A brainchild of one of the Bronfmans, Birthright is a program that gives young Jewish North Americans who have never been to Israel a free trip to the Holy Land. The idea is:
Taglit-Birthright Israel provides the gift of first time, peer group, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26. Taglit-Birthright Israel's founders created this program to send thousands of young Jewish adults from all over the world to Israel as a gift in order to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants' personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.
In theory, it's a great idea. Take Jewish kids with an imperfect connection to their Judaism, take them to the Land of the Jews and attach them to their heritage. Then when they come home, these youths will feel more of an attachment to our people and be more involved for the rest of their lives. Does it work? Apparently not.
SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- Nearly 160,000 young Jews from North America have taken part in Taglit-Birthright Israel, a 10-day free Israel trip aimed at revving up their Jewish identities.
Of those no longer in college, only half have attended any Jewish event since their return.
That’s one of the findings of “Tourists, Travelers and Citizens,” a new report by the Cohen Center of Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. The report is based on interviews and online surveys of 1,534 Birthright alumni in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto, the four largest Jewish communities in North America.
According to the survey, 44% participate in no Jewish activites after returning home. Only 5% participate in 5 or more. I don't know what the definition of a Jewish activity is but I'm really willing to bet showing up at 7 am on Monday morning with tefillin at the ready for davening isn't one of them.
Should this be a surprise to anyone? I don't really think so. A couple of years ago I ran into a Birthright tour group in Israel. The crowd looked oddly familiar, composed of the usual young men with a two day growth of stubble and Roots sweatshifts and the usual young girls clad in tons of gold and outfits that would make the Russian hookers on the Tel Aviv boardwalk blush with embarassment. I spoke with them for a while to get a sense of their day. Yes, they'd gone to the museum and taken a hike someone but what they were really looking forward to was the pub crawl that evening.
The true measure of the distinctiveness of the program is how interchangeable it is. If Birthright agendae could be copied on a trip to Italy or England, then it's not really anything special. It's just a free trip for some Jewish kids, the majority of whom have parents who could afford to pay, to a far off country where they can meet foreigners and try new beers.
The alumni surveyed in all four cities said they would like to be more involved than they were in Jewish life. Most preferred small gatherings to large, anonymous “meat market” Jewish events.
“They’re happy to eat free food and drink free beer at those big events, but they don’t feel it meets their needs to find Jewish community,” Chertok reports.
Respondents also said they were interested in learning more about Judaism and Jewish culture and history, including Hebrew, but were wary of outreach groups with a perceived “religious” agenda. They also wanted a network of friends to share those experiences as a way of re-creating the camaraderie they felt on their Israel trips.
Right, they want to be proud of being Jewish but none of that old time "religion" thank you. But if you were to ask these young folk what Judaism is, they would most likely respond: it's a religion. They reject that which makes one Jewish: commitment to a social and legal code given to us by God at Mount Sinai. But then they worry about assimilation and marrying Jewish. So what is it they're asking for?
“Birthright shows people that being part of a group, a Jewish group, is a meaningful experience,” report co-author Leonard Saxe says. “They come back hungry for that, and most communities don’t provide them with a set of those experiences.”
They come back hungry all right. Hungry for the next free meal.