Can Birthright Israel Alone Reverse Young Adults’ Declining Support of Local Jewish Communities?
by Joel Frankel
In my experience, it is rare to hear someone say something negative about Taglit-Birthright Israel (“Birthright”). How could they? It is an amazing program that sends hundreds of thousands of Jewish young adults to Israel each year for free. More importantly, beyond just physically sending people to visit Israel, the trips they fund have a significant psychological impact on the participants. Studies have found that almost 75% of all Birthright participants call their trip a life changing experience!(1) Around for just over a decade, Birthright is shaping an entire generation’s relationship with the State of Israel.
Our parents’ generation has an inherently emotional connection to the State of Israel. After our grandparents witnessed the creation of a Jewish state as a safe haven for Jews following the Holocaust, our parents grew up with the Yom Kippur War, Entebbe, the Intifada, AIPAC, JNF, and Operation Solomon. Living in the shadow of great atrocity, they grew up fighting for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and a home for all Jews. They did so even though the vast majority of them were physically separated from the land of Israel and socially estranged from Israeli culture. Instilled with survivalist mentality, the geographic separation and inability to connect to Israel on a personal level had little impact on their level of support for Israel as both a State and an ideal.
Conversely, our generation has grown up with night club bombings, Rabin’s assassination, scud missiles, JSTREET, childish bickering over the outline for a peaceful two-state solution, Flotillas, and Gilad Shalit. The violence has been relatively constant, but the steadfast nature of Israel’s alliance with the United States along with Israel’s growing military strength has seemingly diminished the existential threat to Israel’s existence. In addition, we have grown up in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world that has allowed us to interact with Israelis and Israeli culture through a variety of mediums. As such, our relationship with Israel is not one of unequivocal support driven by a fear of potential extermination, but one of rational and reasoned consideration, primarily shaped by a global view of where Israel fits in an ever-changing world. At least, that was the direction we were headed until Birthright came into existence. By providing young Jews with the opportunity to experience Israel first-hand, Birthright has single-handedly fostered an emotional connection between Israel and an entire generation and dramatically altered the way we experience our relationship with Israel.
However, Birthright was able to accomplish this tremendous feat with one small, but not insignificant, side effect. They have made it so easy to visit Israel that they have begun to breed a generation of emotionally connected but uninvolved and entitled Jewish young adults. It is becoming increasingly apparent to Jewish Communities across the country that a Birthright participant’s newfound emotional connection to Israel does not miraculously translate to involvement locally, especially when local involvement entails monetary commitments.(2) Just two generations removed from our grandparents coming over from Europe with an immigrant work ethic that propelled them to establish vibrant Jewish Communities across the United States, we are frighteningly close to becoming the generational version of the trust fund baby who does not recognize the amount of effort expended to give him all that he currently possesses.(3) Many Jewish Communities are responding to this trend proactively, hiring young Jewish professionals whose sole job is to target Jewish young adults and keep them connected to their local Jewish Communities.
That is where I come in. As the Israel Engagement Professional for the Jewish Federation of Saint Louis, I am charged with providing a non-threatening, concierge-like service to young Jews who have been on Birthright or other programs in Israel, offering personally tailored suggestions as to how to become involved with the Saint Louis Jewish Community. It was a serendipitous confluence of events that brought me to this particular position at this particular moment and I was initially ecstatic to learn how powerful the emotional bond was between Birthright participants. During the first few months in this role, I was constantly bombarded with some form of the question, “how can I get back to Israel for free?” It was only after I was asked the same question half a dozen times in the span of two hours at an event sponsored by the Federation’s Young Professionals Division that I began to reexamine the ramifications of a “free” trip to Israel, specifically the impact it has on local Jewish Communities across the country.
What will happen as this generation of Jews becomes older and begins settling down and having children? Will they send their children to the local Jewish Day School, or will they send them to public school when they learn how expensive it can be to provide children with a strong Jewish education? Will they become affiliated with a congregation, or will they scoff at the idea of paying up to $3,000 a year just to go have someplace to attend services on High Holidays? Will they support the local Jewish Community Center, or will they simply become members at the neighborhood recreation center? Is a powerful emotional connection with Israel enough to financially sustain entire local Jewish Communities?
The St. Louis Jewish Community has spent considerable time and effort trying to capitalize on the effect Birthright, and Israel in general, has had on the current generation of Jewish young adults. By supporting organizations like Moishe House and Next Dor, they have shown a willingness to actively reach out to the younger generation of Jews and incorporate them into their long-term plans, even though it is not the most lucrative short-term strategy. However, unless our generation wants to be known as the generation of American Jewry that oversaw the decline of the local Jewish Community, we need to do more than simply work within the confines of the current system. We also need to continue the grassroots movement that is currently emerging amongst passionate young Jewish professionals who have a vested interest in Jewish continuity in the United States.
We need organizations like Detroit’s CommunityNEXT, whose goal is to create a fresh culture and dynamic lifestyle for young Jewish adults who live in and around Detroit. In the past two years, CommunityNEXT has engaged the Next-Gen community through many different access points and is providing a model for how to reach young adults by leveraging existing resources and creating new social, cultural, and professional programs. We also need innovative events like the now annual Kosher wine tasting organized by Tribe 12 in Philadelphia. For the past three years, they have they held an event that brings in representatives from local synagogues, similar to an activity or job fair, to talk to young adults about their congregations. This allows unaffiliated young adults to learn more about their synagogue options in an unintimidating environment and gives them the opportunity to determine where they (and their friends) might be comfortable attending High Holiday services. In return, the synagogues are able to sell themselves to potential future members of their congregation while receiving the contact information of interested individuals, a valuable asset in the competition to stay relevant as we progress into the next decade.
By sending so many Jewish young adults on a “no strings attached” program and arousing interest in Israel, Birthright has laid the foundation for us. Now we must continue to engage our peers while vigorously lobbying for continued support within the current Jewish establishment. If we are able to do that, maybe, just maybe, we can carry on what is quickly becoming a Jewish tradition of leaving our children with more than we were given.
(1) Five to ten years after the trip, seventy-three percent of all participants felt the trip was “very much” (45 percent) or “somewhat” (28 percent) a life?changing experience. (Generation Birthright Israel: The Impact of an Israel Experience on Jewish Identity and Choices; Leonard Saxe, Benjamin Phillips, Theodore Sasson, Shahar Hecht, Michelle Shain, Graham Wright, Charles Kadushin; Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, October 2009)
(2) Participants were 16 percent more likely than nonparticipants to report feeling “very much” connected to the worldwide Jewish community, but were no more likely to report feeling connected to their local Jewish community. (Generation Birthright Israel: The Impact of an Israel Experience on Jewish Identity and Choices; Leonard Saxe, Benjamin Phillips, Theodore Sasson, Shahar Hecht, Michelle Shain, Graham Wright, Charles Kadushin; Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, October 2009)
(3) This phenomenon is not isolated to Jews – the underlying reason this dynamic is currently manifesting itself in local Jewish Communities across the country is the same reason that family business experts estimate that while approximately 40% of U.S. family owned-businesses turn into second generation businesses, only 13% are successfully passed down to a third generation.