated in the program. The program operates with a budget of some $100 million, $30 million. of it from casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, with additional multi-million dollar contributions from philanthropists Charles Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt and Lynee Schusterman, as well as from the Avi Chai Foundation, the Jewish Agency, American Jewish Federations and others. The Israeli government contributes some $18 million. A spin-off of the project has been the compilation of a massive amount of social and educational research data. In fact, with some 150,000 respondents, Saxe tells The Report, it is most probably one of the largest research data sets ever collected for any social or educational experiment anywhere in the world. Saxe has co-authored, with Prof. Barry Chazan, a book on the topic. In Israel in early June to promote the book, Saxe notes that data is not only of interest to Jews. "As important as Jewish identity is to me," he says, "I hope that this book will be read by other ethnic groups and by other educators. We can draw both particularistic and universal lessons here. As researchers, our intent is not only to contribute to understanding contemporary ethnic and religious identity, but also to understanding educational processes and how to engage young adults in meaningful experiences." Saxe, Professor of Jewish Community Research and Social Policy at Brandeis University, who serves as Director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, wrote "Ten Days of Birthright Israel: A Journey in Young Adult Identity" (published by Brandeis University Press) with Chazan (Professor Emeritus of the School of Education at the Hebrew University). Since Birthright's initial planning stages in 1999, Saxe has been involved in the qualitative and quantitative evaluation of the program. This book - a combination of anecdotes, educational theory and psychological insights - is the summary of what he and his colleagues have learned about the program and about young adults' religious and ethnic experiences. Unlike many "Israel experience" type programs, Birthright is not available to high school students, but rather to participants between the ages of 18 and 26. This, Saxe and Chazan assert, is the period of "emerging adulthood," which is distinct from both adolescence and young adulthood and is characterized by two primary transitional qualities: accepting responsibility for one's self and making independent decisions. Saxe tells The Report, "This is a critical developmental period, which has the potential to alter the trajectory of identity development of young adults. So because identity develops over time, Jewish identity could indeed be influenced by a trip like Birthright. Because a trip like this is about being part of something, and simultaneously, about personal meaning-making." This, he notes, is a challenge to the accepted assumption on the part of Jewish communal leadership that adult Jewish identity can only be shaped by Jewish family life and Jewish education. Easy to read, filled with fascinating verbatim quotes taken from the participants, Saxe and Chazan's report is a virtual "behind the scenes" tour of the program, its history, its educational focus (which Saxe himself says might be "obsessive") on programmatic practice, the explicit attention to organizational detail and the organizational culture adopted by the original initiators (primarily Bronfman and Steinhardt) and an analysis of the educational and psychological processes, some deliberate and some serendipitously adopted along the way, which have made the program, the authors conclude, an unequivocal success. To their credit, while telling the story of how Birthright was born, Saxe and Chazan only gently mention the numerous nay-sayers who opposed the initial idea, arguing that the money would be wasted. Saxe's research is paid for by the philanthropists who fund Birthright, but he assures readers that he and his team were granted full independence and the right to publish their conclusions, whether positive or negative. Yet, in response to possible contentions that they are not "objective," Saxe and Chazan write, "To be sure, our objectivity has been affected, possibly even compromised, by our involvement in the program design. But the central reason that this account is so positive is that we have been able to participate in the program and watch thousands of young Jews make their journey through the Birthright Israel curriculum." As a result, the report is rich with details from their own professional, although perhaps influenced, observations. They are not dispassionate observers. "Israel is central to my identity as a Jew," Saxe tells The Report. "I really care that these young adults become connected to Israel and to their heritage. They'll have to find their own way to do so, their world is different than the world I grew up in. But for the Jewish people to survive, they must become Jewishly engaged and involved. Not just intellectually, but as a true part of their full identity." The "grand vision" of Birthright Israel, as Saxe calls it, consisted of three long-term goals: To reach a sector of young American Jewry (popularly known as the unaffiliated) that had been regarded as detached or alienated from Jewish life by providing them with an Israel experience; to launch young unaffiliated Jews on a Jewish journey that would lead them to lifelong involvement with Jewish life; and to create links among these young Jews, the State of Israel and the Jewish community in the years to come. But by 2000, only 35 percent of Jewish adults in the United States had ever been to Israel. The North American Jewish communities had not developed any popular culture of travel to Israel; the Jewish priority, Saxe notes, had evolved as financial support for Israeli organizations and political support for Israeli institutions. Extract of an article in Issue 7, July 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.