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Taglit-Birthright Israel

Israel: Home For All Jews

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Teens on Bus in Israel

Teens on Bus in Israel

Lisa Katz
Nov 20 2008
American Jews adored Israel back in the 1960s and 1970s. During family Shabbat dinners, Hebrew school lessons, and holiday synagogue services, I was introduced to a heroic, miraculous country. I read books about Yoni Netanyahu and Golda Meir. I saw posters contrasting the pre-State desert to post-State orchards. And I heard stories about Jews who had emerged from the ashes of Nazi concentration camps to become war heroes, burly farmers, brilliant scientists and pioneer parents in the young Jewish State.

Over time, Israel became stronger, losing its role as the David of the Goliath story and simultaneously its appeal to sympathizers abroad. And Israel became less of an idealistic homeland and more like other modern countries, with a rise in crime and corruption that culminated in the assassination of the Prime Minister by with a Jewish citizen. At the same time, America became an even more tolerant country, enabling American Jews to enjoy unprecedented peace and prosperity. The result has been weakened ties between American Jews and Israel.

In fact, an awful lot of young American Jews today don’t care at all about Israel. A 2007 study, which polled 1,700 non-Orthodox American Jews, found American Jewish detachment from Israel is growing and strongest among younger Jews. The study, conducted by Professors Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, found that of American Jews under 35, only about half (48 percent) think “Israel’s destruction would be a personal tragedy” and only about half (54 percent) are “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish State.” For Jews over 65, those percentages are 78 percent and 81 percent. (Jerusalem Post)

Fortunately, one program is working hard to fight this detachment. Taglit-Birthright Israel offers young Jews free trips to Israel.

The Hebrew part of the name, Taglit, means discovery. And the name Birthright Israel derives from the Zionist concept that all Jews, wherever they live, have the right to call Israel home. The program aims to help young Jews discover their homeland.

If you are Jewish, between 18 and 26 years old, and have never been on an educational tour of Israel before, then you can qualify for a free (no charge for airfare, hotels, lectures, visits or food), 10-day, organized tour of Israel.

Taglit-Birthright Israel sends close to 40,000 young Jews to Israel each year. Since the program was founded in 1999, about 200,000 Jews, of which approximately 70% came from the United States, have participated in a Taglit Tour.

The program has ambitious goals. Michael Steinhardt, a prominent Jewish philanthropist concerned with the distancing of young Jews from their Jewish heritage and community, conceived the Birthright Israel concept. Taglit-Birthright Israel's Website states the program aims "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.”

Some tour participants speak about gaining a whole new view of Israel. They come with visions of Israel as a war-torn island which they have garnered from the media, and they leave in love with a thriving, modern country to which they feel intricately connected.

“It made Israel real,” notes Birthright alumnus Rachel Blatt of Los Angeles. “It felt so special to be in the same place that so many of my ancestors have been, to know that this is where most of your history takes place, to feel the connection to the place we pray about every day. Once you go to Israel, there’s no turning back; you fall in love with it and everything is changed.” (LATimes)

The strongest criticism of the program points to the lack of attention paid to Israel's conflict with the Palestinians. While Israel's major religious, historic and contemporary sites are an essential part of the itinerary, Israeli-Arab communities are not always on the agenda and both Israeli West Bank settlements and Palestinian villages are avoided, for security reasons. Birthright Israel architects defend the program's ideological nature, saying the program’s goals necessitate focusing on Jewish identity and the future of the Jewish People.

Other tour participants, especially those who live in places with few Jews, note feeling moved and strengthened at being surrounded by so many other Jews. A stroll through Birthright's Website reveals widespread and strong friendships between Birthright alumni. The New York Times even wrote about the program's success at Jewish matchmaking. Michael Steinhardt offers his Caribbean villa as a honeymoon pad to couples who meet on the trip and then marry. While there is no official count of Birthright marriages, over 30 couples have enjoyed honeymoons in the Caribbean thanks to Mr. Steinhardt. While fighting intermarriage is not listed as a program goal, it is seen as a welcome by-product, especially given the high rate of intermarriage in America (close to 50 percent).

Hopefully Taglit-Birthright Israel can continue to send thousands of Jewish youth to Israel for years to come, thus strengthening the thinning thread between the Jewish State and the Jewish Diaspora. Given the small number of Jews in the world and the dwindling number of Jews who feel connected to their Jewish heritage, the breaking of that thread could be fatal. Staying connected may be key to our survival.

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