More than just another meeting

A record 35,000 young Jewish adults applied for the chance to encounter Israel on one of the 8,000 birthright trips available this year.

This week the General Assembly and Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency convene for a series of meetings which coincides with the celebration of 80 years of achievement. These pages have extensively covered the controversy surrounding the issue of whether Natan Sharansky, who is Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's choice, will be elected to replace Ze'ev Bielski as chairman and other weighty issues. However, over the past few weeks and continuing long past when the dust settles from the JAFI gathering, a series of other, possibly more important, meetings of a different sort continue. That is the meetings of the well over 8,000 North American Jewish young adults participating in birthright and follow-up programs with their Jewish roots and the land of Israel. Birthright israel reports that there was record registration for the 8,000 free trips this spring and summer (35,000 applicants). Research has shown that birthright trips are having an impact in stemming the alarming trend of alienation from both Judaism and Israel in these North American Jews who represent the future leadership in the Diaspora. The success of birthright trips has led to the creation of programs designed to follow up on the seeds that have been planted through the trips. As a participant in one such program, the Jack E. Gindi Pathways Israel program remarked, "My birthright trip piqued my interest in my Judaism; my Pathways trip left me in love with it." THE IMPACT of these trips are powerful and can be life changing. This past Shavuot, I witnessed a small, but memorable moment from a Pathways trip. I made an immediate connection with Sam, a 22 year old junior at the University of Arizona. Sam told us that he grew up in Oakland, California where he was not just the only Jew in his high school, but the only white person as well. He's used to life as a minority. Sam and my son Uri stayed up studying and talking the night of Shavuot. There is a tradition of staying up all night on Shavuot and praying at sunrise. Jews from all over Jerusalem finish their studies and head to the Western Wall. It is hard to describe the sight of tens of thousands of Jews arriving at Judaism's holiest site in the waning hours of darkness, a site that neither I nor Sam certainly had ever witnessed. Sam was captured by the moment. He closed his eyes and swayed back in forth in silent prayer. At one point, I tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the throngs of people who were praying from almost every conceivable place with a view of the Wall, all of them Jews. "Sam?" I asked "how does it feel to finally be in the majority?" "Amazing" is all he answered with a big smile and we continued our silent prayers. Today, Sam is interested spending a year studying in Israel possibly at Hebrew University. I wish the attendees of the various JAFI meetings success this week and welcome the participants from abroad. While, your agenda is packed and time is tight, I urge you to take time to observe these other, no less important meetings of your future leadership. The writer is executive director of the Darche Noam Institutions.