By Gidi Mark
Tishrei, the first month of the Hebrew year, is most appropriate a time to reflect upon our material and spiritual conditions, both as individuals and as members of the Jewish people – in Israel and in the Diaspora.
Judaism is a civilization that stretches thousands of years, and its people have enriched the world with values and notions which without them it is almost impossible to conceive of modern society as it exists today. This civilization has undeniably known days of glory, but also times of hardship and despair. Four exilic periods are etched into our Jewish narrative, and they should not be forgotten: the Egyptian Exile, the Assyrian Exile, the Babylonian Exile and the Exile of Rome – which lasted 2000 years and began with the destruction of the Second Temple, and ended, according to conventional wisdom, with the establishment of Israel in 1948.
67 years later, and the picture that emerges before our eyes is a conflicted and challenging one. Israeli discourse is often characterized by constant internal quarreling, and the entire Jewish world is dealing with issues such as assimilation, Antisemitism and the delegitimization of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the family of nations.
However, 67 years later the State of Israel is also a sure source of inspiration and satisfaction, and as a nation we should be proud of the numerous achievements recorded by this young state in such a short time. The Zionist vision, and the values that characterized the Jewish people throughout the generations continue to materialize today, and they are apparent in every aspect of Israeli discourse and life. One may count achievements – some of whom carrying international magnitude – such as social welfare organizations, extensive humanitarianism activity, breakthroughs in medicine, science, agriculture and ecological industry; alongside an abundance of cultural and artistic talent, high-tech projects etc. The many challenges we still face notwithstanding, the State of Israel has an absolutely remarkable story to tell – one we should all be proud of.
For hundreds of thousands of young Jews from around the world, Birthright Israel is their first encounter with Israel, and therefore it believes participants should experience Israel from both the historical and the contemporary perspectives, while facing both its challenges, as well as achievements. Approximately 30% of the participants of this project have returned to Israel in a matter of only several years. According to research, those who participated in Birthright Israel are 50% more likely to marry a Jewish partner in comparison to those who did not participate.
Jewish young adults worldwide are an integral part of the beating heart of Israel, and ours is the duty (and the privilege) not only to embrace these young women and men, but also to allow them to experience the State of Israel in all of its complexities, challenges and successes, and to do so in a mature, responsible and thorough manner.
Our sons and daughters in the Diaspora can form a real bridge which is extremely vital to the strength of the Israeli state. They are able to strengthen the economical lobby, promote political advocacy, and participate in the international discourse as a whole. The contribution of hundreds of thousands of alumni of Birthright Israel to the international discourse around Israel is profound. It can strengthen Israel’s image and create a living link between them and the young generation of Israelis, thus fundamentally changing – to the better – a process that until recently was doomed as “historical determinism.”
During its fifteen years in existence, and with over half of a million young Jewish adults who have experienced Israel, this project has proven time and again that the investment in, and the impact on the individual participant amounts in time to impacting an entire generation.
In one of my excursions to the Jewish communities in the United States I came across Abraham Lincoln’s well known phrase, which I cannot forget: “The best way to predict your future is to create it!”
On these days of atonement and contemplation, we are encouraged to recognize that our aim is a long and ongoing one, and that it is our duty to fulfill it. We must combine deep thinking, clear vision, patience, determination, courage and a commitment to invest in our young Diaspora Jews, for they are the most extraordinary asset of the Jewish people in general and for Israel in particular.
This is not superficial rhetoric, but rather the fulfillment of the Zionist vision in every sense of the word, and it calls for hard work on a daily basis, as we keep our eyes focused on the goal. During these days of Tishrei we should remember the verse from Pirkei Avot: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work; but you are not free to desist it either”.
Gidi Mark is CEO of Taglit- Birthright Israel.