Barry Shrage on Birthright Israel

Barry Shrage, President of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, was the speaker at the New York Investiture and Ordination Ceremonies of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He had this to say on Birthright Israel:

There are two demographic realities that will reshape the future of our people.

The first is intermarriage and the second is Birthright and you are in a critical position to address both of these realities.

The next ten years will, I believe, see the largest increase in Jewish interest and the largest potential increase in Jewish engagement in the next generation that we’ve ever seen. Dr Steven Cohen tells us that the next generation of Jews is already, probably for the first time in American Jewish history, more spiritual than the last and that this is even truer for the children of intermarriage than for the children of in-married Jews!

And then there’s Birthright!

Birthright has already transformed nearly a quarter of a million lives in ways that we still cannot fully comprehend. Who knows how many leaders and contributors, scholars and defenders of Israel, congregational leaders, and Rabbis, Jewish fathers and Jewish mothers, Jewish children and grandchildren – perhaps even Jewish prophets – Birthright can produce. When one young adult goes to Israel, one life is changed forever. When a thousand go, an entire community may be changed. But when a million go, an entire generation can be changed forever. This may well be the tipping point of a generation – a moment of transformational change.

… we know that Birthright is, at best, a partial victory.

The American Jewish community has failed to fully fund Birthright and has generally ignored Birthright follow-up … and follow-up is critical. And so when they return and inevitably form families, they will I believe, in the fullness of time, and at the right moment in the family life cycle join synagogues. And most of them will be joining Reform synagogues because Birthright tends to serve mostly less traditional young people from less traditional households.

Many will be joining your synagogues with a greater longing for spirituality than the last generation, higher expectations for meaning and purpose than the last generation and a hunger for meaningful caring communities, serious learning, real education for themselves and their children, serious volunteer engagement in the world or a yearning to express their Jewishness through a commitment to social justice.

All these yearnings and dreams will be in your hands to fulfill or disappoint. And I assure you that this adventure, this struggle for the interest and the souls of the next generation will not be for the faint-hearted, the fearful or the pessimistic. This is the moment for a class like this to take courage, to fill your hearts with hope and to tell great stories about the coming golden age!

This is also your moment because nearly 50% of American Jewish households are already interfaith households, because nearly half our children already live in interfaith homes, because many of these interfaith families are committed to raising Jewish children, and because many of these children as young adults will be spiritual seekers, and former Birthright participants who will use their Birthright experience to bond their spiritual journey to a new-found commitment to Jewish peoplehood. And those who join synagogues (and I believe most will) will overwhelmingly be joining Reform synagogues. Your synagogues! They will join your synagogues because the Reform Movement pioneered outreach and created congregations of warmth and caring over the last thirty years and because these efforts have made a real difference and have brought large numbers of interfaith families into our community.