Birthright Israel, Millennials, and the Reform Movement

Kesher Birthright - Melissa Simon - 700 x 394By Rabbi Melissa B. Simon

I recently returned from staffing a Taglit-Birthright Israel Trip with URJ Kesher with 39 extraordinary young people from the Muhlenberg College Hillel and a myriad of other colleges and universities. Sitting together in our final reflection session, I heard from students who spoke about how Birthright Israel impacted them: their self-esteem, Jewish identity and religious practice; their Israel engagement and sense of Jewish peoplehood. We grew teary talking about overcoming personal challenges and the power of the relationships we had developed in just 10 days.

It is hard to sum-up the Birthright Israel experience. Since its founding in 1999, more than 500,000 young adults aged 18-26 from 64 countries around the world have spent 10 days exploring Israel, each having had their own unique journey.

There are many different trip providers for Birthright Israel – each with their own slightly different itinerary, vision, agenda, and reputation. Kesher, the Reform Movement’s provider, reflects both the URJ’s position on Israel and its vision of Judaism. When Reform young adults seek out a Birthright Israel experience, the Reform clergy and lay leaders in their lives have an opportunity to direct them towards a progressive Israel experience. Each season, URJ Kesher offers clergy and professionals the chance to give priority status slots to young people in their communities during the competitive registration process. This is one of the most important things we can do to ensure our B’nei Mitzvah and confirmation graduates have a powerful and positive Israel experience that reflects their Reform Jewish identity and values.

Kesher, for example, is the only Birthright Israel provider that takes participants to the Security Barrier to discuss its complexities. Kesher trips also visit the Egalitarian section of the Kotel (Ezrat Yisrael) in addition to the sex-segregated Western Wall plaza. Young people who visit Israel on a Birthright trip often return home with new questions and renewed interest in Jewish life. If they, instead, encounter what they view as manipulative, archaic or insensitive, these experiences may serve to move them farther from Judaism and Israel rather than closer to it. Unfortunately, applicants often don’t know that there are different trip providers, and sign up for trips with a keruv (increasing observance) agenda or with a conservative political outlook.

As communal professionals, we can help guide participants to the trip that’s right for them.

When Birthright Israel was first created, many participants were not engaged with Judaism and had missed the then-traditional 6-week high school Israel experience. When the rules around Birthright eligibility changed, more and more people with strong Jewish backgrounds began going on Birthright trips. These young adults are getting a lot out of the trip, but in a different way. As youth professionals, we should work to encourage trip participation from both those engaged in Jewish life and those who are more at the margins of the Jewish community.

Reform clergy and lay leaders also have an important role for Birthright alumni. It is imperative that we reach out to these young people for post-trip engagement. Invite them for a cup of coffee and conversation. Listen to their experiences and concerns. Explore how they can be a part of the Jewish community at home or back on campus. Offer yourself as a resource who understands their passion for Israel. Invite them to speak at services about their experiences, to share their pictures on your congregation’s website or Facebook page, or to write a newsletter article about their trip. Follow-up with these participants is crucial for Birthright to be more than just a 10-day trip. As committed Jewish professionals, we need to play a role in inspiring and engaging emergent adults.

As the Reform Movement grapples with adapting to the needs of Millennials and Generation Z, it is imperative that we understand Birthright as a program and engage Birthright alumni as individuals. The Reform Movement has an obligation to our young people – not just to see them through B’nei Mitzvah and confirmation, but also through the college years and beyond.

I recently spoke about Millennials at Congregation Keneseth Israel, a Reform congregation located directly across the street from the Muhlenberg College Hillel in Allentown, PA, where I serve as the Hillel Director and Jewish Chaplain. While in the lobby of KI, I noticed a large banner highlighting URJ Youth programs as “the Social Network of your child’s life.” From Camp Harlam, our URJ regional camp, to NFTY; from NFTY EIE High School in Israel to teen social justice travel programs with Mitzvah Corps, the banner celebrated the myriad of ways the URJ works with young people. What struck me was that the last program listed on the banner is Birthright Israel. If a peer Israel trip is the culminating experience of young adulthood, it is imperative for the Reform movement to figure out how to ensure that our youth participate in a Kesher trip and that after their Birthright experience, they are re-engaged with Judaism.

Rabbi Melissa B. Simon is the Jewish Chaplain and Hillel Director at Muhlenberg College. Rabbi Simon has been named a Mandel Fellow at HUC-JIR, a Rabbis without Borders Fellow through CLAL, a Selah Fellow with Bend the Arc, and a Cooperberg-Rittmaster Rabbinical Intern at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. 

Cross-posted on the URJ’s Inside Leadership Blog.