Who is a Jew?

“What you’re doing by supporting Birthright is ensuring that the tug of force between us is a positive one.”

Birthright participants pose on top of Masada. (photo credit: TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT)
Birthright participants pose on top of Masada.
(photo credit: TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT)
Nobody likes to talk about it, but one issue that could ultimately prove to be a wedge in long-standing partnership between Birthright and the State of Israel is intermarriage.
According to Birthright statistics, about half of their participants are offspring of intermarried couples, and thanks to the organization’s inclusive policies, half of those participants from mixed marriages don’t have a Jewish mother.
That stands at odds with the steely clamps of the Orthodox establishment in Israel, which does not accept the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother as halachically Jewish.
Paradoxically, that means that up to a quarter of Birthright Israel participants, funded in part by millions from the Israeli government, wouldn’t be recognized as Jews if they decided to make aliya.
“Ours is not an Orthodox eligibility,” said Elizabeth Sokolsky, Birthright’s North American vice president of education and strategy. “I think we have one of the broadest, most open umbrellas – we’re not looking to turn people away, we’re looking at how to bring them in. However, we do have some red lines.”
That includes not accepting applicants who identify as Jews for Jesus, even if their mother is halachically Jewish, and excluding anyone who says they practice another religion.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m Catholic’ and come on a trip,” she added. “But we don’t call going to Easter mass or having a Christmas tree the same as practicing another religion. We try to see if an applicant has a relationship with a Jewish grandparent and we’ll often hear something like ‘My father and mother don’t identify as Jewish but my bubbie and zaydie do. I go to their house on Passover and for Hanukka.’ In that case, we’ll say okay, that kind of relationship meets our requirements.”
That inclusive policy has not hindered the government’s support for Birthright, financially or institutionally. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been one of its strongest supporters, and Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, who addressed the Birthright Israel conference in Atlanta, likened the Jewish communities in Israel and the US to two equally-sized planets orbiting each other, with their own interests, but ultimately in complement.
“What you’re doing by supporting Birthright is ensuring that the tug of force between us is a positive one,” he said.
According to Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, the differences between how American Jews and Israel see the ‘who is a Jew’ question is glaring, but needs to be understood by both sides.
“The separation of church and state is the norm for 90% of the Birthright demographics, so Israel is the one out of step.
But Israel is the only Jewish state I have,” he said.
Zohar Raviv, Birthright’s international vice president of education, conceded that eventually Israel and US Jewry were going to have to seriously negotiate the way being Jewish is defined, and it’s going to be a difficult conversation.
“But as long as we have Jews on both sides who care about the unity of the Jewish people and can maintain a healthy relationship with Jews from both sides of the ocean, we can be cautiously optimistic,” Raviv said.
“This issue will become more pressing in the future, but I don’t foresee a government in Israel ever being so disconnected to the reality of world Jewry that it would impact on their support. I don’t think we’ll ever get to that point.”